How the Temperance Movement Almost Killed Root Beer

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Most people just relax on their honeymoons. Not Philadelphia pharmacist Charles Elmer Hires, though. Instead of lounging on the beach, he hit on a million-dollar idea. In 1875, Hires and his new bride went on a honeymoon to a New Jersey inn, and the newlywed became chummy with the innkeeper and his wife. The innkeeper's wife served the Hires a root tea from an old family recipe, and they both loved it.

Well, they loved most everything about it. The drink was delicious, but it was also a potent laxative, a small but important detail that probably limited its commercial appeal. When the couple got home, Charles Hires set about trying to recreate the flavor of the root drink without the laxative effects. Hires eventually came up with a dry mixture of roots and herbs that he could blend into a pretty tasty concoction.

Hires decided to market his beverage mix under the name "root tea." He made this decision in part because he wasn't a drinker himself and didn't want potential customers to think his soft drink had booze in it.

One of his mentors disagreed, though. Russell Conwell, a Baptist minister and the first president of Temple University, told Hires that he'd never make any money with something called "root tea." The blue collar miners in the area wouldn't be caught dead drinking a little tea. Now, root beer—there was a rough-and-tumble name that would catch on.

The Baptist preacher's advice to the teetotaling Quaker turned out to be sound. Hires gave away free mugs of root beer at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philly, and he was on his way to becoming America's first soft drink millionaire.

Then, something funny happened. The "root beer" name Conwell had suggested came back to bite Hires. In 1895, the Women's Christian Temperance Union turned its sights on Hires, partially because of the word "beer" in the name. Even though Hires himself didn't drink, the WCTU theorized that since his root beer was a sweet fermented beverage it must have some booze in it. (Chemistry apparently wasn't the WCTU's strong suit.) Thus, having a frosty root beer was no better than pounding back a godforsaken actual beer.

Instead of testing to see if there was actually any alcohol in Hires' root beer, the WCTU simply called for a nationwide ban on his product, which had become wildly popular in drugstores around the country.

Amazingly, the WCTU's vicious crusade against a non-alcoholic beverage sold by a teetotaler lasted for three years. Despite its tendency to base its policies on junk science, the WCTU was a pretty powerful national force at the time, and Hires' sales went into the tank. Eventually he got an independent lab to test his root beer's alcohol content, and the results arrived in 1898. Hold on to your hats, folks: the root beer was not the booze-rich syrup of Satan. In fact, the lab found that a bottle of Hires' root beer contained roughly the same amount of alcohol as half a loaf of bread.

The WCTU no doubt considered using this analysis as an excuse to begin a national boycott of bread, but in the end, the union decided to ease up on Hires. The soft drink magnate ran ads touting his root beer as an alcohol-free, temperance-friendly tipple, and sales soon soared well beyond their pre-boycott level. The next time you enjoy a root beer, remember Hires and the brave scientists who refused to cave to the temperance movement.

This story originally appeared in 2010.

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August 15, 2013 - 10:24pm
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