Why America Loves Soda Pop

Americana, Hometown Heroes, People, This Week in History, Traditions
on August 19, 2010
David Mudd Bill Kloster owns the oldest Dr Pepper bottler in the world, in Dublin, Texas.

Clink. Clink. Clink.

The sound of vintage glass bottles being loaded into a bottle washer at the 1891 Dr Pepper plant in Dublin, Texas (pop. 3,754), is music to the ears of owner Bill Kloster.

“I don’t know of any other bottlers using returnables,” says Kloster, 68, of the oldest Dr Pepper bottler in the world. “They’re not making these bottles anymore.”

Staying true to Dr Pepper’s 1885 recipe, the Dublin plant is the only bottler that uses the soft drink’s original sweetener, Imperial pure cane sugar, rather than less expensive high-fructose corn syrup. The time-tested recipe, with its blend of 23 spice and fruit flavors, makes Dublin Dr Pepper a favorite among Dr Pepper fans.

“The reports we get from people, particularly folks who’ve been around awhile, is ‘Oh my gosh, this Dr Pepper tastes just like the way it used to taste,’” Kloster says.

Though Dublin Dr Pepper’s distribution area covers a mere 44-mile radius—the route original bottler Sam Houston Prim’s horse, Old Bill, could travel in a day—loyal fans don’t mind. Every two months, Ron and Terri Austin, of Springfield, Mo., load their pickup truck with empty Dr Pepper bottles from the 1960s and 1970s and drive 600 miles to Dublin to replenish their supply.

“It’s been my No. 1 drink all my life,” says Ron, 58, who downs at least six of the soft drinks every day. “I like the flavor and the aroma.” He and Terri were married in Dr Pepper T-shirts at Old Doc’s Soda Shop inside the bottling plant.

Another fan, Dorothy Dell Heffner, of Alvarado, Texas (pop. 3,288), buys a car full of Dublin Dr Pepper in nonreturnable glass bottles every six weeks.

“They call me the Dr Pepper fairy,” says Heffner, 79, who for 10 years has left bottles of the beverage on the doorsteps of friends and strangers who need a pick-me-up.

“I get such enjoyment out of it,” she says, “and it brings back memories.”

Pop culture
“For generations, Americans have grown up drinking and loving carbonated beverages,” says John Sicher, 64, editor of Beverage Digest. “Their popularity is a combination of the carbonation, fun, refreshment and availability of the drinks.”

In the late 1800s, the famous carbonated drinks—Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Dr Pepper—were created by pharmacists as tonics or medicines and sold for a nickel a glass at drugstore soda fountains. Since ancient times, naturally carbonated bubbly mineral water has been touted as a cure-all. Likewise, artificially carbonated soda water was believed to increase vim and vigor.

Pharmacists blended roots, fruits, spices, coca leaves and kola nuts to create tasty flavored soda water that could banish fatigue, depression, headaches and other woes. Dr Pepper drinkers, for instance, were urged to imbibe at 10, 2 and 4—a reminder embossed on early bottles—to prevent energy slumps.

Today, about 300 U.S. companies quench thirsts by producing thousands of carbonated beverages, the most popular flavors being cola, lemon-lime, root beer and orange.

America’s oldest soft drink is Vernors Ginger Ale, created in 1866 by Detroit pharmacist James Vernor, who mixed ginger, vanilla and other ingredients in an oak cask, then enlisted to fight in the Civil War. When he returned and opened the cask, the aging process had created the famous ginger-flavored soda.

“Everybody from around here has a Vernors story and a favorite recipe,” says Keith Wunderlich, 53, of Troy, Mich. (pop. 80,959), author of Vernors Ginger Ale. He cherishes memories of drinking Vernors on boat rides across the Detroit River to Bob-Lo Island Amusement Park in the 1960s.

“My dad took my mom to dates at the Vernors soda fountains in the 1940s,” says Wunderlich, who collects Vernors memorabilia and has re-created a soda fountain in his basement. There, he sips his favorite old-fashioned tonic, a Vernors Ginger Ale blended with vanilla ice cream.

Regional flavors
People thirsting for a regional soft drink or a favorite pop from the past likely will find it on the shelves of Galco’s Soda Pop Stop in Los Angeles, or at Pops along U.S. Route 66 in Arcadia, Okla. (pop. 279). The beverage businesses stock several hundred brands in their missions to preserve America’s diverse soft-drink history.

“We’re constantly finding old brands that have been around forever,” says John Nese, 66, owner of Galco’s, which sells more than 500 soft drink varieties.

Among Nese’s discoveries are the 1904 Red Ribbon brand of cherry, grape and root beer pops made by the two-employee Natrona Bottling Co. in Natrona, Pa., and a newer find: Hotlips Soda, made since 2005 with real raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and other locally grown fruit in McMinnville, Ore. (pop. 26,499).

“These little bottlers still use the formulas with real ingredients. Most use pure cane sugar,” Nese says. “Manhattan Special in New York City has been made by the same family since 1895. They roast their own coffee beans and use real vanilla. You can see the vanilla sediment in the bottles.”

At Pops, home of a 66-foot-tall steel soda bottle sculpture, manager Marty Doepke loves to stroll the store’s aisles and listen to baby boomers reminisce about long-forgotten labels—Bubble Up, Dog n Suds, Frostie, Kickapoo Joy Juice, Nesbitt’s and Sun Drop.

“They’ll see those sodas and remember being at grandma’s house,” says Doepke, 38. “They’ll say, ‘I drank those back then. It was a real treat.’”

Avery’s Beverage owner Rob Metz, 55, hears sweet stories, too. Since 1904, people have stopped at Avery’s landmark red barn in New Britain, Conn. (pop. 71,538), to sip and savor a refreshing cream soda or birch beer.

“People come in here and reminisce. They’ll say, ‘We used to fish in the pond across the street and come over for a soda’ or ‘I’d caddy at the golf course and come over here,’” Metz says.

Until five years ago, Avery’s used returnable bottles, and the company still makes home deliveries. “This place brings so much joy to people,” Metz says. “We sell more nostalgia than anything.”

Northerners and Midwesterners generally call carbonated beverages “pop,” while Northeasterners and Westerners prefer “soda.” In the South, where Coca-Cola was born, people are likely to call all soft drinks “Coke.”

Pops with a History
1866—Vernors Ginger Ale is invented by Detroit pharmacist James Vernor.
1876—Pharmacist Charles Hires introduces Hires Root Beer at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.
1885—Dr Pepper is invented by Charles Alderton, a pharmacist in Waco, Texas.
1886—Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton invents Coca-Cola.
1898—Caleb Bradham, a pharmacist in New Bern, N.C., renames his “Brad’s Drink” Pepsi-Cola.
1906—Orange Crush is invented by J.M. Thompson in Chicago.
1929—C.J. Grigg, founder of Howdy Corp. in St. Louis, creates Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda, now called 7UP.
1937—Big Red, originally known as Sun Tang Red Cream Soda, is created by Grover C. Thomsen and R.H. Roark in Waco, Texas.
1948—Hartman Beverage in Knoxville, Tenn., trademarks Mountain Dew.
1966—Zero-calorie Fresca is introduced by Coca-Cola Co.