Friday, October 16, 2015

Barq's Root Beer

Root beer is often associated with childhood, but it is very much a part of my adulthood as well. I’ve gone through phases where I tried to avoid caffeine and where I tried to avoid high fructose corn syrup. Root beer generally met both criteria. There is a wide variety of root beer brands, mainstream and craft brews, and you can even brew it yourself at home. It’s not just for kids. Lately, I tend to avoid the big brands: Mug, Dad’s, Hire’s. One exception, for me, is Coca Cola’s brand: Barq’s.

Although I was born and raised where it snows, my parents eventually moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. And I’m pretty sure that’s where I had my first taste of Barq’s. Like so many things, I cannot simply enjoy them – I must know their story. And if its history has something unexpected then I’m compelled to write about. Aren’t you lucky.

My expectation was that Mr. Barq started brewing root beer in his tub somewhere in the South, grew from local to regional and eventually got bought out by the big guy. All true. Well, maybe not the part about the tub, but they also had some controversy about the “other Barq’s”, and some Soviet slight-of-hand to give this story some bite.

French Quarter

Mr. Barq, Sr. is Edward Charles Edmond Barq and he was born in New Orleans in 1871. His mother moved him back to France at the age of two, when his father died. I believe he attended a university and learned the art of flavor chemistry from the masters in Paris and Bordeaux. But to avoid French military service, he returned with his brother, Gaston, and opened the Barq’s Brothers Bottling Company in the French Quarter of New Orleans (giving Louisiana claim to the original “Barq’s”). Gaston died but Edward carried on, buoyed by a popular orange flavored soda called Orangine which won the gold medal at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

By 1897 he had closed Barq’s Brothers, married Elodie Graugnard and moved to Biloxi, Mississippi. In the winter, he worked as a chemist on Louisiana sugar plantations, and in the summer, he would return to Biloxi to bottle artesian water and experiment with soda flavors. (Note: I was raised saying “pop”, but now I say “soda” and I don’t believe anyone should ever say “soda pop”.) In 1898, Barq opened Biloxi Artesian Bottling Works and within two years he was producing their first root beer (giving Mississippi claim to the original “Barq’s Root Beer”). Different than other root beers, Barq's had more "bite", partly from a higher level of carbonation and lower sugar content. It has less of the foamy head. I don’t know if it contained caffeine from the beginning but it probably did. Regardless, 1898 is thus considered the founding of Barq’s as we know it today.

Biloxi Blue

Early bottles were clear with blue lettering and had a diamond pattern on the shoulder. They were embossed with “Biloxi Artesian Bottling Works as well as "E. Barq, Prop." and "Biloxi, Miss." They dropped the word “Artesian” from their name and expanded with another plant in Gulfport in 1902. These bottles can be identified by the embossing of "Barq's Bottling Works, E. Barq, Gulfport, Miss."

Although he attended a university in France, Barq did not speak much English and could not write it, so what records there were, were in French. Through the years, he had partners in the family business. Mr. Court, perhaps sometime around 1900 and Mr. Hartner around 1907 – some bottles have Hartner’s name on them.

The clear glass and blue lettering is associated with Barq’s of Biloxi. I need to say that because there are were also red-lettered bottles from a different Barq’s in New Orleans. I’ll get back to that, later.

“It’s Barq’s son, just Barq’s”

Root beer is made from sassafras or sarsaparilla, usually, and first commercial credit goes to Charles Elmer Hires. He wanted to call it “root tea” but apparently opted for “root beer” to appeal to his local clientele from the Pennsylvania coal mines. When Barq’s root beer was introduced it was just called Barq’s to avoid the Hires trademark. That eventually went away and we had Barq’s Root Beer.

I’ll tell this story, but I don’t believe it. Supposedly, one of the franchisees – Richard Tuttle of Cincinnati, Ohio –added red dye to the amber-colored Barq’s Crème Soda, creating what became “red pop”. I’m from Michigan so I’ll continue to believe that Faygo Red Pop is the original red pop (I guess there is something called “Big Red” but I haven’t looked into this yet).

Now, you probably know that Barq’s root beer contains caffeine (diet Barq’s does not, by the way, and usually the fountain version of Barq’s won’t either – so they can make regular and diet from the same syrup). In 1938, the federal government banned caffeine in root beer. Barq simply changed the name of his drink to “Barq's Sr.” after the old man himself. Decades later, the government reversed its caffeine ban (1960). So they dropped “Barq's Sr.” and went back to the original name – which caused a bit of confusion. This is my favorite part of the whole story – the old man supposedly put an end to it by saying, “it’s Barq’s son, just Barq’s.” People still say this down on the Gulf Coast.

“Barq’s has Bite”

Barq’s has come up with interesting slogans and marketing ideas over the years. In the early years, soda was sold in six ounce bottles for a nickel. The story goes that his son, Edward Jr., came up with the idea of 12-ounce bottles and kept the price at a nickel – a first in the soda industry. He said it would give “a sense of satisfaction which comes with getting more of a good thing than the price seems to warrant.” Obviously, the 12-ounce bottle or can is still the most common size today – but not at a nickel anymore.

One of the earliest slogans was “Barq’s has Bite” – which I always thought referred to the caffeine. But apparently it was the higher level of carbonization. The popular slogan, “Drink Barq’s. It’s Good” appeared on restaurant boards and apparently on pencils and rulers handed out to schoolchildren – and it didn’t cause obesity back in my day. Somewhere along the way in the 1970s it picked up the banner, "Famous Olde Tyme Root Beer". But still everyone said “Barq’s is Barq’s”.

Ed Jr. died in 1970, leaving the company to his children, Ella and William. A few years later, they sold the company to John Koerner and John Oudt. They hired Rick Hill to be their VP-marketing. Despite graduating from Cornell University, with a Wharton MBA he euphemistically marketed Barq’s “like he was 200 bucks short of the rent money, and willing to gamble it all on the turn of the next card.” Never a follower, Hill endeared himself to the Baptist preachers of the Deep South by sponsoring MTV’s Head Banger’s Ball. But his craziest idea came in 1992.

Hill decided to buy an old Cadillac that was once owned by Elvis Presley, cut it up, and offer these pieces with proof of purchase. But the Presley estate insisted on over $1 million in licensing fees. The back-up plan was offering Soviet Union tchotchkes since the Cold War had just ended. He pitched the idea to Koerner, Barq’s president, “He just stared at me, and finally said, ‘Do you have anything else?’ When I told him no, he finally shrugged and said ‘Go with it.’” That year’s key summer season promo would be “The Soviet Union Going Out of Business Sale.” Crazy, perhaps, but even crazier because they didn’t have anything to give!

With an open airplane ticket, a lawyer and $70,000 in checks, Hill went to Russia where he negotiated with members of the “Soviet Mafia.” “After all,” he explained, “The country had just gone to hell, and the only people able to do any business were the criminals.” Ten days later he’d purchased “4,000 pounds of stuff, to be shipped FOB New York, for around $75-$80,000.”

“We filled a container with matryoshka dolls, Lenin Day pins, tank commander watches and military medals,” Hill reminisced, “we even had complete Soviet Army uniforms as bottler premiums. Of course we were offered MiGs and tanks, but we declined.”
Koerner became so successful with Barq’s that he was named “Executive of the Year” by Beverage Industry magazine in 1994. Hill later went on to work for Hewlett-Packard.

Battle of New Orleans

Supposedly, at some point in the early 1900s, Barq took in a local boy from a broken home and raised him like a son. His name was Jasper "Jesse" Louis Robinson. Barq’s biological son, Ed Jr, must have been about the same age and would eventually take over the company when Barq Sr. died in 1943. But what about Jesse?

As an adult, Jesse Robinson operated a Barq's production facility in New Orleans – I’m not sure if Barq initiated this or merely helped it happen. In 1934, Barq gave Robinson the right to use and even modify the Barq's formula and gave him the right to the Barq’s name to sell root beer in all of Louisiana, excluding Washington Parish, while Barq maintained the exclusive rights to operate in Mississippi. Barq’s of New Orleans became a separate company. Because of Robinson’s success, many New Orleanians think of Barq’s as their own hometown drink – thems fightin’ words! (Here I’m siding with the folks in Biloxi.) These bottles generally were green glass with red lettering.

Wikipedia says the marketing plans of Koerner and Oudt were complicated by the existence of the Louisiana-based Barq's which was owned by Robinson's heirs. The legal battle went all the way to the United States Court of Appeals, 5th Circuit which ruled in favor of the Robinson heirs. It’s surprisingly murky, but I believe the Biloxi company then purchased the New Orleans company in 1988. The headquarters was moved to New Orleans. Koerner and Oudt finally sold the New Orleans-based, former Biloxi company to Coca-Cola in 1995.

Almost Happily Ever After

In 2010, a lawsuit against Coca-Cola charged that they did not have the legal right to purchase certain portions of Barq’s that were passed down through the Robinson family. This case was dismissed. And then asked to be reviewed again, but denied. Unfortunately, one relative had some apparent mental instability and a violent reaction to the outcome. This happened a few months ago!

According to the police, the relative used his pickup truck to run over a man from the other side of the lawsuit – twice! The victim was knocked unconscious and suffered numerous broken bones, police said. Then the relative went to a local hospital and took an employee hostage at gunpoint. A negotiator persuaded him to surrender. The relative pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and was sentenced to five years' probation.

In accepting the plea, the Judge ordered him to serve two years in the court's intensive probation program, which includes a mental health evaluation, classes and random screens for illegal drug use. "I can't begin to stress, you need to undergo that evaluation and treatment," the judge said.

Yankee Perspective

Having grown up in the Midwest, it’s hard to believe most of this story. But having spent a lot of time on the Gulf Coast, I can see how people claim Barq’s as their own. It’s like family, even the weird relatives – and you’ll defend them against any outsider.

Through my research, I’ve found that there’s a book in the works. I will definitely buy it. And I’ll fix the details that I’ve got wrong. No two stories that I’ve found so far have corroborated more than a few details. So it will be nice to have something more authoritative. Meanwhile, I think I’ll get some vanilla ice cream and make myself a root beer float. Barq’s is Barq’s.

“Digging for facts... A history of the Barq Bottling Works” Douglas Bremenkamp,
“Grandchildren of Barq's founder are challenging sale of root beer rights to Coca-Cola” Jaquetta White, The Times-Picayune, October 17, 2010
Barq's, Since 1898 (
Barq's Page Two, Kat Bergeron writes for The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Mississippi, “FROM RUSSIA WITH ROOT BEER”, June 1, 2003, Chief Marketer Staff, “Federal judge dismisses lawsuit filed against Coca-Cola by grandchildren of Barq's founder”, Jaquetta White, The Times-Picayune, January 07, 2011, updated January 07, 2011
“After losing legal battle over Barq's root beer, man goes on rampage, NOPD says”, Helen Freund,, The Times-Picayune, March 13, 2014, updated March 14, 2014, “Barq’s founder’s relatives appeal suit’s dismissal”, The Associated Press, February 2, 2011,
“ROBINSON v. COCA-COLA COMPANY”, NO. 11-30130, United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, Filed May 22, 2012,
“Losing plaintiff in Barq's lawsuit pleads guilty to assaulting Elmwood hospital worker with gun”, Paul Purpura,, The Times-Picayune, July 21, 2014, updated July 21, 2014,

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