Everyone is familiar with the phrase the cola wars. It referred to the increased competition between Pepsi Co. and Coca-Cola Inc. in their pursuit to utilize the media to win over the largest loyal customer base to their respective drinks. But what about the Root Beer Wars? I guess it doesn’t sound as cool as Cola Wars for some reason.
Let me indulge in a trip down memory lane. The year was sometime in the very late 1980’s. Society was well dominated by the new video game culture. At the time home video games were starting to come into their own while the video arcade remained the dominant place a young gamer would go to experience the wonders of the new technology.
I was one such gamer. My dad took me into a bar he frequented to get a snack. It was a plate of curly fries and a cheeseburger. He ordered me a glass of root beer and I sat at the table, which was a cocktail table playing Ms. Pac-Man. My earliest memory of video games was born, married to the memory of drinking a root beer soda and eating junk food. As I grew up the three activities remained intertwined in a surely unhealthy habit I should probably reconsider. Nonetheless it stirred something up. You see at the time, and even to this day, I remained indifferent to the taste of root beer. As a classic, or even iconic American drink I savor the soda in all it’s splendor, true. But there is a part of me which prefers the tangier twinge of the citrus flavored sodas. In fact I distinctly remember asking my dad at the bar for my favored drink, at the time, a Squirt. It was to my dismay the bartender told us he didn’t offer the drink leaving me with the root beer to sip on.
Over the years I have explored the three primary flavors of root beer. This is not to say anything of the creme soda or even more rare birch beer, but let’s focus entirely on the three big ones. In our house hold it became almost a cultural divide, a rallying cry. My sister one preferred Barqs and it’s alleged “bite.” Yet another sister enjoyed the bubbles of the Mug root beer. I myself came to prefer the smooth, rich taste of the only true root beer that matters, the classic A&W. Yet this war raged on.
My parents were also indifferent. In the cola wars they took a firm side. Dad it was Diet Pepsi, mom it was Dr. Pepper. My preferred soda of course was Squirt until it became harder to find and I switched to the more common alternative, Mountain Dew. Still we each had our own preference. The problem was my parents weren’t about to buy 6 different containers of soda, for that was the number of individuals living in our childhood household. I had to share in the soda drinking with my three sisters. Often they would get 2 12 packs at a time. It was whatever my dad liked and the kids had to agree on one. Since we couldn’t all agree, I preferred citrus drinks, one sister Colas and another Dr. Pepper, they some how forced us to drink root beer instead. It was the way of many parents. Often times we got stuck with the generic, usually Shasta sometimes the store brand. But one occasion they would let us pick the name brand, usually birthday parties or other celebrations.
Thus we were forced with another conundrum. We couldn’t get the soda flavor of our choice so it was a root beer, the issue came down again to which one. I championed for A&W on the grounds that if we were forced to drink a root beer it might as well be a good tasting one. My sisters disagreed. The one who liked Barqs made the case the commercials said it had bite and it was therefore better. The baby sister, who let me assure you did in fact always get her way, liked Mug, so guess which soda we drank. Oh if you had to guess anything other than Mug you would be as wrong as you could be.
It was always a similar show at the restaurant. The glorious family outing was a rare sight. Usually it was once every two weeks and always on our way to the bi-monthly shopping. It never mattered which restaurant we went, each kid had to harass the waitress for the entire list of soda choices every single time. First was my older sister. She usually settled on a cola or a tea. My mom Dr. Pepper or whichever alternative they offered that was closest. My younger sister picked Pepsi if available but would go down her list of what was acceptable should Pepsi not be offered. She refused to drink Coca-Cola unless it was offered in a Cherry Coke. My baby sister it was root beer, she mysteriously wasn’t as picky when it came to restaurants as she was at home. I always pointed out she drank A&W at the restaurant why force us to drink the nasty Mug at home. Oh it was surely to spite me there is no doubt there.
I was the worse. I was completely indecisive. First up, do you have Mountain Dew. If yes, do you have the cherry mix you can add to it? If no bring me a Mountain Dew. If the answer to the first was no, we entered a Sheldon Cooper style process of elimination.
Waitress would respond, no but we have Sprite. I would scoff at her it’s not the same. What else do you have. If they had root beer I asked is it A&W, if the answer was no I skipped. I had to go down to the cola. If they were offering Coke and there was nothing else acceptable I’d get a coke. Acceptable was Squirt, Fresca or Surge. If none of those were available I asked if they had an orange soda. If that was no available and it came down to coke or root beer I asked A&W. If it was a no, I would then settle for coke. My parents always snapped just get a coke you always get a coke. I responded but I hate coke. I would like to hear the options in case they did offer something I would prefer over coke. Some places did just that which forced me to reconsider the options. Cherry soda, but not cherry Mountain Dew was out. But if they offered cherry flavor I could settle for a cherry mix added to Sprite, or in rare cases 7up.
I have strayed too far from the topic at hand. The root beer issue became easier when we went to a gas station and were allowed the opportunity to purchase our own individual bottle of soda. Aw yes those were the best of times indeed. Sadly for my parents the restaurant issue played out again. I had my favorite drink. If it was available great grabbed it I did and we were on our merry way. If not I went through each and every single row until I found the closest to what my taste buds were craving. Sometimes I would get an urge for a drink I hadn’t had in a while. Maybe it was an Hawaiian Punch, or a Orange Crush. Sometimes it would be something off the wall like a Yoo-hoo! or even those rare times I found a Squirt. I wish I could say I have grown up and now I grab what is there, but to this day the cycle continues. Just this very morning I found myself at a station sold out of the drinks, in order, until I had to settle for one I have come to terms with but still isn’t my preferred.
Now when I do get a craving for a root beer I insist on buying an A&W in whichever form it is sold. Often it’s the 2 liter bottle. Sometimes it is the 12 pack. Very rare instances I will grab it in the 20 oz. Somethings never change. For me, the more flavors of soda they offer the harder it becomes for me to find one. Before it was easy, they didn’t have Code Red they had regular Mountain Dew, if not I settled for a root beer or the closet thing I could find to a Mountain Dew. Today, they might be out of Code Red and have 60 bottles of regular Mountain Dew but it would take me eliminating countless others before I settle for the soda that was once my go-to option.
I have other root beer memories, there were times, especially at the lake, we were stuck with Baqs because that was what the gas station close by sold. In order of preference, for me, it will be A&W, then if nothing is available Dr. Pepper. I will have to go down the list quite a ways before I settle for a Mug or *shudder* a Barqs root beer.