February 6, 2007


And the man behind the brand is...
Charles Hires

For Charles Hires a trifling matter like a honeymoon was no reason to stop his obsessive experimenting with root beer recipes. He spent the first days of his married life tinkering with an assortment of roots, herbs and berries, including juniper, spikenard, wintergreen, sasparilla, hops, vanilla beans, ginger, licorice, deer tongue, dog grass and birch bark.

Root beer traces its origins back to colonial times. For those who didn’t want to dig their own roots a few pharmacies began to market packets of roots in the early 1800s for brew-it-yourself beverages. Hires, a descendant of Martha Washington, became interested in root beer as a 16-year old pharmacy student at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1866.

Two medical professors assisted him in developing a formula for a beverage he sold at the soda fountain of a drug store where he clerked. He dreamed of his own soft drink business but there didn’t seem much chance of that happening anytime soon.

One day Hires was walking down Spruce Street in Philadelphia and watched an excavating crew digging out a cellar. Thinking fast he told the contractor he could dispose of the troublesome soil in the basement of his drug store a few blocks away. Hires had recognized the soil being carted from the worksite as potter’s clay, valuable in removing grease stains from clothing.

He rolled out the soil, sliced it into cakes and wrapped it in tissue paper. Hires’ Potter’s Clay was soon for sale in stores throughout Philadelphia. Hires netted almost $7000 from this venture which he plowed into manufacturing his soft drinks.

He hit upon an especially tasty combination of 16 roots and berries and set out to market his “root tea” - so named in deference to Pennsylvania’s growing temperance movement. Friends scoffed at this plan, praising the drink but despairing the name. They convinced Charles Hires that “root beer” would project a more robust image.

The first Hires Root Beer came in packets and sold for 25¢. The packet was designed to be mixed in five gallons of water. Hires rented a booth at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. Response to his refreshing samples was so strong he started offering his powders by mail, using the beverage industry’s first advertising. “A delicious, sparkling and wholesome beverage,” he raved in Harper’s.

Hires knew the future of soda pop did not lie with home brewing and in 1893 he pioneered the bottling of soft drinks. Before the end of the century over three million bottles of Hires Root Beer were spewing from plants across the United States, Canada and Cuba. Hires ads proclaimed that the tasty beverage “gives children the strength to resist the enervating effects of the heat, bridges the convalescent over the trying part of a hot day and helps even a cynic see the brighter side of life.”

In 1898 Hires began the manufacture of condensed milk and built a chain of twenty-one factories scattered throughout the country. He sold the milk business to Nestle in 1917 and retreated from active participation in the day-to-day affairs of the root beer operation. Hires’ chief hobby in the latter part of his life was deep sea fishing. In 1937, as he packed to go on an extended fishing trip, Charles Hires was felled by a stroke and died at the age of 86.

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