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Peggy Keener: Nectar of the gods

I have been moonstruck over one particular beverage ever since I was old enough to have taste buds.  Nothing has ever compared.

This drink had its fledgling commercial start in June of 1919 when an enterprising young man set up a roadside stand in Lodi, California. It was on a very hot night that coincidentally happened on the same day the city was celebrating the homecoming of its local World War I heroes. From his humble stand, the young businessman sold a formula beverage which he had purchased from, of all people, a pharmacist who, of all things, had discovered an herbal tea concoction when, of all times, he was on his honeymoon.  (Guess he didn’t find his new bride all that captivating!)

To be fair, the pharmacist had actually developed his drink 43 years earlier in 1876. Back then when he first formulated his recipe, it was dry.  In order for carbonation to occur, the mixture had to be combined with water, sugar and yeast, then left to ferment. This proved pesky, however, so the pharmacist eventually worked out a liquid carbonated formula.  It included more than 25 herbs, berries and roots.  His name was Mr. Hires.  Ring a bell?

Then, 43 years later, the plucky Lodi, California entrepreneur took the product and ran with it. His stand proved so popular that he, Roy W. Allen, took on a partner, Frank Wright. Searching for a catchy name to call their product, the two men settled upon a combination of their initials … A&W.  Now you know where I’m going with this.

Almost overnight the California business was so successful that the partners opened up multiple more stands.  (Don’t you know that Pharmacist Hires must have spent the rest of his life pulling out what little hair he had left over how ownership of his gold mine formula had slipped through his fingers?)

A&W proved to be not only one of the first franchised businesses in the U.S., but also the country’s first drive-in which featured the allure of “tray boys” performing curbside service. (Apparently in 1920, girls did not qualify for such racy, manly careers!)  By 1960, the partners had opened 2,000 stores!

Austin, Minnesota, was one of the proud cities that boasted having its own A&W Root Beer stand. Indeed, at the juncture of 1st Avenue and 2nd Street, Northwest—the once-upon-a-time happiest corner in town—the little building is still standing. Currently the tiny structure looks decidedly forlorn, even hinting at once having been used as the office for a used car lot.  Such a fall from grace! Clearly it was a huge plummet downward from having once been the esteemed purveyor of the nectar of the gods.

Anyone who lived in Austin during the A&W’s time, knows exactly what I’m talking about.  In July and August, a city without air conditioning went to the A&W for relief.  The delicious chill of the drink cooled us as it passed over our lips and into our hot, sweaty cores.  Just knowing the delightful gastronomical treat would soon quench our parched throats made the sweltering heat almost bearable.

For me the A&W was the place to go after spending an afternoon at the swimming pool.  Wet hair and root beer were synonymous.  Also a rolled up towel containing my soaked swimming suit was always tucked under my arm. Of course, we kids walked to the A&W even though it was several blocks added onto our one mile trek home.  The journey never failed to have a ring of excitement, adventure and daring.

As my 10-year-old sister, Mary, and I, 8, sashayed down Main Street, we felt incredibly mature and liberated.  It never once entered our minds that anything bad could happen to us.  We were living in Austin, for goodness sake, where life for us kids in the early 50’s was as sublime as a hot water bottle slipped between December sheets.  Heck, we could have posed for a Norman Rockwell cover for the Saturday Evening Post.

For a nickel we bought a glass mug of root beer. This was not just any old mug, mind you, but a cold frosty thick glass mug.  The sumptuousness of it was beyond sublime, so we sipped slowly to make the experience last.  Of course the boldness of our adventure was always accompanied by silly girl giggling that, if we were not careful, had a way of carbonating right out our noses, a display way too unladylike for Austin public viewing.  It was also painful as it stung our delicate nasal cavities, especially so after they had been subjected to several hours of swimming pool chlorine.  It was, alas, just another of the many trials we kids had to deal with.

I ask you now to take a moment to allow your minds to go back into that secret compartment in your brain where all your especially good stuff is stored. Put yourselves fully into that scene.

It’s a steamy hot July evening and you and your family have just squashed into the family car (sans seat belts). You are on your way to the A&W.

Upon arrival, you pull into one of the many parking slots in front of the A&W stand.  Immediately someone outfitted in an A&W uniform comes over to your car. This person actually comes to you!  And you remain in your car!  Next one of your parents gives the order.  Within minutes a silvery metal tray arrives and is magically clipped onto the driver’s window sill with a sliding rubber tipped metal bar to keep it from slipping. On the tray is a small towel used to sponge up the foam that during delivery has sloshed over the lips of the mugs.

You all stare in wonder at this array of — this glory of — heavy frosted mugs with sweat lines sliding down their sides. Can you picture it?  Can you feel your excitement in knowing that one of them is for you!  That something cold and delicious will soon be slurped inside you!

As a kid you got the small nickel size mug, while your folks got the extra large mugs.  And the kindly A&W did not forget the toddlers.  They got baby mugs.  Free!   Imagine it … your whole family drinking beer!

This leaves us to wonder why this heavenly beverage is called “beer”?  And what does “root” mean?  This is because the main ingredient is the sassafras root.  By the way, there are now umpteen root beer recipes, each of which contains a variation of allspice, birch bark, coriander, sarsaparilla, spice wood, wild cherry bark, yellow dock, prickly ash bark, sassafras root, vanilla beans, hops, dog grass, molasses and licorice.  Whew!  Who would ever guess that such an odd assortment of flavors could produce such a tasty drink?

I could not leave you without the mention of Austin’s second A&W stand. It stood on the pointy corner across from St. Olaf (now Mayo) Hospital.  To add insult to the injury of its demise, it’s now an asphalt parking lot.  Honestly,  such an indignity.  The city didn’t even put up a memorial sign.

It’s not too late, however.  Seems appropriate to me that the tiny old remaining downtown A&W deserves to be declared a national historic site.  Its plaque should be made out of thick glass with perpetual frost sliding down its sides.