"The best root beer is the one you like the best."
—Edward Barq, Sr.
In recounting the rich, storied history of Barq's Root Beer, one discovers a microcosm of major trends in American consumer culture over the past century.
From its humble origins in 1890s Mississippi to becoming a global beverage icon, the Barq's saga illuminates the rise of bottled soda, the power of advertising, enforcement and repeal of Prohibition, industry rivalries, wartime rationing, corporate mergers, and shifting social attitudes around drinking.
Through the lens of this beloved soda brand, we gain insight into the tastes, innovations, and debates that have shaped and defined the American experience.
As we open a frosty bottle of Barq's today, we imbibe far more than a sweet sip of sarsaparilla-flavored soda—we partake in a complex living legacy of fizzy capitalism.
In 1898, as the Victorian era drew to a close and the United States expanded its empire in the wake of the Spanish-American War, a new beverage was born in the Deep South that would capture the imaginations of people for generations to come.
In the bustling port city of Biloxi, Mississippi, Edward Barq and his father-in-law Jesse Robinson first concocted their sweet, sarsaparilla-flavored libation, which they dubbed "Barq's Root and Herb Brew."
Though carbonated soft drinks were gaining popularity at the time, root beer was still a relatively novel concept. Yet Barq and Robinson had a creative vision of how to market their product.
They sold it for 5 cents a bottle, making it affordable for the common man.
Bottling their brew enabled wider distribution, while advertising promoted the Barq's brand far and wide.
The bubbly beverage was touted as wholesome and temperance-friendly, a tasty alternative to alcohol.
Within a few short years, Barq had bought out Robinson's share of the business and became sole proprietor of the burgeoning root beer empire.
For over a century now, Barq's distinctive logo of the red diamond has appeared on millions of bottles and cans, even as the company has changed hands from the Barq family to the Coca-Cola Company.
Though the recipe has been modified over the decades, that original Biloxi root beer craftsmanship laid the foundations for an iconic American refreshment.
The distinctively named soft drink “Barq’s” owes its handle directly to the surname of Edward Barq, who first formulated the beverage with his father-in-law Jesse Robinson in 1898.
But by 1900, Barq had established himself as the sole proprietor and leader of the nascent root beer company.
Though he had partnered with Robinson to create the original root and herb brew just two years prior, the ambitious Barq wasted no time asserting full control over the enterprise that would make his family name famous.
While the details of the separation remain murky, Barq clearly possessed the vision and drive to expand the root beer business on his own terms.
With Barq at the helm, the company shifted operations from Biloxi to New Orleans to capitalize on larger scale production and distribution.
Advertising emphasized the Barq’s brand as a refreshing Temperance-approved alternative to alcohol.
By tying his surname to the product, Edward Barq succeeded in indelibly imprinting his identity onto a soft drink empire.
This name recognition endures over a century later, as modern consumers continue to enjoy “Barq’s” root beer.
At the dawn of the 20th century, the Barq's Root Beer Company stood at the vanguard of two major innovations in American consumer culture: bottled soft drinks and brand-name advertising.
While pharmacists had flavored sodas for decades, Barq's adoption of the glass bottle and crown cork forever changed the carbonated drink industry.
Portable, stable, and sanitary, these vessels enabled mass production, widespread distribution, and easy home consumption.
Seeing the potential, Barq's owner Edward Barq aggressively promoted his root beer across the South.
His advertisements accentuated the drink's purity, healthfulness, and affordability.
Creatively targeting hot and thirsty urban workers, large illustrated newspaper ads invited them to enjoy a 5¢ bottled Barq's as a wholesome respite from the summer heat.
Such campaigns drove demand rapidly upward.
Soon, distinctive diamond-shaped signage touted the Barq’s brand from countless storefronts.
By coupling bold marketing with this innovative bottling technology, Edward Barq pioneered techniques that allowed root beer to thrive in the "Gilded Age” and evolved into modern mainstays of the soda business.
In the process, he indelibly linked the Barq’s name with America’s nascent mass consumer culture.
The onset of Prohibition in 1920 posed an existential threat to brewers and bottlers of alcoholic beverages across America.
But the Barq's Root Beer Company responded strategically, altering its product just enough to stay in business during the nationwide ban on alcohol sales.
Removing the traditional, if mild, fermented root beer "kick," Barq's reformulated their beverage to align with the new legal landscape.
Seeking to avoid any association with banned alcoholic brews, the company even dropped the word "beer" from the Barq's name and advertisements.
Instead, marketing materials touted Barq's product as a "famous French process soda." This new appellation conjured images of an elegant, Continental origin for the drink.
Downplaying its longstanding American roots beer heritage, Barq's leaned on the exotic allure of European refinement and craftsmanship.
While Prohibition battered most breweries, the Barq family's shrewd pivot helped preserve both their company and the root beer tradition itself during the "noble experiment."
When the 21st Amendment ended Prohibition in 1933, a recognizable Barq's emerged, well-positioned for decades of future popularity.
The 1930s saw rising tensions between the two leading root beer producers of the day, Barq's and Hires, as they became embittered rivals competing for market share.
Much of their feud centered on claims over which brand came first.
Both companies touted their historical roots in advertising campaigns designed to imbue their beverage with an air of true authenticity.
Barq's pointed to its origination in the late 1890s Mississippi Delta as evidence of its status as the original root beer.
Not to be outdone, Hires boasted of Charles Hires having debuted a root tea exhibit at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, implying their brand preceded Barq's by over 20 years.
Their marketing materials proudly proclaimed Hires as "The Original Root Beer."
The escalating dispute played out across national publications and on the airwaves.
Promotions featured each company's lofty assertions over the other regarding roots, recipes and founding dates.
While both brands have endured, neither succeeded in exclusive rights to call itself the first root beer.
Their public quarrel in the Depression era illuminated just how high the financial stakes were in vying for the hearts of American soda drinkers.
The entry of the United States into World War II in 1941 signified a new era of rationing and material shortages for American businesses and consumers alike.
Soft drink manufacturers like Barq’s faced severe restrictions on key ingredients necessary to make their products, especially sugar.
Normally requiring vast quantities of sugar to craft its signature sweet flavor, Barq’s root beer output ground to a halt due to wartime sugar rationing.
Rather than ceasing production entirely, Barq’s pioneered an ingenious workaround solution.
They concentrated their select blend of roots, herbs and extracts into a highly portable syrup.
Packaged in tin cans, Barq’s sold this syrup directly to households, allowing families to mix soft drinks to their taste using whatever precious sugar they had on-hand.
By distributing the essence of their beloved beverage, Barq’s maintained market presence and connection to consumers despite material deprivations at home.
This strategic compromise enabled a cherished brand to persist through the shared sacrifices of wartime, continuing to offer a small taste of normalcy on the home front.
In 1971, the Barq’s Root Beer Company made a bold and controversial move by introducing trace alcohol into their signature beverage for the first time.
This new Barq’s formulation included 1/10th of 1 percent alcohol by volume, reassessing the drink’s legacy root beer origins.
The company hoped this wisp of liquor would conjure the classic flavor profile associated with old fashioned sarsaparilla-based drinks.
Lean into its mildly illicit allure, marketing campaigns trumpeted the new “bite” of Barq’s root beer, though its negligible alcohol content posed no genuine risk.
This provocative positioning sparked moral panic, as temperance advocates railed against ensnaring children in the lure of alcohol consumption.
The company persevered, wagering that the familiar Barq’s name would help normalize the presence of alcohol. Over time, any controversy faded, as consumers came to accept this once-taboo tweak.
Although today it no longer contains alcohol.
The complex corporate history of Barq’s Root Beer reflects the challenges of reconciling family business independence with the economic advantages of larger-scale mergers.
Originally wholly owned and operated by the Barq family, the company retains only partial control today through the stewardship of the Barq family trust.
Coca-Cola, seeing Barq’s as a profitable brand to fold into its portfolio, made overtures towards acquiring or merging with the root beer maker beginning in the 1980s. But the Barq trust rebuffed these early takeover attempts, unwilling to relinquish the legacy of autonomy.
However, by 1995 negotiations between the two corporate entities resulted in a compromise agreement.
Coca-Cola obtained a majority stake in Barq’s, gaining greater managerial oversight and distribution capacity. The Barq trust retained significant minority control and stock interests.
This uneasy alliance bound two companies driven by divergent interests: Coca-Cola prioritizing consolidation and revenue, while the Barq trust sought preservation of family history.
The two sides continue cooperating in an often strained partnership that exemplifies the 21st century tension between corporate power and declining entrepreneurial freedom.