The Roots of Root Beer

By: Madeleine Horrigan


Dear Sodaholics,

If you haven’t heard, Root Beer is a soft drink that is commonly found in North America. Despite most sodas dating back to the late 1800s, root beer gained commercial traction as a classic diner or drive-in beverage in the mid 1900s.

First of all – What is root beer? Despite its name, root beer is not a beer. Root Beer is a sweet, fizzy and foamy soda with a rich vanilla flavour. Root Beer is much like cola as it is a type of soda, not a brand in itself. Today, many soda companies have their own root beer brand, however, they all have their own unique recipe so the taste can vary quite a bit.

While many soda makers have their own version of root beer, American fast food restaurant chain A&W has distinguished itself through their A&W Root Beer and root beer floats. Beginning as a tiny root beer stand in 1919, A&W made root beer an American icon. In Canada, A&W opened its first drive-in restaurant in 1956 where they served a variety of burgers, onion rings, and their main attraction: A&W root beer in the classic frosted mug. Since opening their first root beer stand, A&W has opened hundreds of restaurants across North America and to this day, they value and showcase their position as a classic American icon.

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Root beer and root beer floats became an iconic diner and drive-in restaurant menu item through A&W, however, there are other large brands of root beer made by Coca Cola and Pepsico.

Coca Cola’s version of root beer is Barq’s. Similar to A&W, Barq’s has a strong history dating back to 1898. Barq’s “unusual, sharp taste” is what made it different from the other root beers on the market. On Barq’s website, it outlines the very personal and centuries old story of their brand (which they are quite proud of). Their story is part of what intrigues and builds trust in customers. Furthermore, unlike many root beer brands big and small, Barq’s has a truly unique taste – it is not sweet and smooth, especially compared to A&W root beer – it has a sharp, almost bitter taste that makes it stand out. To this day, Barq’s differentiates itself through its tagline “Barq’s has bite” and advertising its long history.

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Another unmistakably major company in the soda industry is Pepsico, so of course, they have their own take on root beer as well. Pepsico’s root beer brand is Mug Root Beer. Mug was introduced in 1940, therefore, it doesn’t quite have the same long history as A&W and Barq’s root beer. Since Mug is part of the Pepsico family of brands, it is quite popular, however, the strength of the Mug brand is not nearly as great as Barq’s and A&W.

When the average North American consumer thinks about root beer, the two brands that usually come to mind are first A&W and then Barq’s. Mug root beer certainly does not have the same popularity and fan base as its two major competitors. Could this be a result of its less distant history? When researching the Mug brand story online, not a great deal of search results come up, whereas there is a whole slew of results when researching A&W and Barq’s. Mug is certainly not a standout brand with many (or any) real advertising campaigns, whereas A&W and Barq’s are stronger in this area.

What do you think? How important is having a long history to a brands success?

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