1890: The first bubblings of Barq’s
Before coming up with their namesake soda, the Barq brothers, Edward and Gaston, founded the Barq Brothers Bottling Co. in the French Quarter in 1890 and began turning out a variety of soft drinks. (Among them: Orangine, which won a gold medal at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.) In 1897, Edward Barq married Elodie Graugnard, and the couple moved to Biloxi, Miss., where he bought the Biloxi Artesian Bottling Works and established his own company. Depending on whom you believe, Barq’s Root Beer made its debut there in 1898 or 1900.
A Barq’s franchise was established in New Orleans in the 1930s, and the Barq’s name became synonymous with “root beer” in the city, even though the company didn’t use those words for years to avoid legal problems with the Hires Root Beer Co., which tried to trademark the words “root beer.” Other root beers are available in the city today, but for most New Orleanians, there’s simply no substitute for a frosty longneck bottle of Barq’s on a hot summer afternoon.
- Edward Barq fathered a child out of wedlock, Jasper “Jesse” Robinson, who lived with the Barq family. When he grew up, Edward Barq agreed to give Jesse the right to use the name and formula for the sarsaparilla-based beverage in most of Louisiana while Barq retained rights to do so in Mississippi. Each company had its own formula.
- The Biloxi Barq’s company was bought in 1976 by John Oudt and John Koerner (who, incidentally, reigned as Rex, king of Carnival, in 2008). By that time, the root beer was being bottled in 400 plants. The Louisiana and Mississippi companies merged before being sold to Coca-Cola in 1995 for $91 million.
- It’s easy to tell where your bottle of Barq’s Root Beer was made. Mississippi bottles boast a blue label, while labels on bottles from Louisiana are red.
- In 1938, the federal government banned caffeine in root beer. Barq got around that by changing the name of the drink to Barq’s Sr. and dropping the words “root beer” while he worked on developing a caffeine-free formula. The ban was lifted in 1960 and the original formula returned. To this day, Barq’s is distinctive as being one of the few root beers to contain caffeine.
- Barq’s bottles are doubly distinctive: They have a diamond pattern at the base of the neck, and they hold 12 ounces, compared with the 6- and 8-ounce sizes of other soft drinks in the 1930s. Though the bottles held more, they sold for the same price.
- Before the Coca-Cola company purchased Barq’s, its New Orleans bottling plant in the 1960s began producing its own root beer to compete with the beloved local brand. Its name: Rex, which it advertised as “the king of root beers.” Rex was discontinued during the 1970s.
- After the fall of the Soviet Union, Barq’s in the early 1990s embarked on a unique promotional campaign it called the “Soviet Union Going Out of Business Sale,” and which saw the company distribute to consumers a total of $70,000 worth of random items it purchased in the Soviet Union.
- In 1988, while in New Orleans for that year’s Republican National Convention, none other than Vice President George H.W. Bush — who would earn the party’s nomination for president — was photographed swigging from a can of Barq’s by a Times-Picayune photographer.
- Ad slogans used by Barq’s over the years include “Barq’s has bite,” “Barq’s has sparks” and the admirably straight-to-the-point, “Drink Barq’s. It’s good.”
As far as root beer is concerned, Barq’s rules in New Orleans. It’s an ideal accompaniment for po-boys and muffulettas, and it’s rare to see other brands in local sandwich shops. Barq’s has expanded the brand with an array of beverages, including a diet version that contains no caffeine and Barq’s Red Crème Soda, which is known simply as “red drink.”