Updated on 9 February 2019
In 1876, ten years before Coca-Cola launched, Charles Elmer Hires (1851 – 1937) introduced manufactured root beer to the world.
In doing so, the soft drinks industry that we know today came into existence.
Hires was born into a Quaker family, on a farm in Salem County, New Jersey. By age six or seven he was already collecting old bottles – cleaning them and filling them with coloured liquids. He would display them in a play drugstore he had built himself.
At the age of 12, Hires was apprenticed for four years in a small country town drug store run by his brothers-in-law. In 1867, aged 16, he moved to Philadelphia and became a drugstore clerk.
At nights, to better himself, he studied to become a qualified pharmacist. After passing his exams and saving $400, Hires opened his own drugstore in the city’s Sixth and Spruce streets.
Hires Root Tea
While on his honeymoon in New Jersey, Hires had some herbal tea that he found delicious. When he was back in Philadelphia, he experimented until he had something similar. He started selling Hires Root Tea in the city and continued refining the recipe.
At the time, the Temperance Movement was popular within Quaker circles and Hires was committed to the cause. However, a Baptist minister named Russell Conwell suggested renaming the drink Hires Root Beer, insisting “our hard-drinking miners in central Pennsylvania will never touch a drink labelled ‘tea’.”
This was despite the fact that the beverage only contained a trace amount of alcohol and was therefore considered an Innocent Trade.
Hires Root Beer was launched at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Hires marketed the drink as both the “greatest health-giving beverage in the whole world” and “a temperance drink of the highest medicinal value.”
By 1895, Hires claimed that over 15 million gallons had been sold in the previous year. At the time, this would have been sufficient to give every man, woman and child in the United States five glasses each.
To accommodate such large numbers, a vast manufacturing plant was built by the Delaware River. By the start of the 20th century an estimated 65 million glasses were being sold annually. It is this sheer size of manufactured bottle production that pioneered the global soft drinks industry.
Upon his death in 1937 at age 85, Hires was eulogised in the local and national press as the ‘Root Beer King’.
As of 2018, the brand is owned by Dr Pepper Snapple who manufacture and market their own root beer, pretty much making Hire’s original drink a thing of the past.