Home brew: A recipe for beer — the potent alcohol-filled kind — has been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, so it only makes sense that herb-based medicinal brews date back nearly that far. But in America, we have the Temperance movement to thank for the popularity of the carbonated beverage we now know as root beer. When boozy saloons started turning into tidy soda parlors at the turn of the last century, root beer and its tonic-like fizzy competitors (Coca-Cola, Dr Pepper, Pepsi Cola) suddenly became big business.
Before that, it really was home brew. In 1876 a Philadelphia pharmacist, Charles Hires, started marketing a package of dried roots and berries that any housewife could turn into a sassy root beer by cooking the concoction, straining it, adding sugar and yeast, and letting it ferment and age a few days. It wasn’t until 1893 that fans of Hires’ herbal brew could get “the bark-and-berry drink … by the glass at soda fountains,” Gyvel Young-Witzel and Michael Witzel write in their book, Soda Pop!.
Most of Kansas City’s big breweries, such as M.K. Goetz, turned to making such items as lemon and grape soda during the Prohibition years (1920 to 1933), so it was two out-of-towners, Californians Roy Allen and Frank Wright, who became the big names in root beer by opening their barrel-shaped A&W stands all over the country.
Once upon a time, dozens of A&W root-beer joints all over town served hot dogs, chili dogs, and the Papa, Mama, and Baby burgers. Today in KC, only two small A&W facilities even halfheartedly resemble the old restaurants, and both of them are located in the food courts of Johnson County shopping malls. To hell with that!
I called Paul Nerzwicke, the vice president of operations for the eastern region of A&W (which has had nearly a dozen owners since Roy Allen sold the chain in 1950) in Lexington, Kentucky, to ask where I could find an orange-and-white A&W of the old vintage. He advised me to drive to the closest one, in Leavenworth, Kansas (there’s another one in Lawrence). It’s roughly a 33-minute drive from midtown to the Leavenworth A&W (1820 S. 4th Street, off Highway 73), but it’s well worth the trip. Just across from the high school football field, the low-slung roof of the ’60s-style building is slightly faded, and white metal posts stick out of the parking lot where, in an earlier time, diners could talk to a carhop (or a “tray girl” in A&W lingo) through a long-vanished electric device (the kind Sonic, just a few blocks away, continues to use). Now there’s a modern drive-through window and indoor seating that looks like any latter-day fast food joint.
But the sweet, tangy root beer still comes in tall, frosty mugs ($1.09 for a medium), and I found familiar fare, including the double-decker Papa Burger ($2.49), the last relic of the “family” of burgers (the chain discontinued the Mama and Baby burgers years ago). I also tasted the Frito Pie ($1.69), a cardboard square filled with salty corn chips doused with chili, shredded lettuce, and salsa. And I dipped a few of those lovable deep-fried corn-dog nuggets ($1.99 for eight) in either ketchup or cheese sauce.
We sat under plastic “stained glass” lampshades bearing the A&W logo, eating our burgers, sipping icy root beer, and believing, for a second, that we had been transported back to 1973 — in Leavenworth, it’s easy to do — and that we were catching a quick meal before marching-band practice.
For homemade root beer a lot closer to Kansas City, there’s the fabulous Bill and Ann’s Mugs-Up (700 E. 23rd Street) in Independence, which is an old orange-and-white drive-in like a vintage A&W, but the root beer there has more spice and bite to it. “It’s still made here in the basement, like it always was,” said the carhop, who brought a clip-on metal tray bearing two heavy, frosty glass mugs (the largest size costs 80 cents), a ground beef Super Whiz Burger ($2.10) for me, and a Chili Whiz Dog ($1.50) and onion rings ($1.25) for Bob, who ordered another giant root beer before we peeled out of the parking lot a half hour later.
Forty years ago Kansas City boasted seven or eight Mugs-Up drive-ins, but Bill and Ann’s is the last one, and it’s a classic, baby. The carhops wear blue jeans, T-shirts, and, around their waists, those metal coin changers that go “ca-ching.” Not many of these emporiums are left, so go root them on!