Ask any Dublin Dr Pepper bootlegger what the fuss is all about. They'll tell you that the top-shelf, premier cru of Texas soda pop is selling for eight bucks a six-pack in some stores — when you can find it.
Back in the 1970s, when soft drink bottlers across the country began sweetening their sodas with high-fructose corn syrup, the oldest Dr Pepper bottling plant, which is located in Dublin, about 20 miles south of Stephenville, refused to make the switch. Each bottle of Dublin Dr Pepper proudly bears the logo of Imperial Pure Cane Sugar.
But under their franchise agreement, the Dublin plant is only authorized to supply stores in the 40-square-mile area between Stephenville and Hico. The loophole is that individuals who visit the plant are allowed to purchase up to 20 cases for their private use. So diehards who are fixated on the flavor of old-fashioned cane sugar-sweetened Dr Pepper drive to Dublin to pick up their fix.
Dublin Dr Pepper
If driving across the state for soft drinks sounds a little obsessive, you need to consider how important a role Dr Pepper plays in some people's lives.
In cold climates, coffee is the favored caffeine delivery system, and when people talk about being addicted to the stuff, they aren't kidding. Caffeine is habit-forming, regardless of how you imbibe it.
In the warmer climate of the South, the bottomless iced tea glass is taken for granted at restaurants. But for other Southerners, the caffeinated beverage of choice is a carbonated soft drink — Coca-Cola in Georgia and Dr Pepper in Texas. Roughly speaking, a 20-ounce bottle of Coke or Dr Pepper contains as much caffeine as a five-ounce cup of coffee. Of course, some people drink Dr Pepper by the liter.
"It's an addiction," says Houston journalist Bobette Riner, who grew up drinking Dr Pepper in West Texas. She says she tries to keep her habit under control by only drinking two a day. But she is a discerning consumer. Just as Starbucks fans turn up their nose at inferior coffee, Riner prefers the taste of Dublin Dr Pepper to the "nasty corn syrup flavor" of the conventional stuff. She picks some up when she travels north to visit her family.
Riner sometimes shares a few bottles from her private stash when she needs a favor from the Dr Pepper-obsessed computer guys at work, where the soft drink is referred to as "crack." One IT guy decorated his office with empty Dr Pepper bottles, Riner said. The computer guys have reported having problems when they tried to quit drinking the stuff. (Yes, there are several Dr Pepper addiction support groups.)
Since the demand for Dublin Dr Pepper exceeds the supply, a thriving black market has sprung up. Driving around the state this spring, I noticed little paper signs in the front windows of small-town drugstores and mom-and-pop restaurants advertising the availability of Dublin Dr Pepper. I never really gave much thought to where they were getting the stuff.
That's where the bootleggers come in. At a cooking demonstration I gave this spring at the Dallas Museum of Art, I told the audience that the Dr Pepper-marinated tenderloin recipe that I included in my The Texas Cowboy Cookbook worked a lot better if you used Dublin Dr Pepper. The cane sugar caramelizes better on the grill.
After the event, a bootlegger introduced herself. The wisecracking lady said she kept a group of small shops in her Dallas suburb supplied. It was all very hush-hush, because the bootleggers are going around the distribution rules of the bottling franchise. Each franchisee is supposed to supply its own area.
I was fascinated: Smuggling addictive soft drinks across county lines is the sort of aberrant behavior I have dedicated my life to investigating.
It cost six bucks to get into the Dr Pepper Museum in downtown Waco. The first floor was devoted to historical information about the invention and early days of bottling and distributing the product. There was an eerie talking dummy that was supposed to look like the German pharmacist named Charles Alderton, who formulated Dr Pepper at the soda fountain of Waco's Old Corner Drug store in 1885, one year before Coca-Cola was invented.
His formula is alleged to contain 23 flavors, including natural fruit and spice essences, though the company is notoriously secretive about the actual ingredients (except to say that prune juice is not among them).
Alderton's customers called the drink a "Waco" soda, and it became quite popular at the soda fountain. The pharmacist gave the recipe to the owner of the drugstore, Wade Morrison, and the base syrup began to be made in larger quantities. When he began marketing the syrup to area drugstores, Morrison renamed the drink after Dr. Charles T. Pepper of Virginia.
Some versions of the story say the real Dr. Pepper was Morrison's girlfriend's father; others say he was a former employer. If such details matter to you, there's a Web site you can visit where the Dr Pepper catechism is carefully parsed by a fanatic named Christopher Flaherty on his Web site, Dr Pepper FAQ. You will also find stories there connecting Dr Pepper to various conspiracy theories. Lee Harvey Oswald was evidently a Dr Pepper lover.
The upper floor of the Dr Pepper Museum holds a lot of advertising materials. I sang along silently as I read the words to the "I'm a pepper, you're a pepper," jingle. And I dimly recalled the 10-2-4 campaign, which advocated the consumption of three Dr Peppers a day, at 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. But I had never heard the oldest Dr Pepper slogan: "Drink a bite to eat." I also learned that the period in Dr. was dropped from the name in a logo redesign in the 1950s.
But the Waco museum, which is officially known as the Dr Pepper Museum and Free Enterprise Institute, was a disappointment. The quirky spirit of the soft drink didn't jibe with some of the heavy-handed propaganda on the second floor. Dr Pepper's former owner, a European conglomerate called Cadbury Schweppes, couldn't resist throwing in sales pitches for their other products. There were also exhibits on the marvels of modern soft drink marketing and the brilliance of the "Schweppervesence" slogan. Whatever.
Cadbury Schweppes "demerged" in May of this year, and the beverage division, now called the Dr Pepper Snapple Group, was spun off to investors. How the new owners will deal with the independence of Dublin Dr Pepper is not yet known.
After my Waco tour, I immediately headed out Route 6 for downtown Dublin, home of the oldest Dr Pepper bottling plant in existence. As I drove around town looking for the building, I noticed old-fashioned painted advertisements for Dr Pepper on the sides of buildings with the original slogan, "Drink a Bite to Eat."
The Dublin Dr Pepper building houses another Dr Pepper museum, but it's a homegrown affair. It's connected to Doc's Soda Shop, a fully functioning, old-fashioned ice cream and soda shop that sells drinks, sundaes and floats and lots of memorabilia, including T-shirts, bottle cap belts and gimme caps. It's also the "secret" headquarters of the Dublin Dr Pepper underground — cases of Dublin Dr Pepper sit beside the door ready to be loaded into bootleggers' vehicles.
The first thing I did when I met Lori Dodd, who runs the soda shop and museum, was to buy an official "Dublin Dr Pepper Bootlegger" T-shirt and a case of soda. Then she gave me a tour of the plant and museum.
The museum was just a couple of rooms full of old Dr Pepper signs and photographs, certificates and permits from the early days at the bottling plant. But the bottling plant was itself a museum. The bottling line equipment looked like an industrial antique. Huge bags of Imperial Pure Cane Sugar had to be carried up to the second floor to be mixed with the base.
The flavored syrup that all Dr Pepper bottlers use is manufactured in St. Louis. Local bottlers just add the carbonated water and the sweetener, which is why it was so easy for the Dublin plant to continue to use cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. The franchise agreement that bottlers have with Dr Pepper doesn't require them to use any particular sweetener—but it does limit the area where they can deliver products.
And the product that the bootleggers want is a retro-looking eight-ounce bottle full of cane sugar-sweetened Dr Pepper. Though the bottles look old, they are actually new disposable bottles. I drank one while we walked around the factory. There was a wonderful mouth-filling quality about the sugar sweetness that had me smacking my lips.
The disposable eight-ounce bottles are popular, but true connoisseurs have their own bottles. Although Dr Pepper discontinued reusable bottles in 1990, the Dublin Dr Pepper plant still refills old Dr Pepper bottles.
I looked at cases upon cases of bottles going back to the 1960s and 1970s that were waiting to be washed. It's amazing that so many people keep these old bottles in circulation. Dodd told me that there are collectors with bottles dating all the way back to the 1930s — those have to be hand-filled. The factory itself maintains an inventory of over 100,000 old reusable Dr Pepper bottles.
I asked Lori Dodd how she liked working at the Dr Pepper plant. Although she is quite slender, she said that it was difficult to work there and not gain weight.
"All that Dr Pepper around all the time?" I guessed.
"No, actually, it's the Frosty Peppers," she said. The soda fountain at the plant makes Frosty Pepper sundaes by pouring Dr Pepper fountain syrup over Blue Bell vanilla ice cream. It's an old favorite among Dublin locals.
The Dr Pepper plant is so revered in Dublin that on Monday, June 9, in an annual rite of summer, a crew of workers will drive around the city limits taking down the signs that read "Dublin" and replacing them with signs that read "Dr Pepper, Texas."
This act of civic devotion marks the beginning of the weeklong celebration of the plant's anniversary — it turns 117 this year. The party peaks on Saturday, June 14, with live music and carnival booths. (See dublindrpepper.com for details.) That's also when the judges will select the local girl who will serve as this year's "Pretty Peggy Pepper."
Pretty Peggy Pepper contestants are high school seniors who compete in sportswear and evening gowns as well as in onstage interviews. The judges consider each contestant's grades in school as well as her charm and appearance. The winner gets to wear the Pretty Peggy Pepper outfit, which looks like a majorette's uniform, while representing Dublin Dr Pepper at fairs, parades and the 10-2-4 Dr Pepper Collector's Club Convention.
At McCain's Market, a hip sandwich shop and food store on Heights Boulevard in Houston, I found a bottle of Dublin Dr Pepper in the drink case right beside the trendy Jones Soda. The little eight-ounce bottle of Dublin DP cost me $1.15 plus tax. I drank it in the parking lot.
The rush of cane sugar flavor brought back memories. The image of empty pop bottles rattling around in a bicycle basket flickered across my mind. I chuckled as I recalled riding around on my bike gathering empties for the two-cent deposit when I was nine years old. When I had enough, I'd buy a soda and chug-a-lug it on the front step of the Dickie-Lou convenience store. A soda was a rare treat in those days. We didn't drink it at home.
Look around the natural food stores these days, and you'd think soda made with cane sugar was health food. In the last few years, organic food experts have started encouraging enlightened consumers to avoid chemically processed high-fructose corn syrup in favor of natural sugars. Whole Foods and Central Market are both selling sodas made with fruit flavors and cane sugar under their own labels.
The backlash against high-fructose corn syrup seems to be gaining momentum lately. HFCS was patented by a Japanese scientist in 1971. It gained quick acceptance in the American processed food industry because it solved a lot of political problems. Price protections on domestic sugar had raised the cost of the nation's most common sweetener. Meanwhile, farm subsidies had created a persistent glut of corn.
HFCS was substantially cheaper than sugar and a gold mine for Midwestern corn farmers and agribusiness giants such as Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland. It fit right in with our corn-centric system of agriculture and quickly replaced sugar in a staggering variety of processed foods.
HFCS first became suspect in some circles following the Surgeon General's 2001 Report on Obesity. An article published by two scientists in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in April 2004 compared the data for the increase in obesity with data for the rise in consumption of HFCS and pointed out the amazing correlation between the two. A book called Fat Land by Greg Critser also linked high-fructose corn syrup with America's weight problem.
Critser and others pointed out that since bottlers began replacing sugar with cheaper high-fructose corn syrup starting around 1980, the price of soft drinks has dropped by about one-third. And in the same period, per capita consumption of soft drinks has increased by around 40 percent.
Beverage industry analysts argue that the difference in cost between HFCS and sugar has little to do with sales growth. But whether the flood of cheap soft drinks over the last 30 years is a result of cheaper sweetener, cheaper plastic packaging or the marketing concept known as "supersizing," everyone agrees that the spike in soft drink consumption is a major cause of the rise in obesity.
Some scientists have advanced the premise that the body processes HFCS differently from the way it does regular sugar and that the highly processed sweetener should be avoided altogether. Natural foods experts recommend against it because it is a highly processed food that doesn't occur in nature. Other nutritionists argue that sugar and HFCS are equally bad for you. The scientific controversy is still being debated.
Thoughtful food writers, such as Michael Pollan, argue that it doesn't matter if HFCS is actually worse than sugar. There are lots of other good reasons to avoid it. Chief among them is voting with your consumer dollars against the overproduction of corn, which is taking over our diet and our entire system of agriculture. Pollan also condemns the labeling of products containing HFCS as "all natural."
Since the anti-HFCS backlash began, demand for Dublin Dr Pepper has surged. Articles in newspapers began to mention it, along with Mexican Coke and Jones Soda, as an alternative soft drink for people trying to avoid HFCS.
On a philosophical level, I am all in favor of avoiding HFCS. It's just that I'm not willing to stop dipping my fries in ketchup or pass on a smoked brisket sandwich because there might be HFCS in the barbecue sauce. Like Bobette Riner, I am ready to forgo sodas containing HFCS in favor of those made with pure cane sugar because I like the flavor better anyway.
But I am not even sure that cane sugar is inherently better tasting than HFCS.
On a recent Tuesday, just before lunchtime, I stood in the hall of my newspaper's office handing out Styrofoam cups of Dr Pepper. Each passerby who agreed to participate in my taste test took a cup marked "A" and one marked "B." One was filled with a sample of regular Dr Pepper with HFCS and the other was filled with Dublin Dr Pepper. I asked each taster which one they preferred and why. And then I asked their age.
Out of 13 tasters, four liked regular Dr Pepper with HFCS better, seven liked the Dublin Dr Pepper and two couldn't tell any difference. Three of the seven tasters who liked Dublin Dr Pepper were over 40 — old enough to remember the flavor of cane sugar-sweetened soda from their childhood.
"This is what Dr Pepper used to taste like," one remarked.
"It reminds me of the flavor of the grape soda I use to guzzle at the store," said another.
I never noticed the HFCS flavor in my Dr Pepper before. But as I realized standing in front of McCain's Market, cane sugar-sweetened soda tastes better to some people because of the taste memory it evokes.
For tasters under 30, who grew up with HFCS in their soft drinks, cane sugar didn't evoke any memories, or have any special appeal. On the contrary, they thought that HFCS tasted normal.
"This is Dr Pepper," said one holding up the HFCS sample. "And this is something different," he said, indicating the Dublin Dr Pepper. Another thought the cane sugar-sweetened version tasted "spicier" but preferred the standard-issue. Among the younger tasters who liked the cane sugar version, one was a natural food enthusiast who said he also drank Mexican Cokes and preferred cane sugar-flavored soft drinks.
"They've got Dublin Dr Pepper at Central Market now," Bobette Riner told me over the phone. And even though they were charging $7.89 plus tax for a six-pack of tiny eight-ounce bottles, she figured it was a bargain, considering all the gas she was saving.
The bottles that are now on sale at Central Market and Kroger stores are actually made at the Dr Pepper bottling plant in Temple, Texas. The Temple plant and one other Texas bottler, in Abilene, have decided to get in on this lucrative market. Both now make limited amounts of cane sugar-sweetened Dr Pepper along with the regular HFCS version. The bottles from Temple have an Imperial Pure Cane Sugar logo, but don't have the word "Dublin" above the Dr Pepper logo.
Reselling soft drinks outside of the bottler's franchise area certainly isn't illegal. And it seems a safe bet that sooner or later, Dr Pepper's new owners will find a way to cash in on the cane sugar soda market. But until it becomes a mainstream product offering, specialty markets and bootleggers will continue to make a killing on the stuff.
"I wish I could get more of it," Phil Myers, the General Manager at Central Market, told me at the store. "They make about enough to fill an eyedropper."
"If they made lots of it, you wouldn't be getting $8 for a six-pack," I observed.
"I guess that's true," he said with a smile.
Dr Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
According to books on the Beatles, Paul McCartney originally named the Beatle's song and groundbreaking concept album Dr. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The name was changed when McCartney was informed that Dr Pepper was the name of an American soft drink.
The Beatles evidently became fans of the stuff after discovering the coincidence. In Instamatic Karma, the new book by May Pang, John Lennon's former personal assistant and girlfriend writes that during the Imagine sessions, Lennon requested that she ship cases of Dr Pepper to him in England.
Dr. Fine and Mr. Pig
Several Dr Pepper trivia buffs have put together Web sites documenting the many imitations of Dr Pepper. The most complete I've seen includes photos of 90 different cans of Dr Pepper knockoffs.
Some of my favorites include Shur Fine's homage to the Three Stooges, "Dr. Fine" (paging Doctor Fine, Doctor Howard, Doctor Fine); Adirondack Beverage Corp.'s "Dr. Radical"; Wild Oats Market's "Dr. Wild"; and Piggly Wiggly's takeoff of a takeoff "Mr. Pig" (after Coca-Cola's Dr Pepper imitator "Mr. Pibb").
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.