by Anne Marie Hampshire | Photography by Jenna Northcutt
It’s bright and sunny in Dublin, Texas—a perfect afternoon for a guided tour of the beloved bottling plant famous for getting Texans hooked on Dr Pepper. The tour proves fascinating, with a knowledgeable young guide and animated tales of how the behemoth bottling machinery works, how reusable bottles are washed and sterilized, how the syrup and carbonation are combined into a fizzy elixir that must be spun exactly three times to attain drinkable perfection and how the capping machine is a bit of a widow-maker. Beyond the bottling area, there’s a separate space dedicated to an extensive and entertaining collection of Dr Pepper memorabilia that bedecks every wall and fills every inch of every shelf and display case. Old Doc’s Soda Shop is next door and the plant’s museum annex sits right across the street. It’s a carefully curated time capsule of Dr Pepper through the decades housed on one city block—from clocks, thermometers and calendars to posters, photos and promotional items—and a loving homage to the profound impact Dublin Dr Pepper has made on this quaint town and its loyal fans around the state.
Conspicuously unavailable, however, is an actual Dr Pepper.
Not only can Dublin no longer bottle the beverage for which it’s been known for more than a century and which helped the small town (about 150 miles northwest of Austin) become a destination for more than 70,000 tourists a year, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a Dr Pepper within the city limits at all—and more than a few locals will tell you that’s on purpose.
For soda enthusiasts around the world—but especially in Texas—Dublin Dr Pepper was an institution, the embodiment of a singular Texas pride and passion. And to a Dublin Dr Pepper fan, one’s passion was made more intense by virtue of being a member of an exclusive club devoted to a microbrand and a bottling plant that had been in continuous operation since 1891—the oldest soda-bottling facility in Texas, the first to bottle Dr Pepper and one owned and operated by a total of two families. That all came to a tragic end in 2012, when the tiny bottler settled a trademark dispute with parent company Dr Pepper Snapple Group and was forced to relinquish its franchise. But not before a bootstrap, David-meets-Goliath-style effort to save the business was orchestrated by the folks who call Dublin home. Money was raised for a legal defense fund; endless bake sales, raffles and a rally were held; a protest song was recorded (“A Big Fan of Small”); and an “I Support Dublin Dr Pepper” Facebook page was launched (with more than 24,000 likes as of March 2015).
Despite all the love and cash that poured in for the underdog, when the dust settled, the battle ended with the Dublin plant getting the short end of the stick. It could no longer bottle or distribute its beloved Pepper Upper, but at least the bottling plant and memorabilia were spared. Reverting to its original name, Dublin Bottling Works, the company now produces (through an offsite bottler) 13 flavors of soda using custom-crafted syrups (still made at the Dublin plant) and—as always—Imperial Pure Cane Sugar, and is on track to reach its goal of 125,000 cases a year in the very near future. Its rainbow of retro-designed bottles lining the shelves of Old Doc’s Soda Shop includes Dublin Cherrywine, Dublin Vintage Cola, Texas Root Beer, Retro Grape, Retro Crème Soda, Cherry Limeade, Vanilla Cream, Orange Cream…the list goes on. Distribution, which is no longer restricted by franchise agreements as it was in the Dr Pepper era, includes many Texas neighborhood convenience stores, H-E-Bs, Central Markets and a host of local restaurants.
And the company has big plans for the future: It expects to become completely self-sufficient in 2016, with a new line of bottling machinery that will enable it to produce, bottle and distribute all of its sodas on-site at the Dublin facility. For all the nostalgia bottled up in its history and products, Dublin Bottling Works has not only moved on, it’s crafted a new sweet spot for its identity—reinventing itself as a major regional player in the retro-soda scene.
A Brief History of Dublin Bottling Works1885: Pharmacist Charles Alderton of Waco, Texas, sets out to invent a soda syrup that tastes as delightful as the soda fountain in his drugstore smells—both fruity and spicy. When the results of his experimentation with the syrup’s chemistry prove wildly popular, his boss, Wade Morrison, begins selling the syrup to other drugstore soda fountains. Word spreads about the new, yet-unnamed soda, which was often ordered simply by calling out, “Shoot me a Waco!” And although multiple origin stories abound, the folks at Dublin say that Morrison was madly in love with a certain Miss Pepper back in Virginia and wished to curry favor with her physician father. He named the drink after the good doctor—but never got the girl.
1891: Morrison and business partner Robert Lazenby, a beverage chemist, set up the Artesian Manufacturing and Bottling Company in Waco, which later becomes the Dr Pepper Company. Meanwhile, while visiting Waco, entrepreneur Sam Houston Prim tastes the fizzy drink and is determined to sell it through his new soda-bottling plant in Dublin. Prim and Lazenby shake on it—and Dublin becomes home to the oldest soda-bottling facility in Texas.
1904: Dr Pepper goes global at the 1904 World’s Fair Exposition in St. Louis, along with a couple of America’s other soon-to-be true loves: hamburgers and hotdogs.
1925: Dr Pepper franchising begins; Prim is given first choice, and he formalizes a territory of a 44-mile radius around Dublin (the distance a horse and wagon could travel and return in one day) that includes Stephenville, Tolar, Comanche and Hico.
1946: Sam Houston Prim dies and passes on the family business to his only child, Grace Prim Lyon, henceforth known to Dubliners as the “Dr Pepper Lady.” She runs the company alongside W.P. Kloster (“Bill”) who had worked at the plant since he was 14 years old and who became general manager after he returned from a World War II tour of duty.
1970s–1980s: Because of the rising price of sugar brought on by a sugar embargo, coupled with the cheap price of corn because of government subsidies, almost all U.S. soft drink bottlers switched from cane sugar to high-fructose corn syrup. Lyon and Kloster refuse to change their formula in spite of the cost.
1991: Lyon dies on the morning of the company’s 100th birthday celebration, leaving the family business to Kloster—known to Dubliners as “Mr. Dr Pepper”—who would run the company until his death in 1999. His son, Bill Kloster, now runs the company with his grandson, Jeff Kloster, serving as vice president.
2012: Dr Pepper Snapple Group settles a trademark dispute with the Dublin bottlers, acquiring the rights to the franchise. Dr Pepper Bottling Co. reverts to its original name, Dublin Bottling Works, and continues to produce its own brand of soft drinks sweetened with pure cane sugar in addition to operating Old Doc’s Soda Shop.