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Soda: Texas Loses Dublin Dr Pepper

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[Photo: Carey Jones]

I'd never heard of Dublin Dr Pepper until my first visit to Austin, when I saw it touted at restaurants and taquerias and food trucks. Mexican Coke, sure, but Dublin Dr Pepper? Sounded about as likely as a "Houston Guinness." I'd spent a good deal of time in Ireland and certainly didn't recall ever seeing a Dr Pepper. Or a Dr Pepper plant. (Maybe out at St James's Gate next to that beer factory? ... No? Hmm.) I played along as if I understood what my Texan friends were talking about... and soon enough got the bright idea to check the bottle. Ah: Dublin, Texas.

As just about any drinker of soda in the area could tell you, Dublin Dr Pepper is the cane-sugar equivalent of the version you'll find in the rest of the country. Its fans like it for many of the same reasons people like Pepsi Throwback or Mexican Coke, often preferred for their lack of corn syrup and, in the case of the latter, old-fashioned glass bottles. But in parts of Texas, it's a matter of regional pride, as well.

Which made it all the more painful when the Dublin Dr Pepper plant was shut down last week.

"Texans are upset about the loss of Dublin Dr Pepper because we see it as a loss of Texas culture and identity as much as a loss of the wonderful old-fashioned cane sugar-sweetened soda itself," Texas food authority Robb Walsh told us.

The relationship between Dr Pepper Snapple, the company operating that soda brand, and the Dublin plant had long been a complicated one. The Dublin plant is in fact the oldest one in the country, dating to 1891; it's a small operation with less than forty employees. "The bottling line equipment looked like an industrial antique," wrote Walsh in 2008 after visiting the plant. "Huge bags of Imperial Pure Cane Sugar had to be carried up to the second floor to be mixed with the base."

It's a landmark in the city, whose population numbers less than 4,000 but drew 100,000 visitors every year to see the plant and attached soda shop, according to the Associated Press.

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Dublin Dr Pepper at the soda fountain of Franklin's Barbecue in Austin. [Photo: Carey Jones]

Dr Pepper Snapple had restricted this small plant to distribution only within a several-county radius of the Central Texas town, while permitting them to sell the soda with Imperial cane sugar rather than the corn syrup used otherwise. That soda strayed beyond those boundaries, however; fans and soda obsessives could order online or over the phone, and the soda turned up in stores far beyond its intended limits. It often fetched a higher price than its corn syrup cousins, and "bootleggers" resold Dublin Dr Pepper to out-of-bounds shops. (You have to love the idea of illicit soda pop.)

But in 2011, Dr Pepper Snapple sued the Dublin plant for violating the terms of their agreement, and last Wednesday, announced that they would be acquiring the Dublin bottler's assets and distribution rights, effectively putting an end to the tradition of "Dublin Dr Pepper". The company will now make a sugar-sweetened version in the model of Pepsi or Mountain Dew "Throwback"; according to a press release from the company, the cane sugar version "will still be bottled and canned in distinct, nostalgic packaging."

It will not, however, pay any tribute to Dublin, the town so long associated with it.

To Walsh, and to many other fans of the soda, that concession is not enough. "Why the corporate headquarters of Dr Pepper/Snapple found it necessary to close down the oldest Dr Pepper bottler in Texas and a living museum of their own history is baffling to anyone who respects our food culture," he wrote on his website.

Is a single soda worth the uproar that this has caused? The few times I've tried Dublin Dr Pepper, I certainly noticed (and appreciated) the full, rounded sweetness of the soda, a noticeable difference from the normal version. The little bottles are pretty irresistible, and as Kenji once noted in a Mexican Coke taste test, the experience of drinking from a glass bottle is one that predisposes many people to like a soda. And then there's the nostalgia factor—both from the taste of cane sugar and from the packaging. Something wholesome and reminiscent of childhood, the idea of an ice-cold drink on a hot summer's day, an eight-ounce bottle just refreshing enough, a treat that still leaves you with an appetite for dinner. Beyond the simple glass-bottle-against-the-lips feeling, there's the real or imagined connection to soda's history. And that's very much recalled in the packaging of Dublin Dr Pepper, proudly bearing the name of the soda's oldest producer, now wiped from the bottle and, many feel, wiped from memory.

Any fans of Dublin Dr Pepper out there? Is the promise of a new cane sugar-sweetened version enough for you? Or does the whole scenario leave a bad taste in your mouth?

About the author: Carey Jones is the Editor of Serious Eats New York and co-editor of Serious Eats: Sweets. Follow her on Twitter (@careyjones).

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