Texas Primer: Big Red
It’s caffeinated, carbonated, and sickly sweet. And that’s not all that’s good about it.
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Drinking Big Red soda pop is as much a part of growing up in Texas as souvenir chameleons at the State Fair, the first dip in the Gulf of Mexico, or a visit to the Alamo. I was twelve when I had my first sip, almost too old to fully appreciate the candy-flavored, carbonated sensation gurgling in the back of my throat. I had walked barefoot to Brooks’ Drugstore, my neighborhood hangout in Fort Worth, gingerly avoiding tar spots simmering in the street on a hot August afternoon. Once I was inside, my eyes were drawn to the refrigerated cooler that contained some bottles of the reddest liquid I had ever seen, a red like the color of a fire engine speeding through hell but more intense. I sampled one, and it even tasted red—not like the cherry, raspberry, or strawberry flavor I expected but something like liquid bubble-gum. I had stumbled on the secret of Big Red: It’s a flavor you can’t quite put your finger on, shrouded in mystery, sweet to the point of overkill, and addictive enough to make you crave another. Many years later I cut through the romanticism of that first gulp to discover that the flavor is actually a combination of lemon and orange oils, topped off by a dollop of pure vanilla for a creamy aftertaste. The red is nothing more than FD&C red 40 food color. But the drink’s chemistry pales in importance when you realize that if Coca-Cola succeeds in taking over Dr Pepper, Big Red will be the last native soda pop—created, owned, and operated by Texans—left on the planet.
Big Red was invented in a Waco laboratory in 1937 by Grover C. Thomsen and R.H. Roark, 52 years after Dr Pepper’s birth in the same city. It was originally called Sun Tang Red Cream Soda and was marketed exclusively in Central and South Texas and around Louisville, Kentucky. According to Big Red Ink, the company’s newsletter, “consumption of the beverage was most common away from home, during outside activities in the warm summer months.” In the late fifties Harold Jansing, then president of the San Antonio bottling plant, was playing golf when he overheard some black caddies refer to a Sun Tang as a “big red.” After a few years of hearing that, and eager to speak the lingo, he asked a caddy to bring him four big reds. The caddy returned with another brand. “That’s when I decided to change the name,” Jansing says.
In the late seventies the company embarked on an aggressive expansion program into most Texas cities and beyond (105 franchises in 28 states, Panama, and British Columbia). Thus Big Red was saved from the same fate as extinct soda brands like Uncle Jo’s, the Texas-size Hippo drinks, Fredericksburg’s Iron Brew, and Big Chief (“Bottled with pure Davis Mountains water”).
Big Red’s survival can be attributed to a passionately loyal following, and the drink attained celebrity status years ago in entertainment circles. The late soul singer Joe Tex referred to “red soda water” in song. Rock superstar John Cougar Mellencamp’s only two vices are said to be cigarettes and Big Red, and Sammy Davis, Jr., once had his manager order several cases from the Waco bottler. When Sir Douglas Sahm made his seminal 1971 album The Return of Doug Saldaña, he posed on the cover with his hand wrapped around a Big Red.
Especially popular with blue-collar and ethnic drinkers, Big Red is a must at any Juneteenth celebration, along with ribs, beer, and watermelon. It’s also an essential ingredient for an authentic South Texas barbecue, the perfect palate-cooling antidote to the spicy heat of the meat. The only beverage that consistently outsells Big Red in San Antonio is Coca-Cola. Emery Bodnar, executive vice president of Big Red Bottling Company of San Antonio, tells this story: “One day I was checking stores, and I saw a baby crying in a shopping basket. The mother took a two-liter bottle of Big Red off the shelf, opened it, and filled the baby’s bottle with it, and gave it to the baby. The baby quit crying. Mothers wean babies on it.”
Sooner or later though, babies grow up, casting aside childish attachments like red soda pop. Big Red is not much of an adult drink, in spite of the appealing idea of a Texas Sunrise (Big Red and tequila). A good part of the reason is that every bottle is loaded with its fair share of sugar and caffeine. But so what if it’s not good for you. Just ask any Texas kid. It sure tastes good.