Small Beers–Frosty Mugs Filled with Historic Nostalgia and Root Beer
ROOT BEER: a sweet, brown drink flavored with roots and herbs and that contains bubbles.
Yes, Merriam-Webster has a definition for root beer, but perhaps your definition is a little more personal.
Maybe you remember the first time you went to an old-timey mom-and-pop root beer and chili dog stand with your parents or grandparents, or with a friend of yours and their parents who lived in a small town lucky enough to have such a place.
You ordered your food, but more importantly, you ordered root beer. And when it came, you reached for that frost-covered, thick-handled mug (sometimes suspended from the car window with some kind of gravity magic) and took the first pull from that dark and sweet-smelling beverage—the scant surface layer of ice coming in with your first gulp. Your taste receptors told your brain: This is the good stuff.
And somewhere in between apple pie and hamburgers, you’ll find this good stuff sitting on the list of America’s food icons.
But first, a little history never hurt anyone.
Root beer was at one time known as “small beers.” (There’s a rumor that perhaps even Shakespeare made note of them in his iambic pentameter.) All that ado aside, “small beers” appear to have been manufactured during Colonial times from a huge variety of herbs, bark and roots. Then, carbonation would be added and root beer was officially made. There’s no set recipe and there’s even variety from one batch to the next when using the same recipe. You’ll find much mention of Charles Hires, a Philadelphia pharmacist, as the father and inventor of root beer around 1876, but the Library of Congress contains books full of root beer recipes dating up to 20 years before he fashioned and sold his own variety.
And there are many years of root beer making and makers, intentional or otherwise, between Shakespeare, Colonial times and Charles Hires. What matters is that today the drink is still being made and sold to thirsty children, hipsters, Generation whatevers, parents and grandparents because it’s just downright good.
And just in case you weren’t lucky enough to experience the greatness of a frosty-cold root beer as a child, here are a couple places still serving up this classic today in Central Indiana.
In 1948, Frost Top in Speedway opened. The business was a chain and a lot like a modern day DQ. It was one of the few drive-up-service restaurant chains in the nation, along with other such familiar businesses like A&W. Frost Top was in a tiny little building pumping out hot dogs, burgers and other American food classics.
Frost Top existed until 1960, when Morris May bought it and renamed it “Mug–n–Bun & Frost Top.” May would make the little (yet larger than life) establishment his life’s work until 1998, when it was purchased by electrician Jay Watson, the current owner.
“Morris was a very interesting guy,” Watson says with a little laugh, “that [Mug–n–Bun] was his life … he was there every day even after I bought the place. It’s all Morris.”
Eventually, the business dropped the Frost Top and became known only as Mug–n–Bun. And besides the fact that the two-story wooden building that housed the original drive-in burned to the ground in 1972 and was then rebuilt to what it is today, not much has changed.
“Root beer has been made at Mug–n–Bun since the 1960s,” Watson said. “It’s Morris’s original recipe and it’s made in the basement every day.”
And how much root beer exactly do they pump upstairs to satisfy their customers’ thirst? A lot. We’re talking 300 gallons a day in the summertime. This root beer is made with a combination of sugar, water and root beer base syrup (according to Watson there are about 21 base flavors several companies sell). It’s made in 150-gallon batches. Watson says you can add other ingredients to this mixture to create a certain flavor, as well. And, most places don’t even make their own root beer anymore. This is because it’s hard to even buy the stainless steel tanks the root beer is stored in, stirring the concoction so it doesn’t clog the lines to make its way upstairs is no easy task and the sugar-to-carbonated-water ratio is hard to master.
So how did Watson, an electrician by trade, learn to make root beer? Well, it was seemingly by accident. He used to make electrical repairs at the Mug–n–Bun location before he bought it, and then one day he found himself standing with Mays in the basement, mixing and stirring a sticky-sweet formula, and Watson thus became indoctrinated into the world of making Mug–n–Bun root beer.
But, don’t be fooled: Root beer isn’t the only amazingly delicious item you can get at Mug–n–Bun. They have 90 items on the menu, so there’s something for everyone. Whether it’s hand-cut Vidalia onion rings dipped by hand and cooked in high-quality canola oil, Coney dogs with their special chili-flavored sauce or a Super Burger (double cheeseburger with bacon), it’s all “cooked to order, right then and there,” according to Watson.
And, it’s all about family at Mug–n–Bun. While Watson claims to be enjoying quasi-retirement (I find that hard to believe from a man who literally spent every day of his life there for 10 years after he bought it), he has had his nephews, son-in-law, aunt, nieces and other family working for him over the years.
And when I asked him about the future of this small, yet mighty, American through-and-through establishment, what did he say?
“We will continue to provide the best customer service and give a good-quality meal … unless they close 10th street.”
To learn more about or to visit Mug–n–Bun, you can find them at 5211 W. 10th St. in Speedway or at Mug-N-Bun.com. Hours vary by season.
Triple XXX Family Restaurant, West Lafayette
“We were here before your mother was born.” You can find this sentence on the Triple XXX (said “Triple X,” no need to get excessive with the Xs and look like a tourist) Family Restaurant website, and it’s most likely true.
And back before your mother was born, in 1929, the Triple XXX Family Restaurant wasn’t yet known by that name—it was the Triple XXX Thirst Station, selling root beer by the same name. At one time, there were over a 100 Thirst Stations throughout the United States and in Canada. The West Lafayette location is the only one remaining, and it still sells that original, pure cane sugar root beer which was originally made by the Galveston Brewing Company in Texas in 1895. But due to stringent laws passed in Texas, the brewery had to change its name and then branded and sold a large line of flavored drinks—including root beer, strawberry, cream soda and grape—under the name Triple XXX
Now, let’s talk about the root beer’s (and the restaurant’s) name, as it might make you raise an eyebrow. It refers to quality.
“It’s not unlike a Triple AAA grading system you would see on sugar or gunpowder,” says Greg Ehresman, co-owner since 2008. “It used to be good was one X, better was two Xs, best was three Xs.”
So, basically, the Triple XXX Family Restaurant in West Lafayette, steps from Purdue University’s campus, has root beer that is nine times better than the best grade a food brand can get, right? And not only is the root beer good, Guy Fieri, host of Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” has been there, so this place must be worth it’s salt, right? These both seem to be true, but the most important thing to the current owners is much more than root beer and diner food.
“The Triple XXX has real and legitimate history,” said co-owner Carrie Ehresman, Greg’s wife.
And in the basement of this tiny last vestige of a Thirst Station, you can find that legit history. This is where root beer was made—with a stainless steel paddle that hangs in the Triple XXX World Headquarters (as Greg calls it) today, which is just steps away from the actual restaurant—until 1974. And then, between 1974 to around 1998, they were unable to get the syrup to hand mix the root beer and had so serve an off-brand. Also during this time, in 1980, Greg Ehresman’s parents (who met at the restaurant) bought the Triple XXX and Greg came back to run it. And one of his goals was to bring back that old-fashioned root beer.
After lots of effort and numerous conversations, the Triple XXX root beer brand came back to the restaurant in the mid- to late ’90s. It’s now served in a more modern, fountain service manner, which doesn’t involve stirring in the basement or difficult storage.
On April 1,1999, Greg and Carrie Ehresman bought the restaurant from his parents (except for four years, it has always been owned by local families), and in 2008 the couple bought the Triple XXX brand, recipe and rights—a natural step for Greg, who had been coming there since he was 13 years old. The root beer is now bottled in Chicago and sold at many locations throughout Indiana, and there are even some retail stores that have the product on their soda fountains.
And besides that octogenarian root beer recipe, they serve diner-style food in a cozy, barstool-equipped dining area (there’s no longer drive-in service, but they offer curb service for up to 35 customers at picnic tables outside under their awning). On the menu, you’ll find breakfast offered anytime, and the most noteworthy item is hands down the Duane Purvis All-American chop steak, which is a sirloin burger with melted cheese, lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles and peanut butter. Yes, a burger to make even Elvis proud.
And when you go, be sure to visit the bathroom, which is what my mother would call a “one-butt corner” and is an adventure all by itself.
To learn more about or to visit Triple XXX Family Restaurant, you can find them at 2 N. Salisbury St., West Lafayette, M–Sa, 5:30am–11pm; Su 5:30am–10pm or at TripleXXXFamilyRestaurant.com.