BEFORE GOOGLE, there was “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.” My aunt Dorothy Johnson, sensing my pending writing career, presented 18-year-old me with the red-covered, 970-page reference treasury for Christmas in 1969.

Today I reach for Brewer’s to seek the origin of the term “XXX.” The sober tome has a coherent answer: “X on beer casks formerly indicated beer which had paid the old 10s (shilling) duty, and hence it came to mean beer of a given quality. Two or three crosses are mere trademarks intended to convey the impression that the beer so marked was twice or thrice as strong as that which paid this duty.”

Now & Then

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Thus, in 1920, when Prohibition took effect nationally, a Texas firm took note, appropriating the term by marketing a new, nonalcoholic beverage by the name of Triple XXX Root Beer. Soon, capitalizing on the automotive craze, the soft drink spread throughout the South via sales at barrel-shaped drive-ins.

The brand expanded west in the late 1920s, and the first of more than a dozen stands in our state took root along busy arterials. A Seattle Times ad called such franchises “a gold mine.”

The Triple XXX in our “Then” image opened in 1931. Owner Otto A. Kuehnoel claimed a fortuitous site across McClellan Street from the Seattle Indians’ Dugdale Field and two blocks northwest of stately Franklin High School. The double-barreled drive-in drew droves of minor-league baseball fans and local teens to quaff 5-cent mugs of innocent brew.

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Dugdale burned in 1932, but from its ashes Sick’s Stadium (later renamed Sicks’ Stadium) and the Seattle Rainiers arose in 1938, when Franklin phenom and future major-leaguer Fred Hutchinson became a draw. The late Bob Kuehnoel (Otto’s son) told me in a 2000 interview that “Hutch” and other players were mainstays at Triple XXX.

“That’s where all the action was,” said Kuehnoel, who washed dishes and swept the parking lot after school. “So many of these ballplayers practically adopted my mom and dad. It was like home to them.”

Intriguingly, the twin barrels were not a mere advertising shell. “One barrel was my parents’ bedroom, the other was mine, and my brother slept in the middle,” Bob said. “My bedroom was right over the pinball machines and the jukebox, so I learned at an early age to sleep through anything.”

Triple XXX barrels faded from the local scene by the 1960s. (A former barrel still operates as a Chinese restaurant on Lake City Way, and a Triple XXX thrives in Issaquah, though its barrel is flat, not three-dimensional.)

In these coronavirus days, all manner of takeout — and root beer — endure, and a fun mystery remains: Why the redundancy in “Triple XXX”? Not even the aptly named Brewer’s can say.