Category Archives: Seltzer Means Business

In honor of Eli Miller’s retirement, two videos I made with him in 2010

In August, 2010, I spent an afternoon driving around Brooklyn with one of the few remaining seltzer men left in New York City: Eli Miller. It was a remarkable experience. I traveled with Eli as research for Seltzertopia. What I experienced that day became a foundational experience for this project, and an inspiration to keep fighting until I found the book a good home.

I had mixed feelings when I learned that Eli retired a few weeks ago – happy he can finally rest, and happy his route was acquired by Alex Gomberg (the youngest seltzerman in the country), yet sad Eli can no longer do what brought so much meaning, and love, into his life.

To make this transition, here – once again – is an edit of my footage from that day seven years ago, when I met Eli for the first time:

And as a bonus, here’s Eli reading to us the children’s story based on his delivery route:

2016: The Year in Seltzer

As on-going research for my book, I track seltzer in the news. Who is drinking it? What are they drinking? Why, and with whom?

The trends and highlights I observed I now package for you, my crew of seltzer lovers, as 2016: The Year in Seltzer.

SELTZER IS STILL HOT (AND HIP)

Last year, 2015, was the year the media rediscovered seltzer. Or, rather, finally noticed that America had been rediscovering the drink for decades. “Seltzer’s Fizz Is Back” announced the Wall Street Journal. “How Seltzer Water Became Cooler Than Coke” wrote The Washington Post. The Chicago Tribune’s was my favorite: “How something as tasteless as seltzer water won America’s heart.”

This year, the theme was, as Boston Magazine put it, “America’s Seltzer Obsession Shows No Signs of Fizzling”. The Wall Street Journal offered another example: “New York’s Seltzer Market Bubbles Over– Sales of the fizzy drink are up 42% over the last five years”.

And let’s talk about the hip factor. This one popular tweet captured the seltzer zeitgeist:

As interpreted by a writer at Lucky Peach, “A seltzer renaissance is upon us. The new seltzer wave is much simpler than these so-called ‘analysts’ make it out to be: seltzer is just cool right now. You don’t get a whole wall dedicated to yourself at the new Whole Foods in Williamsburg by being ‘healthy’—you get it because you’re cool.”

SELTZER LOVERS UNITE

From GQ’s combatively titled, “Seltzer Isn’t a Trend, It’s a Way of Life” to the Yale Herald’s “Ode on the soda syphon,” writers were declaring not just their love for the carbonated beverage but claiming an identity as a seltzer lover.

GQ wrote: “Seltzer isn’t a fucking trend to me; it’s always been my beverage of choice, which has nothing to do with an ironically cool can design or using the French word for ‘grapefruit.’ Rather I’m a New York Jew and that’s what we do. We drink seltzer.”

Meanwhile, readers at Yale learned how “Those of us with a die-hard allegiance to effervescence are in a class of our own. We can discuss the mouthfeels and flavors of various carbonated offerings with the kind of technical jargon generally reserved for theoretical physicists.”

How do we know there’s a rise of people identifying as seltzer lovers? Because people are starting to be haters, as in this lame but sincere attempt on Gizmodo: Seltzer Water Sucks”.

UNICORN TEARS AND OTHER FLAVORS

Every season Polar Seltzer, the Boston area-based company, releases seasonal flavors, like Watermelon Margarita and Mango Berry, “to surprise and delight diehard Polar Seltzer aficionados.” They are always warmly welcomed by seltzer lovers. But this year, interest hit a fever pitch.

In March, Polar delivered 5,000 cases of their creatively named, limited-release flavor: Unicorn Kisses. Described by the company as tasting like “sparkling rainbows,” fans came up with their own theories, like cucumber melon mixed with candy apples. Before long, cases were selling on eBay at exorbitantly marked-up prices.

As if one media-savvy flavor run wasn’t enough in 2016, Polar ended the year with yet another new twist: the mystery flavor. Arriving in stores with no warning or description, social media exploded in collaborative efforts to figure out just what was in their seltzer, such as: “It tastes like frosty the snowman melted into a puddle of unicorn tears and angel kisses!”

And unlike in the past, where new flavors were touted on their “Limited Editions” page, this one still remains a mystery, as if it escaped from their flavor research lab out into the wide-world.

THE NEW BUZZ FROM SELTZER

It started in March with Mashable’s “Alcoholic seltzer is the fizz you never knew you craved,” then “Why Spiked Seltzer Will Be Your New Rosé This Summer,” and then it just never seemed to end. Week after week, another article came across my stream announcing the latest trend: alcoholic (or “hard”) seltzer.

Just to give you a taste of the trend, in the last few weeks we’ve seen “Hard Seltzer, A Healthier Alcohol Alternative” (CBS Philly) and “Enter hard seltzer: Alcoholic seltzer finds growing market of health-conscious drinkers” (The Baltimore Sun).

THE SCIENCE OF SELTZER

Every year we see a spat of articles, based on the latest science research, arguing why seltzer is good, or bad, for us. This year science focused our attention on one study that received significant coverage, making the case that cold seltzer is the best way to quench a thirst (compared against warm, flat water). A win for carbonation!

MY BOOK

Last spring I acquired a new editor, who has been fantastic. All summer we worked on the new proposal, and by fall she was out there shopping it around. It you are an editor, or know one, who might be interested in a phenomenal book about this history of seltzer and the passion it ignites in people around the world, please let me know.

I was featured in a fantastic episode of Gastropod, which looked at (everyone say it with me) seltzer.

Finally, I posted by summer 2015 video tour of the Pittsburgh Seltzer Works, the oldest continuous seltzer works in the country. Little did I know, as its proprietor John Seeking displayed his deep commitment to every brutal aspect of running a contemporary works with century old machinery, that he would close its doors just a few weeks later. Will it return some day in a new form? That’s definitely one of the many things to watch for in 2017.

 

A Tour of the Pittsburgh Seltzer Works – My 1st Trip

I was in Pittsburgh for a work conference and took some time to call up John Seekings, the central figure throughout my seltzer book, to both meet him in person for the first time AND visit his seltzer works.

It was a beautiful, hot summer day and I arrived at the Works to find the overhead lighting was under repair – nonetheless, my trusty iPhone worked its hardest to capture this lovely 20-minute tour, led of course by the indomitable, and always gracious, John Seekings.

It was thrilling! Enjoy.

Zeltzer Seltzer and Alphy’s Soda Pop Club

I just got off the phone interviewing Randy Miller, who at 17 – not yet out of high school – launched a new beverage company with his dad: Original New York Seltzer. The brand played a big role in making seltzer hip in the 80s and introducing the idea of  flavored seltzer in a bottle to America.

Through our interview Randy, who was very generous with his time and stories, turned me on to many things from the 80s of which I had no idea.

One was Zeltzer Seltzer. Anheuser-Busch, who was negotiating with ONYS for a purchase, decided to make their own, which ultimately failed. Check out this crazy radio ad:

When I asked about Randy’s famous jump – featured in the ONYS ad below – I learned about Alphy’s Soda Pop Club. But first the ad:

Turns out the jump wasn’t filmed FOR the ad. Rather, it was done, in part, for Alphy’s Soda Pop Club, and later used for the ad. Miller was the sponsor for the Club and, having always wanted to be a stunt man, used the opportunity to do his thing. But what, you might ask, was Alphy’s Soda Pop Club?

A regular attendee, who did this great but sad interview with fellow attendee Corey Haim about it, described it this way: “Alphy’s Soda Pop Club, the one and only disco designed for kids ‘in the industry,’ enjoyed a Hollywood lifespan of three years, from 1986 to 1989. With a clientele aged 16 and under, the club guaranteed a dance floor full of the hottest teen stars as well as all the free soda you could drink. It was the ultimate teenage wonderland.”

In the interview Corey talks about holding Miller’s tiger for him during his jump and about how close they were.

Randy Miller is one of the coolest people I have ever met… I hung with Randy a lot. He was one of my best friends. I will forever love Randy.

Yes, Randy not old started a multi-million dollar beverage company that changed the face of seltzer, he also had a passion for big cats.

Again, Corey:

One time, Randy, myself, and two other people—we were in a limousine with a jaguar, and Randy passed me the leash and said, “Hold it from here, and if he gets out of line, just hit him lightly on the side of his head and say, ‘Down! Down! Down!’ Just give him the commands I’m giving you.” And then suddenly the jaguar woke up in the limo and let out a RAAAAAWWR, so the vet who was in there had to shoot him up with a little bit of a tranquilizer. I mean, you’re talking about a wild animal in a limousine! You know what I mean? Everybody could have been dead! But by the time we got out of the limo, I was holding the jaguar and everything was cool.

How do I spend more than a decade writing this book and not learn about such a fascinating piece of seltzer history until now?!!

“Treasure Coast company restores old fashioned ‘Seltzer Man'”

Florida seltzerman, Ryan Pinnell from Treasure Coast Seltzer Works, received this excellent local TV coverage. Ryan and the fascinating origins of his interest in seltzer are in my book.Treasure Coast company restores old fashioned ‘Seltzer Man’

Story by Mary Quinn O’Connor/CBS12WEST PALM BEACH (CBS12) — While soda consumption is down in America, Americans still like a little fizz in their drinks.

Ryan Pinnell from Treasure Coast Seltzer Works has what he says is the perfect compromise.

“Seltzer is water with bubbles,” said Pinnell.

No caffeine, no chemicals and no calories – unlike its counterparts tonic water and club soda.

Treasure Coast Seltzer Works is one of the only four siphoned seltzer water manufacturers in the country, with old fashioned delivery services taking many on a trip down memory lane.

“We are the old school seltzer man,” said Pinnell.

The recent resurgence in the fizzy drink has business better than ever.

For the tenth straight year, soda consumption is down.

Americans drank nearly 1.5 billion fewer cases last year than in 2004, when soda sales hit an all-time high.

In the meantime, carbonated water sales are booming

“Look at the big players, Pepsi, Canada Dry.  They are all launching sparkling products,” said Pinnell. “It’s very difficult for a large bottler to do what we do.”

The proof is in the pudding for Pinnell. Since founded in 2012, Treasure Coast Seltzer Works have seen around 40 percent growth each year.

They hand-bottle more than 1200 bottles a day.

It keeps him busy, but he says that’s not such a bad thing.

“You put so much time into something, it’s your baby,” said Pinnell.

Interviewing George Williams, an 86-year old African-American seltzerman

When I interviewed Kenny Gomberg many years ago, proprietor of Gomberg’s Seltzer Works, he told me about a former employee, George Williams, who retired in the 1970s. An African-American who moved as a boy from North Carolina, he worked in a number of seltzer works around NYC for over two decades. I was very interested in his story – both as an individual and to the extent it shed light on the African-American labor that worked behind the scenes to keep the city in seltzer.

After a number of years, I finally got to sit down with Mr. Williams this week, now 86 years old (it’s been a busy week for me and seltzer!). It was fascinating to hear the tale of how he entered the business (while competing on the boxing circuit), learned Yiddish from his new boss, and spent five years fighting to get into the Hebrew Soda Workers Union.

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Visiting Pittsburgh Seltzer Works for the 1st Time

This past week I was in Pittsburgh and meet in person, for the first, John Seekings, proprietor of the Pittsburgh Seltzer Works, whom I have been interviewing for over 4 years and whose business is the centerpiece of my book. It was thrilling to meet him for the first time and to walk the floors of the Works. John was as generous as ever – with his time and stories – and helped me to understand the Works in a new way, up-close and personal.

I took a video that I will prepare and share at a later date but, in advance, here are some photos. (View all the photos here)

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John Seekings

 

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The infamous bottles of death (which open my book and introduce the readers to John Seekings).

 

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A seltzer filling machine and the Work’s sign.

Continue reading Visiting Pittsburgh Seltzer Works for the 1st Time

The word Seltzer across time and space

As I’ve focused more on writing the book and less on this blog, my comments about the project tend to appear more often on the Facebook page dedicated to the project.
But I am playing now with Google’s Ngram viewer, that lets you search for occurrence of words to unearth hidden meanings. Let’s look at how often seltzer is seen in different countries over different times.
I use “seltzer” plus “seltzer water” plus “Seltzer Water.” I don’t use the seltzer as a proper noun, “Seltzer,” which it certainly was in the beginning, because it is not possible to distinguish from the current surname.
In English:

This now focuses just on American English, starting from its lowest year, 1854, to 2007:

Forward Article: The Next Generation of ‘the Seltzer Man’

Below is a copy of a wonderful new article by Leah Koenig in the Forward about the seltzer revival at the center of my book (the book, btw, is now in a draft manuscript form and being shopped around).

The Next Generation of ‘the Seltzer Man’
Something Big Is Bubbling From Coast to Coast

If you believe what you read in the news, the seltzer man is on the brink of extinction. Every few years, some publication will run a wistful feature on the remaining stock of old-timers, dedicated men who still ride around New York making door-to-door deliveries of carbonated water, their crates of glass siphon bottles clanging in the back of their trucks. But like the milkman and the roving knife sharpener, the glory days of seltzer delivery are all but over.
“When I started in the early 1980s, there were 22 seltzer men left in New York,” said Kenny Gomberg, co-owner, along with his brother-in-law Irv Resnick, of Gomberg Seltzer Works — the city’s last remaining seltzer filling station. “That was just a fraction of the hundreds there used to be,” he said. Today, there are just seven left.
But one of these seltzer deliverers, 25-year-old Alex Gomberg (Kenny Gomberg’s son), represents something new in the world of seltzer. Alex Gomberg is the fourth generation of Gombergs to peddle the drink once affectionately called “Jewish champagne.”
When his great-grandfather Mo Gomberg, a Russian immigrant, founded Gomberg Seltzer Works in 1953, the industry was thriving. And for decades it was buoyed by a generation of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who brought their love of seltzer with them to America, and who relied on the seltzer man to bring the bubbly water to their doorsteps.
“The only advertising you used to need was a billboard with a picture of a seltzer bottle and a phone number,” Kenny Gomberg said. “For those who know what real seltzer is, the product sells itself.” But younger consumers who know only the version sold in plastic bottles at the supermarket need more convincing.
That is why Alex Gomberg, who recently earned a master’s degree in higher education administration, decided to leave academia to usher his family’s business into a new era. Last year he pioneered Brooklyn Seltzer Boys with his father and uncle, a seltzer delivery venture they call “the newest old business around.” Instead of seeking out individual home delivery customers (“I am not looking to step on anyone’s toes by taking over the remaining market,” he said), he focuses his energies on the artisanal restaurants and bars that appreciate the difference in quality between the plastic bottles that quickly go flat once opened and the bold, bracing bite of ultra-fresh seltzer spritzed from a pressurized siphon.
Already he has secured a number of clients, including the farm-to-table restaurant Brooklyn Sandwich Society and a speakeasy-style bar called Dutch Kills in Queens. “The business was stagnating and would have continued to dwindle,” Kenny Gomberg said. “The work Alex is doing to network and bring seltzer to a new market is amazing.”
And Gomberg is not alone in his efforts to put the fizz back in seltzer delivery.
Pittsburgh is home to Pittsburgh Seltzer Works, a fading 115-year old business that was brought back to life by two men, John Seekings and Jim Rogal. Kathryn Renz, meanwhile, runs Seltzer Sisters in the San Francisco Bay Area, a company she bought in 1992 from the former owners, who had decided to fold several months earlier. Further south, an Argentine named Gustavo Leiva has delivered siphoned seltzer bottles to residents and businesses in Southern California since 2007 through his company, Soda Buenos Aires. And last year in Florida, Ryan Pinnell founded Treasure Coast Seltzer Works, which delivers to businesses and to customers’ doors. “My wife is from Eastern Europe, where seltzer is a staple,” he said. “We saw that the delivery business had died off, and decided to see if we could take it to market.”
Unlike Gomberg, none of these modern day seltzer men and women has seltzer in his or her bloodline. But they share a desire to bring the drink into the 21st century. “These are people who have had seltzer conversion experiences,” said Barry Joseph, who runs the blog and podcast Give Me Seltzer and is writing a book about the drink’s history. “Now, they are redefining what traditional seltzer production looks like.”
Joseph points to a “confluence of emerging trends and subcultures” to explain old-school seltzer’s contemporary popularity — everything from the do-it-yourself culture and the artisanal foods movement to the Internet. “Take Pittsburgh Seltzer Works,” he said. “Just like food trucks, they are using Facebook to communicate directly with customers about what is new and where to find their product. It brings that level of direct connection you would find with older mom-and-pop businesses into the modern age.”
They are also widening their customer bases beyond the Jewish community that has been, and continues to be, a seltzer stronghold. “We market seltzer as a healthy alternative to soft drinks, and our fastest-growing demographic right now is moms,” Pinnell said. Like the Brooklyn Seltzer Boys, many of these companies are also increasingly partnering with businesses. Renz said that Seltzer Sisters currently serves close to 200 California bars and restaurants between Oakland and San Francisco. “They are great and consistent clients, and we love seeing the old glass bottles used and appreciated in a setting that shows them off,” she said.
The feeling seems to be mutual. In Brooklyn, the upscale bar Tooker Alley recently started using Brooklyn Seltzer Boys seltzer in their handcrafted cocktails. “Alex brought us a case to sample, and we were hooked,” said co-owner Del Pedro, whose former roommate used to have seltzer delivered to their Harlem apartment in the 1980s. “The bubbles are so powerful, they dance on your tongue. It is far more refreshing than anything you can get out of a bottle or soda gun.”
Joseph also thinks that the rise in popularity of home carbonation systems like Soda Stream have ultimately helped the modern seltzer man more than it has hindered him. “It is all part of the same movement and helps open up people’s awareness,” he said. “One of the seltzer men I interviewed said every time Soda Stream advertises locally, he gets more calls.”
It is probably premature to claim the emergence of a full-blown “seltzer man” revolution, and yet it is clear that something exciting is bubbling. “When I started researching seltzer’s history seven years ago, most of these companies did not exist in their current form,” Joseph said. “Now, fascinating people around the country have come out of left field and put themselves front and center into the story of seltzer’s revival.”
Leah Koenig is the Forward’s food columnist, and is working on a cookbook, “Modern Jewish Cooking” (Chronicle, 2015). Email her at ingredients@forward.com

Two New Articles by me this week on Seltzer Men

Oops! I have been so busy with the book and the Facebook group, I have neglected the blog. Sorry!
Last week I had a top of the fold, front page article in the Jewish Week. That was very nice. It is an interview with Walter Backerman, seltzerman extraordinaire. As if that were not enough, there is a second piece from me interviewing Alex Gomberg, the newest and youngest seltzerman in the country. Finally, as a blast from the past, I will include a fantastic NPR seltzer piece I came across from the 70s.
Time in a Bottle: Meet Walter Backerman, the third generation in a dynasty of ‘seltzer men,’ and one of the last of a breed. [link]

21s-Century Seltzer Man: A young Brooklynite with a vintage business.[link]
Marty – the Seltzer Man – NPR, 1979