Category Archives: Seltzer Means Business

Hosting My Own Seltzer Tasting Party (compliments of Spindrift)

Last week, after my brief but illustrious appearance on NPR’s All Things Considered, I found a lovely message waiting for me on Twitter:

Twitter message

Now, if anyone knows me, they know my seltzer flavor of choice is… none. I make my own, with my old trusty Sodastream, and drink it straight.

On the other hand, who am I to turn down a free offer of seltzer? A few days later, this is the package I opened with my family:

That’s right – seven different flavors in 36 cans. Thank you Sprindrift! There was only one way I could imagine sampling them all – hosting a seltzer tasting party (for my family).

So here’s what we did. I made four columns of 4 Dixie cups each, with the number of their column written on each cup. Then I filled all the cups in a column with the same seltzer. Then I placed the cans in a row at the top (but NOT next to the same flavor).

Then, each member of my family took one cup from each column and, on a piece of paper, recording the number of the cup, their guess of the flavor, and their vote of how much they liked it (1 the worse, 7 the most).

After we each had tasted one from each column, and filled out our sheet, we went from cups 1 to 7, as a group, sharing our flavor guesses and our preferences. (My two favorite flavors I guessed to be Grapefruit followed by Cucumber; and I hated Lemon and Orange Mango).

Then I revealed, one at a time, what the correct flavor was for each cup. Anyone who guessed a flavor received a point. (That was when learned the one I labelled Orange Mango was the Grapefruit, and visa-versa, which meant my favorite one was ACTUALLY Orange Mango after all).

Then I tallied the votes to see which ones we like the most.

As a family, our two favorite are Orange Mango and Lemon. Our two least favorites were Cucumber and Grapefruit.

Personally, however, we had our differences. My son enjoyed the Strawberry, my wife the Blackberry, and I, alone, the Cucumber (which reminds me of the ice cold water in hotel lobbies).

My first choice is still a plain seltzer, but I appreciated Spindrift sending over the cases and now know where to turn next time I am feeling nostalgic for a hotel lobby.

The Word Behind fnnch’s 9 Cans of LaCroix Paintings

If you haven’t heard, there’s a new exhibit, by a San Francisco street artist who goes by the name fnnch, dedicated to paintings, ala Warhol, of cans of LaCroix seltzer.

I CAN’t even. #fnnch #stencil #layers #greycocktails #fridaywiththeboys #andamiyra #nofilter

A post shared by James P-N (@jamespn) on

I wanted to share fnnch’s recent e-newsletter describing the thinking behind the project.

I half-jokingly refer to these LaCroix paintings as “soup cans for Millennials”. The paintings pay homage to the Warhol works in a few ways, being both the same size (16″ x 20″) and having roughly the same perspective on the cans. There’s a quote from Japanese poet Matsuo Basho that goes “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.” I believe that I’m exploring some of the same cultural and aesthetic territories as Warhol did with his soup cans.

There’s a wonderful quote from Warhol that I’m going to paste here in its entirety:

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.

There’s something special going on with LaCroix right now. It’s definitely part of the cultural zeitgeist. I believe that its rise can be credited in large part to the fall of sugar sweetened beverages like Coke, a trend I wholeheartedly support. The billionaires of Silicon Valley do not drink Coke. Movie stars do not drink Coke. But they do drink LaCroix. And you can too. There’s something wonderful about that.

The LaCroix cans were originally conceived in collaboration with a collector looking for an installation in his dining room. When I painted the 9 cans, I knew I had to show them to people, and he graciously permitted me to remove them from the house and display them at The SUB. What is for sale, which for simplicity I put on my website, are further paintings from the series. I am offering a limited edition of 5 paintings for each of the flavors except Pamplemousse, which is from an edition of 20. Each of these will have a unique white-on-white background.

fnnch has certainly put a finger on the cultural zeitgeist of the moment.

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.

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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: