Brianna Snyder interviewed me for a fun article on seltzer in the Hartford Advocate.
Full article below the fold:
On her blog, “Jeannie’s Obsessions,” you’ll find a June 2009 post giddily titled “Seltzer!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Jeannie writes, “I love Seltzer Water!!!! … Sometimes I’m thirsty and I don’t want water and I don’t want soda but I want a little bit of carbonation.
“I’ve loved carbonation ever since I realized how much it helped my stomach on car rides.”
“As I have mentioned before I am very prone to motion sickness.”
Jeannie’s in good company. A lot of seltzer drinkers are diehard for the beverage, which is literally nothing more than water and carbon dioxide. And it’s showing up in more and more places – Perrier comes in little plastic bottles you can get at some gas stations (Perrier! In gas stations!); local restaurants are installing seltzer/mineral-water-filtration systems; the lead singer of the indie-rock band Grizzly Bear, in a New York Times profile last spring, spoke to the interviewer while sipping some “homemade seltzer”; also, there’s a Burger King I’m not going to tell you the location of that’ll give you seltzer for free, because they don’t know (yet) that they can charge you for it. They think it’s like regular water. But boy are they wrong.
Over in Queens, N.Y., Barry Joseph’s been working on a book about seltzer for a few years, “on and off,” he told me in a phone interview. His blog, givemeseltzer.com, is a way for Joseph to promote himself and solicit ideas and input from other seltzer fans. On his site there are SeltzerCast podcasts, reader-submitted seltzer stories, seltzer history, a seltzer song sung by a guitar-playing chick, and updates on the progress of Joseph’s seltzer book, which he says is the “first definitive history of seltzer.”
It’s a challenging book to write.
“It’s kinda hard to put together a narrative [for soda water],” he said. “How do you take something that’s so long been a side character and make it a star? It’s CO2 and water. It’s really nothing.”
What Joseph is researching for his book is the cultural history of soda water and how it’s changed and evolved since it was first bottled and sold in 1728. This was in the Teunus region, northeast of Frankfurt, in a town called Niederselters (“selters” is a derivation of “seltrisa,” which means “salty water” – yadda yadda, now it’s “seltzer”). The water beneath Niederselters, according to Joseph, was famous throughout Europe for its natural carbonation. The town industrialized around the spring, making the bottling and selling of the water a massively profitable business. It was believed that seltzer was a medicinal aid that could help to cure anything from the flu to tuberculosis. But springs don’t last forever.
So in 1772, Joseph Priestley, who’s most widely known for discovering oxygen, published a pamphlet titled Directions for Impregnating Water with Fixed Air. Dude thought seltzer cured scurvy (nope.) and distributed his pregnant-water pamphlet to sailors so they could make their own soda water while at sea.
Around the turn of the 20th century, seltzer water was brought to America and popularized in the cities, particularly in the Northeast. It was especially prevalent in the Jewish community, many of whom had settled in the Lower East Side. Here you could find a seltzer bottle on every dinner table.
“[Seltzer]’s elemental,” said Joseph. “That’s the story. That’s what’s interesting: its cultural history and how people gave it meaning.”
Joseph, who is Jewish, is studying this particular aspect of seltzer culture – its role in the Jewish community. Seltzer is kosher. It helps to break many kosher foods down. Matzo, for instance, can often be dense or chewy, and seltzer is a prescribed remedy for this Passover problem. It’s used in lots of Jewish recipes, in fact — maybe most famously in egg creams, which are made with chocolate milk and seltzer. And many Jews also worked in seltzer factories.
The Jewish Daily Forward newspaper has a “100 Years Ago” feature, where they take excerpts from their archives and translate them from Yiddish to English. In July 2009’s “100 Years Ago,” the July 1909 Forward excerpt reads:
“Seltzer is far and away the most popular drink on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. … But most seltzer drinkers are not familiar with the dangerous realities of working in a seltzer factory. Accidents are daily occurrences, and workers come home with bandaged heads, sliced-up hands and missing eyeballs. The pace in these factories is so fast that the workers don’t have time to check the quality of the bottles. This means that if there is even a hairline crack in the glass, it could easily explode, leaving workers with gashes on their hands and heads, or shards of glass in their eyes. It is known that in the uptown shops, where most of the workers are Christian, the employees are provided with protective masks and gloves. But here, downtown, where the workers are Jews, no protection is available and there are injuries every day.” The Yiddish Soda Bottlers Association had a slogan, Joseph said. “Don’t drink the bloody seltzer.”
Seltzer injuries definitely still happen – practically every DIY seltzer-making Web site strongly cautions against the use of glass bottles – and Joseph said, “I get e-mail from people all the time saying, ‘I lost my eye in the ’60s.’ These people who are delivering bottles, they lose hands and everything.” And the CO2 tanks people get to make seltzer (and, more often the case, beer) explode. Kind of a lot. I saw videos of it on YouTube.
Thankfully, there are far fewer dangers in seltzer manufacturing these days. You can find mini-seltzer-making machines that sit on your counter and won’t hurt you any more than your toaster might. And restaurants like West Hartford’s Max Burger and Glastonbury’s Max Fish, both owned by the Max Restaurant Group, are installing bad-ass filtration/carbonation systems that are easy to use and, one more seltzer-water bonus, “green.” There’s no plastic waste.
“We made an effort to be as green as possible,” said Rich Rosenthal, who’s a co-owner of Max Restaurant Group. “We’re trying to eliminate the use of bottled waters, figuring there’s a frivolous use of a carbon footprint.”
The system at the Max restaurants is made by a Massachusetts company called AquaHealth, which installs the systems in hotels, restaurants, casinos and universities. Craig Hundertmark, a controller for the company, told me AquaHealth’s doing very well this year. And they’re working on a new system that’ll add carbonation to Gatorade or to green tea or to vitamin water.
“It’s all about hydration,” Hundertmark said.
The argument can certainly be made that seltzer’s on the rise, that it’s trendy. It’s been suggested a few times already, and Joseph admitted it is seeming to get a little more attention.
“I know of more seltzer articles,” he said. “Maybe there has been an upswing, but I’m looking from a cultural perspective. You don’t see James Bond holding a seltzer. What it means to people and how it’s defined and everything, that will change.”
Joseph has his own seltzer maker at home, of course. And he said if he had to invest in one brand of the canned stuff, it’d probably be Vintage.(He’s right. Vintage is awesomely supercarbonated.) But nothing, he said, beats a homemade seltzer.
It sounds like it’s well worth the investment. Jeannie knows what I’m talking about. She writes in her blog: “I think one day I would like to invest in a Seltzer Maker so that I will never have to drink regular water ever again!”
A Bubble By Any Other Name
Seltzer Controversy: This one time I ordered a club soda from a restaurant and the waitress said “Where you from?” She said that people “around here” don’t call seltzer water “club soda.” Many would disagree, but not exactly about regional vernacular. More likely they’d debate the differences between club soda, seltzer, soda water, sparkling water and, if you can believe it, tonic. Here’s a breakdown of the different ingredients in all of the above:
Club soda: water and carbon dioxide
Seltzer: water and carbon dioxide
Soda water: water and carbon dioxide
Sparkling water: water and carbon dioxide
Tonic: water, quinine and carbon dioxide
Now, while, fundamentally, all of that is true, there are some makers of seltzer that add sodium or minerals to their water. There are also brands that sell flavored seltzer water. But, across the board, all those terms for fizzy water (or CO2+H2O) are synonymous — except for tonic, which, if you’ve never drunk plain, burns and tastes like aspirin. And it’s true that different brands of soda water vary in bubbly-ness. Some have higher concentrations of carbonation (like Vintage) and some have lower (like Perrier). And sparkling water is also commonly confused with mineral water by people reasonably assuming the two are the same. The “finer” brands of sparkling water, San Pellegrino and Perrier and the AquaHealth filtration machines at Max’s, add minerals and carbonation to their water. Something about minerals really seems to make seltzer all hoity-toity. But despite all these differences in the way that soda water is made and marketed, the language remains kind of broad and ambiguous, which is nice. We love choices.
Wanna get some seltzer delivered to your house?! You can do it! Avery’s Beverages in New Britain does seltzer home-delivery (they also deliver other sodas, too) and it comes in the siphon bottles and everything! Super fizzed-out, fresh, local and vintage. Avery’s Beverages, 520 Corbin Ave., New Britain, (860) 224-0830. Also, Hosmer Mountain Soda, located in a few places in the area, has a big seltzer following too, according to Kacee Potter, who works in the Manchester store. They’ve got a big list of flavors and — get this — they have regular seltzers and tonics and sodas and then they also have something they call ’round the shop “Kicked-Up Seltzer,” which is soda water with three times the carbonation of regular soda. If you’re really into CO2, go to Hosmer and ask for the seltzer in the long-neck bottles. Potter said the water’s so fizzy they have to use thicker-than-usual glass bottles. Regular glass can’t contain the power of the Kicked-Up carbonation. O.M.G.