'Buy local' trend supports Pittsburgh region's soda industry

| Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

In a cola culture, tastes for different flavors and local products are enough to bring a resounding pop to a business.

Natrona Bottling , which has been around since 1904, produces 10 flavors of soda pop from its well-known Red Ribbon Cherry to a ginger beer that accounts for fully a third of its sales, according to company president Vito Gerasole.

The interest in local soda pops has a promising future, too. Jeff Catalina, owner of the Mexican restaurant Verde in Garfield, is planning a Prohibition-style site in Lawrenceville. He plans on making his own sodas for mixed drinks to fit in with a “home fresh” attitude.

Even places dedicated to beer have an interest in making root beer, as is done at the Church Brew Works, also in Lawrenceville, and Rivertowne Brewing in North Huntingdon.

The local soda-pop industry includes Pittsburgh Seltzer in Swissvale, which makes carbonated water, the heart and soul of the soft drink.

Pittsburgh's soda-pop business is not likely to knock the cap off Coca-Cola. That worldwide bottler offers 1.7 billion servings of its products daily. Compare that to 1,875 gallons a month produced by Natrona Bottling, and the 745 gallons a year flowing through the taps at East End Brewery in East Liberty.

But both of them are increasing production. Sales at East End Brewery doubled in the past year, says Brendan Benson, the head of Barmy Soda, a firm related to the brewery. An increase at Natrona Bottling is “huge,” Gerasole says.

John Seekings, co-owner of Pittsburgh Seltzer, is pleased with their sales.

“We make a whole lot, but not enough,” he says, standing next to a carbonating machine built in 1908.

“People love the local thing,” says East End's Benson.

But Natrona master-bottler Steve Vokish says taste is even more important.

“One-hundred-percent pure cane sugar makes all the difference,” he says.

Taste is the main factor, agrees Seekings, even though he makes a product that has little of its own. But, he adds, the freshness of newly carbonated water added to extracts or other flavorings creates a drink that is tastier and more refreshing.

Andrea Brichacek, who is part of the small crew at Pittsburgh Seltzer, makes a refreshing, nonsugary drink with selzer and cucumber slices in the summer.

Freshness is another reason Catalina wants to use his own drinks at Tender, which he hopes to open sometime before March.

The freshness of newly carbonated drinks makes for a “tiny-er burp,” Gerasole says.

Natrona, where Gerasole's business card proclaims him the “sultan of soda,” obviously is king of local carbonaters. Besides its history and selection of flavors, Natrona Bottling makes the only soft drink that is bottled and widely — well, sort of — distributed.

The root beer and cream sodas at Rivertowne are available at Piper's Pub in the South Side and the Pour House in Monroeville, but only on tap, says the brewery's Brian Irwin. The company probably will be canning it soon, he says.

The Church Brew Works' soft drinks are available on tap at that site, and East End Brewery offers to fill growlers with its ginger and root beers.

But bottles of Red Ribbon drinks, Natrona's main brand, are on the shelves at stores such as Village Candy in Sewickley.

Owner Doug Alpern says it is one of the steady sellers there, even amid all of the soft-drink competitors it faces.

Cherry is the most popular, he says, and it always gets a boost when Rick Sebak's “What Makes Pittsburgh Pittsburgh” is shown on WQED-TV. The filmmaker visits the small plant in that film.

Besides the Red Ribbon line of soda pop, Natrona Bottling makes Plantation Style Mint Julep and Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer labels.

The ginger beer is part of a historic line to another now-gone Pittsburgh soda pop — Tom Tucker Ginger Ale, says Mary Jane Zdila, administrative manager of Natrona Bottling. She says Tom Tucker bottler Sidney Harris brought the recipe for the drink to Natrona in 1976 after Tom Tucker closed.

The Tom Tucker name could not be used, so it became Plantation Style Mint Julep .

Even though Natrona Bottling is the area's biggest soda-pop maker, operations there resemble bottling at Pittsburgh Seltzer with its simple, old equipment. Bottles take a squirt of flavored extract, then roll to a fill of carbonated water. The bottles are capped and tumbled to mix the ingredients.

The biggest test sometimes, Zdila and Vokish say, is finding enough bottles to feed a bottling session.

And, the old equipment can resemble an aging person, developing mysterious ailments. Pittsburgh Seltzer's Seekings says the bottler at one time was not filling properly — until they discovered a worn washer. Of course, the company that made the machine was long gone, sending Seekings on a washer search.

He found a boxful at a local hardware store. He bought them all.

Natrona's Gerasole realizes he and other local soda-pop makers are not going to rival to giants of the market. But he says he has been trying to market their drinks as local and somewhat historic.

He thinks producing the variety the company does helps. For instance, he says, Plantation Mint Julep is a definite summer drink. He hopes his other drinks fit other such desires.

“It's all about what you want when you want it,” he says.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

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