Pittsburgh Seltzer Works fizzes away after 120 years in business

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Sunday may have marked the end of the fizz biz represented by the Pittsburgh Seltzer Works for the last 120 years.

The Homestead-based business made its weekly delivery of antique bottles, pressure-filled with bubbly water, to many of the 120 households and several coffee shops and restaurants on its regular customer list. It has informed them, however, those shipments are the last ones to count on.

"We hope to be able to resume delivery service soon under a new owner -- we will let you know," says the phone recording of the operation, which is based on the lower level of a cavernous East Ninth Street warehouse.

Unlike the carbonated water, news of the suspension did not go down well. Customers have been paying $1.50 per bottle, plus a delivery charge, for something they viewed as special. Now, after decades of reliable supply, Pittsburgh Seltzer Works water is gone as suddenly as a burp.

"It just has such a pure and clean flavor that I thought tasted better than any bottled water from Italy ... plus I love the cool bottles," said Trevett Hooper, co-owner of Legume restaurant in Regent Square. He is disappointed the seltzer will disappear from his beverage menu.

Partners Evan Hirsh, David Faigen and Paul Supowitz operated Pittsburgh Seltzer Works as a sideline since acquiring it for $30,000 in 1997, according to Mr. Hirsh. He said they were enchanted by the old equipment and simple technology of creating such a pure, classic product.

With no employees, the trio of longtime friends would meet for a couple of hours on weekends to handle the bottling, and they'd take turns delivering on weekends, primarily in the city's East End.

No one else in the Pittsburgh area creates seltzer the old-fashioned way, in glass bottles with nozzle tops, and Mr. Hirsh said just a few small companies still do so elsewhere. But unlike so many other stories about the passing of quaint industries, Mr. Hirsh said the villain in this story is not the economic downturn or even big manufacturers, but merely time.

The three Allderdice High School graduates are family men with teenagers, plus regular jobs to handle that provide real income. Mr. Supowitz is the University of Pittsburgh's vice chancellor for governmental relations, and the others own their own businesses.

"We do it as a hobby, and it's to a point now where other sectors of our lives have taken over," said Mr. Hirsh, 46.

The costs of running the seltzer company are minimal, he said, from using tap water, recycling of bottles, maintaining old equipment and doing the labor themselves. To avoid taking on more work than they wanted, the partners actually quit returning phone calls from potential customers in recent years. But they hope someone more ambitious, with more time, might approach it differently.

"It's a funny business, where the profits are marginal, but they exist," Mr. Hirsh said. "We would love to see someone take it over."

He said the company has several thousand glass bottles in different sizes, some about a century old, bearing names of companies long extinct. Those and additional plastic bottles used by Pittsburgh Seltzer Works are filled with newly chilled and filtered tap water that has been injected with carbon dioxide. The automated equipment used for the bottling dates to 1915.

When the bottles are delivered to customers, the old empties are collected, cleaned and re-used. That's part of the attraction, said Legume's Mr. Hooper.

"When you're serving a customer, it's such a beautiful thing, holding a bottle that's been around so long," he said. "Contrast that with a bottle of San Pellegrino used once, that ends up in a landfill."

The glass bottles themselves are probably worth an average of $10 each, Mr. Hirsh said. He said the partners are not looking to get rich from selling to anyone who might be interested in taking the business over. A note delivered to customers with Sunday's final deliveries said the partners would be happy to provide the space for the operation rent-free for six months and receive payment for just the cost of bottles and equipment.

One patron of Pittsburgh Seltzer Works for the past two decades, Peter Machamer of Oakland, who also is a wine connoisseur, is hoping someone is up to the task. He used the pressure-packed bottles for summertime "seltzer fights" with children and grandchildren, but also enjoyed the more elegant side.

"It was a wonderful kind of luxury that wasn't very expensive, and you could pretend like you were in an English novel," he said. "I will miss them."

Those interested in more information may contact Mr. Hirsh at 412-287-8798.

Gary Rotstein can be reached at grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.


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