Natrona 'pop shop' is last of the glass acts
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Paul Bowser is one of the people who can remember a time before Coke vs. Pepsi.Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette photos
Above, translucent green bottles from Glenshaw Glass move past the bottle inspection light on their way to be filled with Plantation-Style Mint Julip soda at Paul Bowser's Natrona Bottling Co. in Natrona.
Click photo for larger image.
He lived in that time, in the 1930s and '40s and '50s, when even small towns likely had their own "pop shop," or bottling works, which bottled -- in glass -- their own lines of soda pops.
In this region alone, he'll tell you, there were lots of local brands, such as West Park in McKees Rocks and Lenape in Ford City, as well as local bottlers of widely known brands: Tom Tucker in Pittsburgh; Mission in Wilmerding; Virginia Dare in New Kensington.
Now, Mr. Bowser's Natrona Bottling Co. -- in Natrona in northern Allegheny County -- is the last in the region putting its own sodas in glass bottles.
"There was almost 100 like me," says Mr. Bowser as he draws a map in the air running from Harrisburg to Cleveland, Erie to Morgantown. "Now there's one -- me." There are other small operations, such as Paul's Beverages in New Castle, Lawrence County, but it uses plastic bottles, something that Mr. Bowser would never do.
"We're one of the last of the Mohicans," he says with a grin.
His brother, John, founded the company when he bought the Natrona Bottle Works (started in 1904) in 1939. It wasn't long before they needed to expand and moved to the current warehouse -- a former Nash auto agency -- on River Avenue, on the Allegheny River.
John Bowser died in 1976, but Paul Bowser has continued to run the place pretty much the same as always.
The sign that marks the front of the place reads Frostie, for the root beer it once contract-bottled. But Natrona's flagship brand continues to be Red Ribbon, under which it bottles a root beer and a brilliant red Cherry Supreme soda.
No longer does the company make the Red Ribbon Chocolate milk drink that also used to be a regional favorite.
But it continues to sell Plantation Style Mint Julep, which was created by Tom Tucker founder Sidney Harris, who worked with Mr. Bowser before he died in 2003. Natrona also still makes the non-alcoholic "Champayno" that Mr. Harris invented.
The warehouse looks like it's stuck in time, what with wood "Drink Red Ribbon" soda cases stacked against one wall, and old brass fire extinguishers hanging along the bottling line.Art Lingenfelter packages just-labeled bottles.
Click photo for larger image.Paul Bowser: "We're one of the last Mohicans."
Click photo for larger image.
A yellowed map on the wall in Mr. Bowser's office sports 13 thumbtacks representing markets where one can buy Natrona sodas. In addition to Pittsburgh and the nearby markets of Washington, D.C. and Youngstown, there are distant ones in Florida (where Champayno is popular in some strip clubs).
The thumbtack in Los Angeles represents Galco's Soda Pop Stop (www.sodapopstop.com), a huge business that specializes in what are now called "boutique" brands from firms such as Natrona Bottling. For that place -- run by John Nese, whose parents moved to L.A. from Punxsutawney -- Natrona Bottling makes a non-carbonated throwback grape drink called "Pennsylvania Punch" as well as an extra-"hot hot hot" drink, "Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer," which is especially popular with Hispanics. Both are also available here.
"These are all oddball things," says Mr. Bowser. The ginger beer "is really gingered up. The average guy drinks this and he shies away." Natrona root beer, too, is stronger than most these days. That's his favorite flavor.
Natrona Bottling, along with other small operations, has benefitted in the past few years by a resurgence of interest in what some call "microcrafted" sodas. Mr. Nese carries 500 different ones -- all in glass -- and says customers love Natrona's mint julep and cherry sodas. He's encouraging Mr. Bowser, whom he considers a treasure, to develop other not-typical flavors, including chocolate.
"Hey," Mr. Bowser growls, "people are getting tired of Coke and Pepsi. It's the same thing."
He continues, "It's nostalgia. Baby boomers want what they had when they were growing up."
Some people also are avoiding the high-fructose corn syrup used in mainstream brands. Mr. Bowser proudly uses cane sugar, as well as municipal water that is filtered multiple times. He notes that Natrona still carbonates using dry ice, rather than pumping in carbon dioxide gas. He claims you can taste a difference.
Rick Sebak did. The popular WQED-TV producer and personality discovered Cherry Supreme in 2005 and last spring shined the spotlight on Natrona Bottling in "What Makes Pittsburgh Pittsburgh?"
As long as Natrona Bottling has been around, Mr. Sebak had never heard of it, which doesn't surprise Mr. Bowser. "Nobody knows that we're here."
Being on TV has changed that some. Every time the special airs, as it did this past Sunday, the little company gets hit with phone calls and e-mails.
Yes, e-mails. A few years ago, Mr. Bowser (who tells most who ask that he's holding steady at 79 and he's not going anywhere) hired an administrative assistant, Mary Jane Zdila. She's the only other full-time worker besides one 31-year employee on the bottling line. When enough orders come in, they add a part-time worker or two.
Ms. Zdila launched and has updated the company's Web site and helps design new products and labels. They taste and look like vintage ones, because that's what people want.
Some of their products are available in Giant Eagle supermarkets in the region, as well as specialty stores. The company still delivers to a few "mom-and-pop" accounts. Other fans come to Natrona to buy by the case -- and soon will be able to order by mail -- a sweet taste that's not so common any more.
Brent Barber, an Indiana high school audio-visual director, tracks on his Web site www.glassbottlesoda.org what he says is a growing list of 79 bottlers in 29 states. In addition to Natrona, he lists a half dozen in Pennsylvania, all out east. He started this two years ago, seeking "pop" as he calls it for his vintage pop machine. He says, "Soda pop in glass bottles seems to be coming back," though he periodically adds defunct bottlers to his site's "RIP Page."
Mr. Nese says, "In the last two or three years, we've probably lost more little bottlers than we gained." But he says one just opened in Washington state, and one is soon to open in Texas.
Mr. Barber and Mr. Nese concur that soda tastes better when it's made with sugar and packaged in glass, which holds carbonation much longer.
Glass makes all difference, says Ms. Zdila, as she listens to the sound of the bottling line in the back at Natrona Bottling. She says the 12-ounce bottles make a sound different from the 750-milliliter Champayno ones, which are different from the little 187-milliliter ones.
"It's music," she says with a smile, listening to them clink, clink, clink, clink, clink.
Natrona Bottling Co., at 91 River Ave. in Natrona, can be reached at 724-224-9224 (www.natronabottlingcompany.com).
First Published May 16, 2007 5:15 pm