July 18, 2013
1st Draft of the Book Complete
Last week for the first time I put the book together, end to end, to learn it is 250 pages. I like that. Feels just right - not to long and not to short. And now I have a draft of a manuscript I can shop around, currently title: Spritz - the Effervescent Story of Seltzer. More to follow...
July 17, 2013
Forward Article: The Next Generation of 'the Seltzer Man'
Below is a copy of a wonderful new article by Leah Koenig in the Forward about the seltzer revival at the center of my book (the book, btw, is now in a draft manuscript form and being shopped around).
The Next Generation of 'the Seltzer Man'
Something Big Is Bubbling From Coast to Coast
If you believe what you read in the news, the seltzer man is on the brink of extinction. Every few years, some publication will run a wistful feature on the remaining stock of old-timers, dedicated men who still ride around New York making door-to-door deliveries of carbonated water, their crates of glass siphon bottles clanging in the back of their trucks. But like the milkman and the roving knife sharpener, the glory days of seltzer delivery are all but over.
“When I started in the early 1980s, there were 22 seltzer men left in New York,” said Kenny Gomberg, co-owner, along with his brother-in-law Irv Resnick, of Gomberg Seltzer Works — the city’s last remaining seltzer filling station. “That was just a fraction of the hundreds there used to be,” he said. Today, there are just seven left.
But one of these seltzer deliverers, 25-year-old Alex Gomberg (Kenny Gomberg’s son), represents something new in the world of seltzer. Alex Gomberg is the fourth generation of Gombergs to peddle the drink once affectionately called “Jewish champagne.”
When his great-grandfather Mo Gomberg, a Russian immigrant, founded Gomberg Seltzer Works in 1953, the industry was thriving. And for decades it was buoyed by a generation of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who brought their love of seltzer with them to America, and who relied on the seltzer man to bring the bubbly water to their doorsteps.
“The only advertising you used to need was a billboard with a picture of a seltzer bottle and a phone number,” Kenny Gomberg said. “For those who know what real seltzer is, the product sells itself.” But younger consumers who know only the version sold in plastic bottles at the supermarket need more convincing.
That is why Alex Gomberg, who recently earned a master’s degree in higher education administration, decided to leave academia to usher his family’s business into a new era. Last year he pioneered Brooklyn Seltzer Boys with his father and uncle, a seltzer delivery venture they call “the newest old business around.” Instead of seeking out individual home delivery customers (“I am not looking to step on anyone’s toes by taking over the remaining market,” he said), he focuses his energies on the artisanal restaurants and bars that appreciate the difference in quality between the plastic bottles that quickly go flat once opened and the bold, bracing bite of ultra-fresh seltzer spritzed from a pressurized siphon.
Already he has secured a number of clients, including the farm-to-table restaurant Brooklyn Sandwich Society and a speakeasy-style bar called Dutch Kills in Queens. “The business was stagnating and would have continued to dwindle,” Kenny Gomberg said. “The work Alex is doing to network and bring seltzer to a new market is amazing.”
And Gomberg is not alone in his efforts to put the fizz back in seltzer delivery.
Pittsburgh is home to Pittsburgh Seltzer Works, a fading 115-year old business that was brought back to life by two men, John Seekings and Jim Rogal. Kathryn Renz, meanwhile, runs Seltzer Sisters in the San Francisco Bay Area, a company she bought in 1992 from the former owners, who had decided to fold several months earlier. Further south, an Argentine named Gustavo Leiva has delivered siphoned seltzer bottles to residents and businesses in Southern California since 2007 through his company, Soda Buenos Aires. And last year in Florida, Ryan Pinnell founded Treasure Coast Seltzer Works, which delivers to businesses and to customers’ doors. “My wife is from Eastern Europe, where seltzer is a staple,” he said. “We saw that the delivery business had died off, and decided to see if we could take it to market.”
Unlike Gomberg, none of these modern day seltzer men and women has seltzer in his or her bloodline. But they share a desire to bring the drink into the 21st century. “These are people who have had seltzer conversion experiences,” said Barry Joseph, who runs the blog and podcast Give Me Seltzer and is writing a book about the drink’s history. “Now, they are redefining what traditional seltzer production looks like.”
Joseph points to a “confluence of emerging trends and subcultures” to explain old-school seltzer’s contemporary popularity — everything from the do-it-yourself culture and the artisanal foods movement to the Internet. “Take Pittsburgh Seltzer Works,” he said. “Just like food trucks, they are using Facebook to communicate directly with customers about what is new and where to find their product. It brings that level of direct connection you would find with older mom-and-pop businesses into the modern age.”
They are also widening their customer bases beyond the Jewish community that has been, and continues to be, a seltzer stronghold. “We market seltzer as a healthy alternative to soft drinks, and our fastest-growing demographic right now is moms,” Pinnell said. Like the Brooklyn Seltzer Boys, many of these companies are also increasingly partnering with businesses. Renz said that Seltzer Sisters currently serves close to 200 California bars and restaurants between Oakland and San Francisco. “They are great and consistent clients, and we love seeing the old glass bottles used and appreciated in a setting that shows them off,” she said.
The feeling seems to be mutual. In Brooklyn, the upscale bar Tooker Alley recently started using Brooklyn Seltzer Boys seltzer in their handcrafted cocktails. “Alex brought us a case to sample, and we were hooked,” said co-owner Del Pedro, whose former roommate used to have seltzer delivered to their Harlem apartment in the 1980s. “The bubbles are so powerful, they dance on your tongue. It is far more refreshing than anything you can get out of a bottle or soda gun.”
Joseph also thinks that the rise in popularity of home carbonation systems like Soda Stream have ultimately helped the modern seltzer man more than it has hindered him. “It is all part of the same movement and helps open up people’s awareness,” he said. “One of the seltzer men I interviewed said every time Soda Stream advertises locally, he gets more calls.”
It is probably premature to claim the emergence of a full-blown “seltzer man” revolution, and yet it is clear that something exciting is bubbling. “When I started researching seltzer’s history seven years ago, most of these companies did not exist in their current form,” Joseph said. “Now, fascinating people around the country have come out of left field and put themselves front and center into the story of seltzer’s revival.”
Leah Koenig is the Forward’s food columnist, and is working on a cookbook, “Modern Jewish Cooking” (Chronicle, 2015). Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
March 28, 2013
Latest New York Post article on Seltzer, quoting me
Last January I published a piece on Alex Gomberg. Now, larger news outlets are beginning to take notice:
Prince of Pop
A 25-year-old is bringing the fizz back to the seltzer business
By DOREE LEWAK
Posted: 11:01 PM, March 23, 2013
From the shtetl-icious beverage staple of the old country, to ’60s dime-store pharmacy mainstay, seltzer has been part of the American carbonated beverage landscape for centuries. And it mounted a mean comeback 30 years ago, when Perrier conferred cool status on buying overpriced bottled water.
Even Bruce Willis and James Gandolfini caught the last seltzer wave in the early ’80s. The actors-in-the-making delivered the fizzy stuff while trying to make it big in New York.
After running out of fizz over the past decade or so, seltzer is being given new life by a new company, the Brooklyn Seltzer Boys.
Launched by Alex Gomberg, 25, in September, the BSB is a delivery service that’s equal parts throwback and painfully hipster, making Gomberg the hot new whippersnapper on the seltzer delivery circuit. Make that the only whippersnapper on the circuit and, easily, the youngest seltzer man in the country — there are only a handful left.
January 12, 2013
Two New Articles by me this week on Seltzer Men
Oops! I have been so busy with the book and the Facebook group, I have neglected the blog. Sorry!
Last week I had a top of the fold, front page article in the Jewish Week. That was very nice. It is an interview with Walter Backerman, seltzerman extraordinaire. As if that were not enough, there is a second piece from me interviewing Alex Gomberg, the newest and youngest seltzerman in the country. Finally, as a blast from the past, I will include a fantastic NPR seltzer piece I came across from the 70s.
Time in a Bottle: Meet Walter Backerman, the third generation in a dynasty of ‘seltzer men,’ and one of the last of a breed. [link]
21s-Century Seltzer Man: A young Brooklynite with a vintage business.[link]
Marty – the Seltzer Man - NPR, 1979
October 03, 2012
More on Walter Backerman - BBC and NHK
Walter has been sending me great material documenting his work, as he is a media hound and a lightening rod for anyone interested in the topic.
Here is a radio piece on the BBC from last March. Start at 18:30.
From July 5- July 10, 2007, a Japanese TV crew followed Walter for a piece that ran on July 28, 2007. Walter, who gave me this video and asked me to share it online, says it was viewed by 10 million people.
"The Route is the Route" - A Day with Walter Backerman, Seltzerman Supreme
Yesterday, after waiting for many years, I finally had the incredible opportunity to spend the day alongside Walter Backerman, who runs the nearly 100 year-old route. He was tremendously generous with both his time and opinions.
I have HOURS of interview now to transcribe but, in the meantime, below are some photos and video from the day:
Some photos from the day.
A video of a delivery.
A video of his bottle collection.
September 21, 2012
Hungarian Siphon Fountain/Monument
My Hungarian contact, Kiss Imre, sent me this fanastic photo today. He wrote: "How do you like this fountain from GYŐR, the town where our ÁNYOS JEDLIK invented his soda making technology?" According to Wikipedia, he was a Hungarian inventor, engineer, physicist, and Benedictine priest. He is considered by Hungarians and Slovaks to be the unsung father of the dynamo and electric motor.
But, in any case, isn't this just so cool! It looks like it is made of a thick glass, the color of the average green seltzer siphon.
I received this email from a reader in Minnesota who was interested in figuring out why everything came with such different names:
about canada dry seltzer - they now call it canada dry sparkling seltzer water. at least they do here in minnesota. since sparkling water and seltzer water are different (i thought) it is confusing. what is canada dry seltzer called in NYC?? I grew up in Brooklyn and had seltzer delivery via H. Myerowitz. my recall is that the seltzer man disappeared along with the milk man about 1969. I understand seltzer delivery with glass siphon bottles is making a comeback. Here in the minneapolis area, it has been a struggle getting seltzer tho you can find just about any carbonated water from run of the mill club soda to sparkling water to european import mineral waters. Finally a local supermrket started carerying Boylan seltzer. Then a local supermarket chain started carrying a house brand seltzer. Canada Dry sparkling seltzer water is available flavored only. and again, the sparkling and seltzer refs confuse me. I also know of Schweppes and Polar seltzer brands but not out here. real seltzer has a crisper taste-- no sodium-- and a different carbonation. thank you
August 13, 2012
Images from "Soda water, a cult drink in Hungary"
I previously wrote about discovering the Hungarian seltzer museum, and associated book. Below I will share some of my favorite images from the book and associated captions or descriptions.
Austrian Postcard from end of the 19th century
One of many examples of unusual siphon heads, the "soul of the siphon"
"Syphon-head beaks in the shape of eagle of snake he [sic] are exciting and interesting particularly if we know: they were developed to prevent that the consumer could not put the bottle into his mouth, and abandoned women could not use them for other purposes."
August 12, 2012
Seltzer in Hungary - A "Hungarian Cult Drink"
I am always amazed to discover anything new about seltzer - and each month I am surprised. Last month my surprise regarded a seltzer museum in Hungary, perhaps the world's only seltzer museum.
Here is some information I obtain by emailing someone who had posed these fantastic 360 degree photos of the exhibit:
Hi, I am sending the informations and the pictures of the Soda Museum of Szeged. The Soda Museum of Szeged One attraction of the water tower (called Old Lady) of the Saint Stephen square in Szeged is the Water Museum placed on the ground floor in the tower. István Bánffi collected its pieces. In the permanent exhibition the audience can get to know the story of the soda, from Ányos Jedlik’s invention to novadays.
István Bánffi’s father – who was a sodamaker, either – kept the ornamental soda bottles, and he started to collect the relics in planned form approximately 15 years ago. In the exibithion, there are 1200 soda bottles and 30 kind of sodamaking machines, just the most beautiful ones. There are also commercials, plaquets, postcards and specifications of soda water making.
I later learned that this was a traveling exhibit that, after touring the country, found a home in Szeged.
Soon after a book was published based on the collection - "Soda water, a cult drink in Hungary" - which was mailed to be by it's gracious author Imre Kiss.
When I got home today I found waiting for me a package with this postage attached:
Written in Hungarian alongside an English translation, with many photos, it is just fantastic. I am only a few pages in, but here are a few details:
"Dear Readers, when reading this book, please, think of the colleagues of ours who were purposed to supply the buyers with soda water by working hard on icy or sultry days, be it winter or summer time, who survived two works wars, economic crises, revolutions, the horrible time of nationalism and the years of socialism."
"Soda water symbolizes sparkling life, activity and dynamic force and there, deep in our minds, it works like a volcano to erupt, and that is why we like this drink. Knowing the maxim that says 'we get identical to what we eat,' we come to love it easily because we ourselves want to be something like that."