A Sparkling Local Tradition

You can celebrate all year long with old-fashioned bubbles from Pittsburgh Seltzer Works.

I love bubbly water. I’ve never really understood buying those plastic bottles of plain old water because there was nothing special about the contents. No pizzazz. No bubbles. No effervescent sensation dancing on my tongue and down the old esophagus.

But carbonated H2O makes sense. It’s special. Bubbly water doesn’t come out of your faucet. And although I had heard about Pittsburgh Seltzer years ago from Sam Edelmann, who wrote restaurant reviews for this magazine and who owned and ran the Pittsburgh Seltzer Works for almost two decades, I never tasted any of his wares back then. In 1997, Sam sold the company to three young men who went to Allderdice High School together, and they ran it till this past spring, when they decided to sell what the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called “the fizz biz.”

You can imagine my delight when I heard that two old friends from WQED in the 1990s, John Seekings and Jim Rogal, were considering investing in the bubbly enterprise. John and Jim have been working together in “communication consulting” for nearly a decade, with offices in the Terminal Buildings on the South Side. Who knew they would consider a seltzer company?

They met the owners, saw the old equipment, marveled at the amazing collection of vintage siphon bottles and started to learn about how to produce the product, to make the deliveries and to keep this production in Western Pennsylvania. This past Sept. 2, John and Jim bought the business. And so I got to try the stuff. Cue the Don Ho.

Our city’s seltzer has good, small bubbles. It’s just ordinary local water with carbonation added, but it’s still injected into vintage 26-ounce glass bottles with ingenious, metal nozzle tops that don’t come off the bottles.

These caps hold the pressure inside, keeping the bottled bubbles lively for long periods of time. When you squeeze the lever on the cap, the water squirts out under pressure, and it’s a hoot. It’s a goofy weapon for a Three Stooges’ water battle. It’s also a classic way to get some bubbles in your scotch and soda, as well as in flavored sodas and in egg creams, the concoctions beloved by many New Yorkers.

The bottles are a multicolored history lesson in themselves. No one makes them anymore, so the 3,000 or so that came with the business are all they have right now. These glass beauties are marked with the names of cities and towns from all over this region and throughout this half of the country: New Castle, Verona, New Kensington, McKees Rocks and Warren, along with many from Brooklyn and odd spots like Muskegon, Mich., and various places in Wisconsin. Lots of towns used to have their own bubbly water.

So my friends, the new owners, have moved Pittsburgh Seltzer Works to a new home on Monongahela Avenue in Swissvale, and one Sunday John invited me to see the place. They have vintage equipment, including four trusty chillers that cool the water to a perfect 37 degrees Fahrenheit; a sturdy-looking Liquid-brand carbonator that “folds” the H2O and the CO2 together to make H2CO3 (carbonic acid), which willingly releases bubbles of gas when it’s not under pressure;  and a mighty six-head filler, which pushes the water into the bottles.

Each bottle has to be loaded onto the machine by hand to be filled. These are ancient machines that look to have a lot of miles on them but seem fit for many more.

So now Pittsburgh Seltzer Works is delivering seltzer again to people’s homes and to local restaurants and bars. It’s clean, refreshing, watery. And I think it’s a fine and effervescent way to swig in the new year.

Categories: Rick Sebak