A visit to Natrona Bottling Co.
In 1904, Ed Welsh founded the Natrona Bottling Works, a small hand-made soda bottler in Natrona, Pennsylvania just outside of Pittsburgh. In 1939, John Bowser acquired the company and renamed it to Natrona Bottling Company. John’s fifteen year old brother, Paul, took a part-time after school job to help out. What started as a teenage job, turned into a lifelong career and love for Paul. Keeping Natrona alive when so many small town bottling operations sold out to larger corporations was his mission. Though Paul is no longer with Natrona Bottling, his vision lives on.
Today, Vito Gerasole continues to run Natrona Bottling Company, with the expert help of office manager, Mary Jane Zdilla, and Master Bottler, Steve Vokish. In 2010 when an angel investor offered Gerasole a chance to breath life into a dying soda company, it was his love of nostalgia that made the opportunity too much to pass up. The company began back in 1904, but the fizz had almost left the bottle, so to speak, for Natrona after Paul’s death in 2008. Gerasole recalls the company having just $4,000 in its bank account at the time of his arrival. He remembers a customer telling him, “I heard about you guys, but you never have anything.” Despite not having much money, the company luckily had little outside debt. Natrona just needed a new game plan and Gerasole was their ace in the hole.
After a successful marketing push, Natrona Bottling was back on its feet and able to get back to making soda the way it had been made there for over 100 years. Gerasole also added several new flavors to the company’s portfolio: vanilla cream, almond cream, birch beer, and minted ginger ale. But the company’s flagship product, the one it was founded on, is its Red Ribbon Cherry Supreme. When asked about its flavor, Gerasole peps up, “It smells like cherries. It tastes like maraschino cherries!” (fivestarsoda just rated this 5 stars!) Like many mom and pop craft soda companies, Natrona uses only pure cane sugar in their sodas and bottles each one of them by hand. They also use vintage machinery. But what sets Natrona Bottling Company apart from other soda bottlers is its method of carbonation.”I believe we are the last soda producer that uses a style of carbonation called ‘pinpoint carbonation.’” To achieve this particular fizz, dry ice pellets are dropped into pressurized tanks that create, smaller and smoother bubbles. Gerasole says the pinpoint carbonation gives Natrona sodas an “effervescence.” We like to describe it as “velvety.”
There is just something nostalgic about old soda bottlers across the US, and Natrona is one of those that we just love. The bottling plant is located next to the Allegheny River in a former Nash Auto agency. They are still using an old CEM bottling line, and stacks of old wooden soda crates full of old bottles still sit in the corner of the warehouse. 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. Mary Jane still sits at the same desk in the office like she has the past 18 years, and Steve is still itching to get going on the day’s run of bottles.
QUALITY, NOT QUANTITY
Natrona has benefited from sticking to its craft. Red Ribbon soda has always been made with cane sugar, long before it became a niche trend. And the company’s master bottler, Steve Vokish, has gone about his work the same way he learned when he joined the company in 1975. He learned his trade under the stewardship of Natrona’s previous owner Paul Bowser.
Bowser staked the company’s future on offering a premium product. When faced with a question of cost versus quality, Bowser opted for the latter, said Mary Jane, the longtime office manager who kept the doors open after Bowser’s death in 2008.
“The bottom line, Paul would tell me, would come,” she said. “It wasn’t the quantity of the product. It was the quality.”
Gerasole said he has no reason to change the recipes. Yet Natrona’s sales struggled as Bowser’s health declined. Zdila was the company’s only salesperson, as well as bookkeeper and delivery person, and didn’t have time to develop accounts.
Gerasole updated the bottle design, bought the sweet old Ford delivery van logo’d up with RED RIBBON on the side, and carried around an old-fashioned metal cooler packed with soda, offering samples to store owners. I remember when we received a box every month from Vito with a hand-written note telling us how great his product was and how we needed to carry it here at Antiqology.
Gerasole said he isn’t looking for explosive growth. In fact, the company couldn’t handle it. Natrona’s soda is packaged on bottling equipment that is at least 70 years old. The “pinpoint carbonation” method, which uses dry ice, is an inefficient technique that other beverage makers abandoned decades ago. It’s expensive to do it this way, and takes time to make a high quality product.
But the archaic process is essential to Natrona’s quality and identity, Gerasole said. It is the company’s “heart and soul.” That is why Natrona will stay small.
“We baby it,” Vokish said of the bottling line. “We don’t push it really hard. We make just enough pop to get through.”
Natrona makes several flavors; one of the more unique ones, Plantation Style Mint Julep, which was created by Tom Tucker founder Sidney Harris, who worked with Mr. Bowser before he died in 2003. Gerasole says that his Ginger Beer, and HOT Ginger Beer are what a good portion of the past years sales have been. It makes sense to us, as Ginger Beer’s are on an uprising trend. We’d invite you to try one of Natrona’s great sodas, as we stock all the flavors produced.
Red Ribbon Cherry Supreme
Red Ribbon Root Beer
Red Ribbon Birch Beer
Red Ribbon Vanilla Cream
Red Ribbon Almond Cream
Red Ribbon Grape
Red Ribbon Minted Ginger Ale
Red Ribbon PA Punch
Jamica’s Finest Ginger Beer
Jamica’s Finest HOT Ginger Beer
Plantation Style Mint Julep
Purchase the full line of Natrona Bottling Sodas at our Online Soda Shop.
Thanks again to Vito, Mary, and Steve for the hospitality while we were at your place. Keep doing what you do, as the product speaks for itself! -Adam