Wednesday, November 23, 2005
Belfast Sparkling Cider Might Be America’s Oldest Soft Drink
By ROGER M. GRACE
It just might be that the oldest soft drink in the United States is not Hires Root Beer or Moxie—both of whose owners claim that distinction for their respective brands—but an obscure beverage made in California.
I’m referring to Belfast Sparkling Cider. Never heard of it? I hadn’t either, until I was recently told of it by soft drink expert John Nese, owner of Galco’s Soda Pop Stop in Highland Park, who said the beverage has been made “continuously since 1849.”
That soft drink brand has been owned for about seven years by Golden Brand Bottling Co. Inc. of San Francisco, which purchased it from California Beverage. I talked with Golden Brand’s Credit/HR Manager Linda McKenzie, seeking confirmation as to continuous production of the brand. She didn’t know, and put me on hold while she checked with the company president, Bob Stahl.
Back on the line, she reported:
“We’re so ignorant, we don’t know.”
She said she’s heard reports that it’s the oldest continuously produced brand in the nation, but acknowledged: “I don’t have any historical information on it.”
McKenzie related that it’s “not a huge seller” and is distributed “just in San Francisco.”
It has popularity “in the Chinese community in San Francisco,” she related, noting:
“The stars on the label mean something to them.”
Back to Nese. He expressed confidence that the brand has been made without hiatus since 1849, and noted that he provided documentation to the new owner when it assumed the brand.
The potato famine in Ireland (which began in 1845), Nese explained, brought Irish refugees here, who brought their recipes with them—which included the one used in making Belfast Sparking Cider. The brew was marketed in kegs, he said.
It was in 1848 that gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, sparking the Gold Rush. Nese noted that most of the original prospectors were sailors who had jumped ship at San Francisco Harbor.
When the miners came into town to celebrate their strikes of gold, Nese recited, “the ladies on the Barbary Coast would order imported French champagne”—which is what the men would pay for—but the women would actually be sipping non-alcoholic Belfast Sparkling Cider. The captains would pay them to put on the act. The men, in turn, would become intoxicated, if not drugged, and when they awoke, would be back at sea, Nese said.
Uncertainty surrounds the history of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda—originally marketed as “Dr. Brown’s Celery Tonic.” It is not known if there ever was a “Dr. Brown” connected with the drink and, if there was, what his given name was. The drink is believed to have been invented in 1869, being made from seltzer, celery seeds, and sugar.
(Like most soft drinks, it now contains high fructose corn syrup in place of sugar.)
A line of soft drinks—including an excellent cream soda—bears the “Dr. Brown’s” brand name. Cel-Ray, said to be drunk by those with an acquired taste for it, is the earliest of the Dr. Brown’s sodas.
The Canada Dry Bottling Company of New York (an independent bottler) has owned the line since 1982. Trademark applications in past years show that soft drinks in bottles bearing the “Dr. Brown’s” brand name have been in interstate commerce since 1886, a year later than the date claimed for Moxie.
However, Cel-Ray, and perhaps other types of Dr. Brown soft drinks, had been sold in New York before then.
An article in the New York Times on Feb. 22, 1984, said of Dr. Brown soft drinks:
“The brand has been around since 1869 when, as legend has it, a Dr. Brown from the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn produced a celery soda and persuaded a friend at the Scholz Bottling Company to market it as a celery tonic, according to Mr. [Dennis] Berberich [president of Canada Dry Bottling of New York]. In the 1920’s, the New York American Beverage Company purchased the Scholz facility in Williamsburg and produced Dr. Brown’s until 1967, when American Beverage acquired it.”
Commonly sold in Jewish delicatessens, Cel-Ray was once dubbed “Jewish champagne” by Walter Winchell.
I tried it about 50 years ago after attending a children’s matinee at the Fox Theater in Westwood. There was then a delicatessen next door which carried Dr. Brown sodas. I was never tempted to try Cel-Ray since.
A columnist for the Atlantic Constitution had the same reaction. Responding to a reader’s inquiry as to where Cel-Ray might be purchased, Sabine Morrow wrote last month:
“Alissa, your request prompted some of us to do something we’ve never considered: drink a celery-flavored soda. And we’re never doing that again, thank you.”
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