Old soda maker still has pop
NEW BRITAIN, Conn. - When Sherman F. Avery began making soft drinks in the red barn of a central Connecticut poultry farm in 1904, "soda was a chic and trendy thing," says Rob Metz, self-avowed "chief bottle washer" of Avery Beverages.
Making deliveries to homes and stores in a horse-drawn wagon (until the company bought a truck in 1914), Avery's became a local institution, known for its cream soda, birch beer, old-fashioned root beer, and ginger ale.
Metz took the reins of the venerable company about a decade ago. "There used to be hundreds of these places all across New England," he says. "But it's a tough market to compete in. There are only four of us across the state right now."
Whenever Metz and an assistant are bottling, visitors are welcome to take a tour - which largely consists of watching the equipment in operation. The machinery rattles and hisses, and bottles clink as they roll down the line. Steam gushes from the washing contraption, and water drips and plinks from every gasket of the bottler. "This is a state-of-the-art bottling line," Metz deadpans. "Circa 1950."
The machine deposits two ounces of syrup into each bottle, then 10 ounces of carbonated water before capping the container and sending it down the line. "The syrup just sits at the bottom," Metz explains, "so every one of these has to be turned upside down three times to mix it up. If a visitor shows the slightest interest, we put them to work." He watches as one of us gingerly tips a bottle in each hand, then steps in. "To be a real pro and keep up with the machine, you've got to do four at a time," he says, demonstrating.
Metz says they usually produce 50-75 cases per day to maintain more than 40 flavors in stock. Old standards besides Avery's original flavors include grape, orange, lemon-lime, pineapple, black raspberry, strawberry, and black cherry. In keeping with the old-fashioned production of the sodas, all the nondiet versions are made with cane sugar syrup ("none of that nasty high-fructose corn syrup," Metz says) and are poured into glass bottles.
"For a long time we just used the old heavy glass bottles," Metz says, but the supply kept shrinking. "They can't be replaced," he says. "Most of them are at least 25 years old." A few years ago he found a supplier for new bottles, but still puts some soda in the vintage bottles, which he sells only to regular local customers who pay a hefty deposit.
Groups can arrange for "make your own soda" parties on Saturdays. Participants go upstairs where Metz boils his syrup to experiment with mixing flavors. It's a popular activity for Scout groups and birthday parties, and given the usual age of the participants, it's not surprising that Avery's now sells a line of Totally Gross Sodas with such appealing names as Bug Barf (kiwi-pineapple), Toxic Slime (blue raspberry, orange, and lemon), and Kitty Piddle (orange-pineapple). "Actually, it was a grown woman who came up with Kitty Piddle. She thought it was unfair that we had Dog Drool [orange-lemon] and nothing for cat lovers," Metz says.
Next up? "Worm Slime is in the works," he offers.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.