In a small, dimly lit building in Carnarsie, Brooklyn, Kenny Gomberg makes seltzer.
Not seltzer in a plastic bottle, like you buy off the grocery store shelf — something Gomberg, a tall, lanky man, dismisses with the shake of his head — but New York City tap water, mixed with carbon dioxide, triple-filtered through sand, charcoal, and paper, and then pushed under 60 pounds of pressure into thick old-fashioned glass bottles, hermetically sealed with a siphon spigot.
“What they sell in those one- and two-liter bottles, it doesn’t have the bite, the pressure. It does not compare,” Gomberg said, spritzing a taste into his mouth.
“This is real seltzer.”
He places the heavy 32-ounce glass bottles — some of them a century old, with Yiddish lettering and Magen Davids etched into the surface — upside down in the New Monitor Syphon Filler, a machine that dates from the early 1900s. It can accommodate six at a time.
Kenny was born and raised in Carnarsie, joining his father, Pacey, and his grandfather, Moe, at Gomberg Seltzer Works, a business he says he’s “been in forever.” Although he and his wife, Debbie, moved to New City in 1985, he makes the 45-mile trek to Carnarsie six times a week. He works with his brother-in-law, Irving Resnick, and Kenny’s son, Alex, 25, the fourth generation to head into the seltzer business.
Gomberg Seltzer Works is the last of its kind in the New York area. Once there were dozens of seltzer makers, bottling the fizzy liquid for thousands of seltzer men, who delivered it across the region. Today, Gomberg estimates that there are only about six or seven seltzer makers left in the country. And there are only half a dozen seltzer men in New York still making house calls. They pick the bottles up from their customers and bring them to Gomberg Seltzer Works to get them refilled.
It doesn’t matter what the label on the bottle says. If you are drinking seltzer from a siphon bottle in the tristate area, the bubbly stuff inside was made at Gomberg Seltzer Works.
Grandfather Moe had belonged to a cooperative of seltzer men who had gotten together to make and deliver their own seltzer. But in 1953 he struck out on his own, and Gomberg Seltzer Works was born. For years the company still maintained its own delivery route, but eventually gave it up to the seltzer men.
But Alex saw an opportunity there. He, his father, and his uncle have launched Brooklyn Seltzer Boys, a delivery company that will bring “Jewish champagne,” as seltzer once was known, to places as hip as Williamsburg and as suburban as Rockland County.
Banking on interest from foodies in the authentic and artisanal, and others eager for a bit of nostalgia, Alex believes that there is a market for good old-fashioned seltzer in a spritzer. “People were finding us on the Internet and then calling,” Alex said. “My father would give the calls to the seltzer men. Basically you can buy seltzer anywhere. You’re selling nostalgia and a better seltzer. The bite, when it’s cold … and it holds longer.
“And it’s cool. Nobody my age grew up on this kind of seltzer.”
To grow up on seltzer streaming from a bottle not only marks you as from a certain generation, but also as hailing from the East Coast and probably as Jewish. Seltzer was a pareve beverage that would go with any meal, dairy or meat. There is a long history of Jewish involvement in the seltzer business, going back to the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. Since the business was “new” and not covered by a professional guild that would exclude Jews, it became a trade that Jews could ply, according to Gil Marks, a rabbi, food historian, and author of “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.”
“The seltzer bottle was very important,” Marks said in a telephone interview from Israel. “You see the famous blue and green bottles on American tables everywhere. After World War I is the heyday of this, and many of the [companies] were very specifically Jewish.”
Marks has no doubt that siphoned seltzer is “better,” but it may not be simply about taste. Much of it is wrapped up in the nostalgia, the tactile sensations, and the psychological experience, he noted. None of this should be dismissed.
“Was mom’s or bubbe’s cooking really that good? Or how much is a nostalgia factor?” Marks asked. “I don’t know if it [a siphon] makes the flavor different, but it certainly is a lot more fun than opening a cap. The fun factors and the nostalgia factors cannot be minimized in reflecting flavor.”
And seltzer certainly is fun. Just ask Larry, Moe, or Curly. If you are under 50 and familiar with a seltzer siphon it is probably because you saw the Three Stooges spray one another down with one.
And they weren’t the first. The seltzer siphon played a role for the Marx Brothers before them, in “Day at the Races,” and appears in the background of films dating from the Golden Age of Hollywood, such as “The Thin Man,” and the auteur period of the 1970s, in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall.” Even the Simpsons got into the act, Marks noted.
In a 1991 episode, Rabbi Krustofski admonishes his son, who wants to be a clown, saying, “Seltzer is for drinking, not for spraying. Pie is for noshing, not for throwing.”
While siphon seltzer has not quite gone the way of the Concord and Grossinger’s, it doesn’t get a lot of guzzling these days.
Walter Backerman has been a seltzer man all of his life. His first deliveries, he likes to say, were when his mother pushed him in a baby buggy while his father pushed the doorbells. His father and grandfather were in the business before him, and his route dates back to 1919. Now, he delivers seltzer to parts of New Jersey and all of New York City except Staten Island.
As he waited for his refills at Gomberg Seltzer Work, standing by his truck, a kind of rolling act of nostalgia, he detailed a vastly changed market for seltzer.
“We used to go to one block in the Bronx, my father had one or two helpers and a hand truck,” Backerman said. “You’d deliver in one building, then do 15 cases across the street. And before long, you had the whole block done, and 50 cases sold, then another 30 around the corner. It would take you all week to do that now.”
The work is arduous. Each wooden crate holds 10 glass bottles. When they are filled with seltzer, the whole thing weighs about 70 pounds.
“My last complex had three customers in it. That’s great,” Backerman said. He had just finished deliveries in Washington Heights and was heading to Riverdale. “A couple of blocks down, another. It’s one customer in one building and then you drive.”
The bottles are usable as long as the top mechanism works and the seal is airtight. Because they are heavy and have to be refilled, the business is local. If you want seltzer in, say, San Francisco, you aren’t going to Gomberg’s, but to Kathryn Renz’s Seltzer Sisters.
Renz was working at 3M when her division was eliminated more than a decade ago. At the time, Seltzer Sisters was a struggling business run by a Long Island woman who had purchased the Golden Gate Bottling Company in 1983 with the idea of delivering seltzer to homes. A friend encouraged Renz to buy Seltzer Sisters and she has never looked back.
A transplanted Long Islander with roots in Brooklyn, she thought it was “fun and nostalgic.” At the time, home deliveries made up the entire business. Today, it is 65 percent commercial deliveries to restaurants and bars.
She and Kenny Gomberg use the same kind of equipment and processes to make seltzer. Renz also has molds for casting new collars for the bottles, which she shared with him.
In the Bay Area, cocktail and foodie culture has led to increased interest in seltzer. It plays well, because “for one it’s fizzier, and it’s ecological,” Renz said. That’s because bottles are reused forever. Throw in a burgeoning Jewish deli scene, which includes Saul’s Deli in Berkeley, known for using meat from humanely treated animals, and seltzer in a siphon has the cache of being artisanal and authentic.
“Cocktail and food culture is very big in San Francisco,” said Renz. “It’s a pleasure to work with. I didn’t come in thinking that was how it was going to go, but that’s how it did, and we just went with it.”
Alex Gomberg sees potential in reaching those kinds of foodies and hitting them with a retro interest in New York. Although he recently became engaged, he figures he still is at a point in his life where he doesn’t have too many obligations and can figure out if he can make a go of it. Brooklyn Seltzer Boys is delivering in Williamsburg and Mill Basin in Brooklyn, and in Rockland County.
“I basically put in the GPS and go,” he said.
Kenny Gomberg, who has seen the business change, hopes that Brooklyn Seltzer Boys expands. He would like to produce more than 400 cases a week. He realizes that he is up against a beverage market “flooded with choices” and new products like SodaStream, which allow a consumer to produce seltzer at home.
“But this is timeless,” he said, holding up a sea-green bottle. Put it in the refrigerator, he says, and something magical happens, something that gives carbonated water a punch like nothing else.
“There is nothing like real seltzer.”