For the past 105 years, thirsty Western Pennsylvanians haven't had to look far for something to wet the old whistle, even when booze, caffeine or mere water clearly won't do the job.
The Natrona Bottling Company has offered soft drinks in intriguing flavors since 1904, and distributes them to small shops locally and across the nation. It produces familiar soda-pop favorites such as root beer, cherry and grape. Then there are the more exotic tastes: grape-y Pennsylvania Punch (using a formula that hasn't changed since 1924), Plantation Style Mint Julep, two varieties of Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer (regular and "hot hot hot") and Bauser Champayno, for toasting teetotalers.
"What we offer is a specialty product -- it has its own little niche," explains Mary Jane Zdila, plant manager and Jill-of-all-trades at Natrona Bottling. "We're not in competition with Coke or Pepsi. Everything we do is micro-crafted -- that does make a difference."
The company has been featured by that great arbiter of yinzertopia, Rick Sebak, in the TV special What Makes Pittsburgh Pittsburgh. Zdila says she just shipped a case of Pennsylvania Punch to Washington state as a gift for a Lower Burell native. Around these parts, the pop is available at Wholey's, Vecinie Distributing in Millvale, and served alongside meals at Downtown's Franktuary and at Spak Brothers, in Garfield.
"We try to go to the little people," says Zdila.
The drinks are sweetened with cane sugar -- no chemistry degree needed to read the ingredients -- and use dry ice for the carbonation, resulting in "pinpoint carbonation," with tiny bubbles that can be easier on sensitive stomachs.
While the drinks are great straight out of the glass bottles, Zdila encourages people to get creative. The ginger beer, she says, mixes beautifully for a pair of popular and refreshing summer cocktails: Add rum for a Dark and Stormy, vodka for a Moscow Mule. Try freezing the Mint Julep into ice cubes or popsicles. Zdila is partial to a chocolate ice-cream float made with the minty concoction.
"If you mix Red Bull with Pennsylvania Punch," adds Zdila, "we call it a Pennsylvania Pit Bull -- for Pittsburgh, see?"