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In Natrona Heights, beverage-making is still a craft

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On bottling days, the former Nash automobile dealership along Natrona Heights' River Avenue is transformed into a scene reminiscent of the opening credits of Laverne & Shirley. The whirring sounds of the machinery combine with the clinking of the glass bottles as they're shuttled along turntables and conveyers. The scent of the flavor being bottled — grape, cherry or vanilla — wafts through the air.

And with it comes a whiff of nostalgia.

Much has been written about the reinvention of Pittsburgh, where Google and technology startups have moved the economy into the 21st century. However, connections to the past remain all around us, like the dark red brick building that has been home to Natrona Bottling Company since 1959.

"People love the flavors that take them back to being a kid, and Pittsburgh is the perfect place to maintain that feeling," says Vito Gerasole. Gerasole's title is president, but he also calls himself the Sultan of Soda — a title he and his design team created to promote the brand.

This year, the Natrona Bottling Company will celebrate its 110th anniversary, after nearly closing four years ago. Gerasole says the previous owner, Paul Bowser, kept the business running for the love of the product and nostalgia. "He was more concerned about preserving the product over profit," says Gerasole.

"It's expensive to run a company like this. That's the reason a lot of small bottlers are gone," he adds. "There are only a handful of us left. When Coke and Pepsi came in and started buying up a lot of the bottlers, glass and sugar became very expensive because they demanded larger quantities."

"We're not in competition with Coke or Pepsi," adds administrative manager May Jane Zdila. And Natrona's bottling process proves it.

Natrona uses cane sugar and packages all of its drinks in glass bottles. The first step in the bottling involves filling the bottles with flavored syrup; water is added and then soda is carbonated in through a "pinpoint carbonation" process, in which dry ice is used to create smaller bubbles. It takes a day for carbonation to occur using this method, which resembles a naturally occurring process more than the high-volume approach used by large beverage-makers. But the carbonation lasts longer too, and partisans say you can taste the difference.

"In my opinion, we're the only ones that make a real cherry soda," says Steve Vokish, Natrona's master bottler. That's another way of saying he's the company's jack-of-all-trades: Since graduating from high school more than 30 years ago, he's helped run the machines, added the carbonation and mixed the flavors.

Natrona Bottling Company's two full-time employees produce 10 flavors in all, including Vokish's favorite, the signature Red Ribbon Original Cherry Supreme. Other brands include Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer and Red Ribbon Almond Cream.

Natrona products can be found at such local establishments as Brentwood Distributing, BRGR and Pizza Sola. Loyal customers can also shop over the Internet. Still, "Word of mouth is our biggest form of advertising and marketing," Zdila says. And the company still makes deliveries in a 1964 Ford Econoline van with hand-painted signage on the side. Old soda crates still lie in the warehouse, and the sign painted out front still advertises Frostie Root beer, which was once bottled here.

Had the Natrona Bottling Company closed, Gerasole states, "Another piece of history would be gone." But as it stands, "Pittsburgh has been great to us. ... The people really care about keeping local traditions alive." And while the fizzy carbonated beverages are only bottled when needed, orders have been increasing. "July 2014 was our biggest month since I've been with the company," says Gerasole.

As for the company's next century, Gerasole says, "I'm always playing around with different flavors. However, I want to build on the sense of nostalgia to concentrate on the growth of Natrona Bottling Company."

Because one thing won't change, he says. "We're a Rust Belt city at heart with a love for local products."

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