Something Good #18: How the Seltzer Is Made
I used to be pretty into tap water. A cold glass of the stuff, straight from the city pipes, was my favourite thing in the world to drink, more than wine, more than beer, more than even my precious ginger ale.
The feeling of my thirst being quenched is so primally satisfying that I will often eat something salty just to experience the sensation of immediately washing it down with an ice-cold beverage. I’ll then repeat the cycle for as long as possible—a sodium-hydraulic loop I can keep going for hours. (Look, I’ve had way worse habits in my life, please allow me this small, sad pleasure.)
I used to idly daydream about remaking myself into some sort of sink-side sommelier, touring the globe and assessing the tap output of various exotic municipal water systems.
But the gift of a soda-making device a few years ago basically ruined flat water for me. As a kid, club soda was the most boring, adult drink I could imagine, but sparkling water is now my most treasured consumable. I’m absolutely hooked on the goddamn stuff, whether it be plain or flavoured à la La Croix or Bubly. It’s remarkable how quickly my tastes have shifted.
So my interest was more than piqued when I learned that Montreal brothers Noah and Sam Bick were starting Le Seltzer, a Montreal-based bubbly brand. The flavours out the gate seem calculated to appeal to me: Jewish-deli-reminiscent black cherry, ginger and orange/vanilla, as well as a yuzu flower and pomelo blend.
I was curious how exactly one starts making seltzer, so I invited Noah to my backyard to discuss. (Full disclosure: I know and like Noah, but I have no involvement in his business and was not compensated for this interview—I just like sparkling water a lot and wanted to know more.)
Mark: Do you have any family connections to seltzer? My grandfather’s family in Satu Mare, Hungary—Transylvania, actually—were in the seltzer business. So we have an ancestral link to bubbly water.
Noah Bick: I can’t beat that by any means. But my aunt and uncle in Newton, Mass, and their three children are insanely obsessed with Polar Seltzer. My aunt would buy, like, a thousand cases at a time and then come visit Montreal and the trunk would be loaded. So we kind of got hooked on that. In the last couple years, when I’d go to the States, I would just spend a hundred dollars at Trader Joe’s or something and just fill the car with seltzer, particularly Polar, which is like my shining star. And then when COVID happened, the kind of joke origin story was like, well, we can’t go across the border to get our seltzer. We might as well try to make it!
M: So you decide to make seltzer and then, like, what’s the first step?
NB: Well, it’s not like I was making seltzer in my basement for many years and then decided to can it. It was a lot of guess and check. We started learning about the history of seltzer. My brother’s pretty academic, so he did a lot of deep reading. We interviewed this guy in New York, Barry Joseph, who wrote a book called Seltztertopia. Then we started learning about the production chain.
One of the easiest people to find was a flavourist—someone to help us develop flavours.
M: Tell me what that process is like.
NB: Well, the hilarious part is, they can do anything. Like, you want a gym sock flavour, they’ll send you one.
They send us samples based on our ideas. And then we give them feedback based on what they send us.
M: Who are their typical clients?
NB: Anyone who has a lot of natural flavours in their products, from common food products to candy and things that are probably a lot more complex than just natural essences and carbonated water.
Learning about food and beverages has been totally wild and wacky. For example, I didn’t know that in Canada you could say something has no calories, even if it’s up to five calories. And the funny thing is when I got the nutritional info for the ginger, I had a panic attack. Because it said 400 calories. But it’s 400 calories if you were to drink, like, 13 million of them.
M: Right, if you consumed, like, a solid gram of flavour or something.
NB: We’re buying 10 kilos of flavour at a time. Those are the minimum quantities you can order because my batch is so small. And for each, they give you the recommended dosage. For the past couple of months we’ve been playing not only with flavours, but with dosage quantities too.
M: You’re basically using a homeopathic amount.
NB: It’s funny, because we found when we dose too low, it doesn’t taste like anything or it becomes too diluted, but if it goes too high, sometimes it gets weird. With orange vanilla, I wanted it to be as orange-vanilla-y as possible, but at a certain point, if you pushed it too high in the dilution ratio, it doesn’t taste good any more.
M: It’s like distortion.
NB: Yeah, it’s kind of like flavour distortion. And the yuzu blossom pomelo—which I want to go on the record as fully crediting my girlfriend for, because I didn’t know what yuzu blossom was when we started this—we wanted the floral elements of citrus, plus a regular citrus. We mixed them together and then figured out a ratio. We had been testing the flavours at home, and then when we got to the big leagues, when it was time to produce, I freaked out because it didn’t taste right to me when I scaled it up to like, times a kazillion. So we actually had to bring it down a little bit.
M: You were telling me how you came up with your ginger flavour—that originally you were going for ginger ale.
NB: We tested it with like 50 people last January and everyone was like, I like it, but it needs more of a ginger kick. So we took part of a really punchy ginger flavour, mixed it with the ginger ale flavour and made a sort of hybrid of the two.
M: Well, you know, I’m a really, really big fan of ginger ale. I call it Jewish Prosecco. And I like this flavour. I’m getting a subtle hint of a ginger ale, but more of a ginger beer.
NB: That’s where we landed.
M: I really like beverages. But until the seltzer revolution of the last few years happened, it was so hard to walk into any dépanneur or gas station or whatever and find a drink that wasn't just pure sugar. Like there was so much sugar in every single drink, whether it’s a juice or a sports drink or whatever. That’s why I like seltzer so much—I don't feel like my teeth are rotting. Or that I’m going to have a sugar crash and have to pee like crazy.
NB: Yeah. I can drink eight President’s Choice root beer seltzers in a day and it’s OK.
M: I think people like the flavour, but they don’t need that much of it. I actually like really big flavours: parmesan cheese, nacho cheese Doritos, big umami-type flavours. But with beverages I don’t need that much. I just need a suggestion of flavour. Along with the bubbles. Drinking something carbonated is just a pleasure in and of itself.
NB: I went to Japan before COVID and my dream is to make something like the seltzer there. They’ll have like two SKUs, the normal seltzer and the “big bubble” seltzer.
M: Tell me about bubble size.
NB: Something I learned is that it’s measured in PSI.
M: Just like bike tires! So did you choose a bubble size, or was it sort of put on you as the default, easiest-to-do? How does that work?
NB: The equipment we worked with had limitations. It’s been a bit of a learning curve. So these are between 2.6 and 2.9.
We’re working with a mobile canning company, which is a big thing in the craft beer world. They come to you.
At first, we lost a lot of orange vanilla due to spillage. They were under-filling them or it was blowing up, because they have to calibrate to your specific can and your specific beverage, which is going to react a lot differently than beer because of the yeast and all that. Everyone we worked with had never done a big run of seltzer. But by the end of the day, everything was dialed in, as all the brewer nerds say. And the next run we do, we’ll be able to pump it up to a higher PSI. In my mind, I want a crazy bubble. Maybe I’ll do a really small batch pushed up to 3.3 or something.
At some point, when the kinks are worked out and I’ll be ready to scale up, I’ll have the means to go up to something like 3.5. But it might taste crazy. Like, you might drink a 3.5 and be like… that’s comically bubbly.
Le Seltzer is only available in Montreal at present; you can order a case online on their website.
I have a special treat for you this week. Musician Graham Van Pelt is a) a good friend b) someone I’ve collaborated with on the scores to several of my films and c) the have-er of a new online radio show, Island City. I asked him to describe the show and he said:
The show is motivated by my family’s move away from city living, an inevitability that was accelerated by the pandemic. Living on a small island now, music has been a solace for us and one of the main ways we’ve kept ourselves from feeling like our world is shrinking irreversibly. I know lots of people are going through a similar thing, even city dwellers who haven’t been able to live the vibrant and connected life they’re used to. The selections I make on the show are meant to connect the listeners to a larger and slower-moving global music narrative that sometimes can feel lost when we go into our little algorithmic bubbles.
This extremely fits with the philosophy behind Something Good! I also asked him if he could prepare a playlist for my readers this week and he generously complied. You can listen to it below—you’ll find that GVP has whipped up an extremely chill groover, as effervescent as a can of yuzu blossom pomelo seltzer.
Thank you Nick Landrum for submitting this week’s #nojacketsrequired entry! Remember, you can always send in yours to email@example.com (don’t reply here, as Substack doesn’t like forwarding along attachments). I want to see what’s on your shelf!
Every Wednesday I’ll send you Something Good. If you like it, please tell a friend.