When we were five, we thought we knew the answer. Carbonated water, known in our household as “carbo,” had befuddled us with its bubbles long enough. At last we had figured out where its fizziness came from: It must be bubbly because it is infused with pepper.
Standing on chairs so that we could reach the sink, my brother and I filled a cup with tap water, one spoonful at a time. We took turns grinding pepper into the cup. We stood there all morning awaiting the carbo—yet it never appeared.
At eight, we tried to make carbo with a pump one of us brought home from science camp. At 12, I asked my science teacher. At 14 or so, I looked it up online, but I couldn’t understand.
Nevertheless, I grew addicted to the mysterious beverage. Convinced that bubbles, not caffeine, were the secret to staying awake, I downed bottles during my first college all-nighters. Carbo was my feel-good drink—I celebrated many a happy occasion by popping open not a bottle of wine but a bottle of Vintage, the seltzer brand. It was my focus drink—madly writing a book on deadline one winter break, I drank four or five cans a day.
I carried upwards of a dozen cases of the stuff to my dorm room each year. I kept it tucked under my desk at The Crimson for late nights of editing. Friends offered seltzer to tempt me into attending their pre-games.
As one childhood mystery after another faded into unwondrous adult answers over the years—when I resigned myself to the fact that princesses never showed up at your door when you put up a sign offering to rescue them from their evil stepmothers, or when two summers ago I finally understood the lyrics to the “Arthur” theme song—I sometimes comforted myself with the thought of my favorite beverage. Sipping a glass of the bubbly, I would think, “It’s okay. The world still does hold sacred, unknowable truths. I still don’t know how carbo is made.”
This week, at 22, I finally felt ready to face the facts.
This is how it works: Polar Beverages, New England’s preeminent independent bottler of seltzer water and soda, uses millions of gallons of water each day and buys rail cars full of corn syrup. The 700 employees in the 325,000-square foot Worcester factory make 70 batches of carbonated and non-carbonated liquids every day, each batch enough to produce 1,000 to 20,000 12-can or 12-bottle cases.
The company produces seltzers and sodas in an astonishing variety of flavors—vanilla and blueberry seltzer, pineapple soda, imaginative seasonal seltzers like mint mojito, candy cane, and Boston cream pie.
"Coke and Pepsi, all they ever want to do is sell lemon-lime, orange, and plain,” Polar’s executive vice president and treasurer Christopher J. Crowley says. “Our specialty is variety."
Crowley’s family has owned the company since 1916, when his great-grandfather bought the beverage-making operation founded by a German immigrant in 1882. When Crowley and his brother Ralph, the fourth generation of Crowley owners, started buying their uncles out of the company in the 1980s, it had about 70 employees. Today it employs more than 1,500 people in its three plants in Georgia, New York, and Worcester.
Crowley and his brother have aggressively expanded and modernized the company. Crowley proudly names the features of new machinery, like an apparatus that X-rays each can, shoving the defective ones off the line with astounding speed as it instantaneously recognizes problems in a few of the cans zooming past.“My goal is to have guys sitting on their butts,” Crowley says.
And this is also how it works: Polar bottles sodas for other labels like 7-Up, A&W, Sunkist, and Crush.
“It’s a dysfunctional model,” Crowley says. He explains that it costs companies like Dr. Pepper Snapple, which owns many of the brands that Polar bottles, about 17 cents to make one cases’ worth of syrup that will become soda. The syrup manufacturers sell their product to Polar. Polar then finishes the sodas, distributes them to grocery stores by truck, and pockets the profits.
But each year the big companies charge 3 to 7 cents more for their syrup. Nowadays, Crowley says, Polar pays about $4 per case for the right to manufacture the product that cost another company 17 cents to prepare. “They call us the DFBs: dumb fucking bottlers,” he says. Producing other companies’ labels alone, Polar would struggle to stay in business, he believes. “The reason we’re around is we run our own brands.”
Those brands operate on an economic model that does make sense, as Crowley tells it. Coke and Pepsi, the two heavyweights in the world of soda manufacturing, make 90 percent of their grocery store sales from the ends of the aisles, where stores put their promotions. Polar’s sales are just the reverse—90 percent are made straight from the beverage aisle, where profit margins are far larger.
“It’s about profitability. It’s not about how much you can sell, it’s how much you can keep,” Crowley says.
And this, at long last, is how carbo works: Water, normally containing some oxygen molecules dissolved into it along with all the other minerals our H2O picks up in its tumultuous life, enters a machine called a deaerator. The deaerator injects a little bit of carbon dioxide into the water. Water molecules have a greater affinity for CO2 than O2, so they grab onto the newly introduced gas, letting the oxygen go free.
Then, in the next machine, the water gets a far larger dose of carbon dioxide. This time, it is chilled with the help of liquid ammonia—cold water can absorb more of the gas. And it is put under enormous pressure, which also forces it to absorb more molecules. CO2 is injected in precise quantities specified in Polar’s recipes just like the amounts of corn syrup and citric acid in the company’s sodas. Whereas water would naturally hold “a thimbleful” of CO2, Crowley says, a liter of sparkling water is stuffed with enough dissolved gas to fill an eight-liter balloon. Orange soda gets half that much.
The liquid shoots out of its pressurized containers at the moment that bottles or cans are ready on Polar’s factory lines to receive it. For the brief seconds that the can or bottle rattles down the line uncapped, CO2 gas shoots over it so that it doesn’t lose too much; still, grape soda bottles are emitting pale purple foam as the machine slams plastic caps onto them. Then a machine seals them—1,230 cans can be sealed per minute, so many that one must blink to realize that a green blur is actually a line of diet ginger ale cans.
And when someone pops open a can or a bottle days or weeks later, after it has been labeled and packaged and driven to a grocery store and shelved and sold, some of the pressure on that long-contained liquid lets up. All that gas that has been forced into the water starts to escape again.
And we witness the miracle that is carbo.