A very Avery’s milestone

By Greg W. Prince

What is it they say about living too long? Sooner or later, you’ll outlive everybody you knew. Geez, that’s kind of depressing, and that’s not the idea behind beverages, where happiness is supposed to be the perennial order of the day.

Longevity is supposed to be a good thing. Ask Coca-Cola, born in 1886. Ask Pepsi-Cola, which came to be in 1898. Heck, ask Avery’s, which is turning 100 years young right this very moment.

@@img1 Avery’s? What’s Avery’s? A very good question.

I learned what Avery’s was thirteen springs ago. In the first phase of my professional beverage life, I received a call urging me to swing up to New Britain, Conn. from Long Island to visit this vestige of a DIY New England that had mostly ceased to exist. If it did, it was more as a marketing ploy, like a little village “shoppe” in a snowglobe you’d pick up and put down while wandering through the turnpike rest stop souvenir store.

That wasn’t Avery’s. Avery’s, which manufactured some two dozen kinds of soda in a converted house off the main drag of town for its loyal local constituency, was real, as was Hosmer Mountain Bottling, out of Willimantic, Conn. Avery’s dated to 1904, Hosmer Mountain to 1912. Both were members of a fast-contracting confederation of businesses called the New England Independent Bottlers Association. NEIBA united the relative handful of old-town bottlers who withstood the sands of time to keep making birch and pineapple and raspberry and whatever flavor struck the fancy of their customers. Each of these bottlers was authentically retro whether they knew it or not. Come to think of it, retro probably wasn’t a buzzword back then.

Visiting with Bill Bonney who ran the family Avery’s business and Bill Potvin, who joined us from Hosmer Mountain that day, I learned longevity had its costs. The idea that every hamlet had its own soda wasn’t just quaint. It was 99.9% extinct.

As adorable as Avery’s was to watch in action (the men on the line gently shook each bottle to settle the contents), it was hard to ignore Bonney’s and Potvin’s message: This is almost over. The NEIBA compact said we make soda in glass bottles. By 1991, almost nobody was making soda in glass bottles. Mr. Bonney wasn’t anxious to sell me a case of Avery’s because he figured he wouldn’t get the deposit bottles back (don’t worry, he did). Cane sugar was another key ingredient. It was more expensive than the corn syrup used by the cola giants, which presented a problem for Lilliputian enterprises who had to pool their resources to buy most anything common (caps, labels, sweeteners) they needed.

It was a happy enough afternoon, but the undertones were grim. This precious bit of liquid Americana was an endangered way of life. There was no corporate underwriting. There was, let’s face it, limited demand. I remember we had lunch in a pizzeria in New Britain, where proximity to the hometown bottling plant didn’t help Avery’s keep the account. Bonney couldn’t compete with Coke here or in most places. He and Potvin just wanted to maintain what they were doing. All bets were off as to whether they could.

“Come back in five years,” Bill Potvin warned, “and we may not be here.”

I haven’t returned to New Britain, but if I did, I’d find Avery’s Beverages celebrating its centennial. Got a call the other day from Bill Potvin, who was the more gregarious of the two Bills. He wanted to let me know that despite his dire forecast, both Hosmer Mountain and Avery’s were still at it. Bill Bonney sold out a while back to a fellow named Rob Metz, described by the Boston Globe as a corporate dropout who’s been drinking Avery’s all his life. He continues the tradition as does Potvin up in Willimantic.

They’ve made concessions to the times. Avery’s distributes water, and you can buy a t-shirt from its Web site. Hosmer Mountain packaged a few of its flavors as a slightly more chi-chi gourmet line. But what Avery’s and Hosmer Mountain and the other NEIBAns are about is old-fashioned soda, for the folks around the corner, for the families who have kept getting it delivered even though every store between home and the bottling plant sells loads of nationally known alternatives.

They may have outlived most of their contemporaries but they haven’t outlived their usefulness. Avery’s hundredth birthday-and, for that matter, Hosmer Mountain’s 92nd-tells us that beverage marketers who continue to give their customers something unique (and something they want) live to age gracefully. True, most of you who nurture your own soda pop dreams will never get to know your customers as up close and personally as Metz and Potvin do, but keeping the people you want to drink your product in mind is an idea that never goes out of style.

Greg W. Prince (prince@bevnet.com) has covered the beverage business as a reporter and editor for more than 15 years.