After reading the Occasional CEO's post on Moxie (My favorite line? "Moxie is the durian of carbonated drinks."), I was inspired to write about my favorite New England carbonated drink, Undina Birch Beer from Higganum, Connecticut. I'm not generally a fan of carbonated drinks, nor of alcohol for that matter, but this white birch beer, with its 1% alcohol content, was exceptional. And nothing like the darker birch beers I had tasted in other parts of the country.
This Haddam Historical Society webpage has a small section, "Granite Rock Springs/Undina Soda," on the Undina Beverage Company and their white birch beer.
In the 1870’s Otto Carlson started making commercial root beer and birch beer in Swede Hill (upper part of Christian Hill Road) in Higganum. Carlson had a nostalgic longing for a drink remembered from his boyhood in Sweden, ‘bjord drick’ made from sap tapped from Sweden’s prolific birch trees. Not having enough birch trees around Higganum for commercial scale tapping, Otto developed a formula using cut up birch trees and steaming out their oils and juices. This became the commonly used commercial method of producing the popular birch beer.
Who knew white birch beer was Swedish? With all the Swedes on Porter's side of the family, it's no wonder the drink was a favorite. Sure seems a shame to cut up a tree to get it, though. Maybe we can have commerical birch groves for tapping like maple trees.
Needing a large quantity of water for his company, Carlson discovered a large bubbling spring in a cleft of granite rocks on the western slope of Ladder Pole Mountain in Higganum. This was “pure spring water,” above and beyond any possible contamination. Granite Rock Springs was 450 feet above sea level, up hill from Otto’s shop and overlooking the present Route 81. Otto Carlson named his beverage company UNDINA, meaning the Goddess of Water.
A write up on the spring notes that the “no part of its watershed is exposed to the seepage of cultivated fields or the impurities of inhabited areas. Its home is in the wild heart of nature and it gushes forth, a living, crystal clear stream of pure, soft water, a stream so large as to form the source of a mountain brook that is never dry but continually leaps and dances down the mountain-side until its waters finally join those of the Connecticut.
This delightful spring was used to make their white birch beer until 1980, when production outstripped its capacity. I could tell you that I noticed the difference, but that's probably stretching memory too far.
In the early 1900’s Undina was a popular brand of soda pop, with white birch beer its most popular flavor. Undina was distributed throughout Middlesex County and other parts of Connecticut and upstate New York. ... In 1945 Undina Beverage Company was purchased by Carl Anderson of Higganum and Eric Johnson, both of whom also remembered the cool refreshing ‘bjord drick’ in Sweden and took pride in maintaining production of the white clear drink.
By the 1950’s Undina Bottling Works was thriving and producing 500 cases of soda per day. It remained at the same site as Carlson’s original shop, although the extraction was no longer done there. In 1960 the company was purchased by Middletown residents Trean Neag and Fred Norton.
No longer Swedish except in origin. (Neag was Romanian; Norton I couldn't trace back far enough to find out.) The American Melting Pot in action!
The article doesn't mention when Undina closed. It was after our children were old enough to fall in love with their white birch beer, but much too long ago to pass that on to their own children. It sure was a sad day when they closed. I've heard that it lasted till Fred Norton retired; I'm sure the economics of running a small, local business in the days of soda behemoths contributed to its demise.
Perhaps now that microbreweries have become so popular and successful, someone will attempt to revive Undina. I hope so. You can still buy white birch beer if you try hard enough, and I'm grateful for that. But of course it's not the same.