It’s a source of great pride in these parts that Yuengling, America’s oldest brewery, has called Pottsville, Pa., home since 1829.
Only 32 miles northwest of Pottsville – in Catawissa, Columbia County – another family-owned company quietly continues its decades-long connection to another iconic American beverage: Moxie.
Odds are, you’re not familiar with Moxie, a soft drink that at one time was bigger than Coke or Pepsi. But Moxie (the brand) has demonstrated enough moxie (the noun, “The ability to face difficulty with spirit and courage”) through the years to earn a cult following centered in its native New England and extending through much of central Pennsylvania.
I got my first taste of Moxie while growing up in Lisbon, Maine. We were lucky if we got soda (usually ginger ale) once a week, so I can’t say that Moxie was much a part of my diet. But Moxie is a significant part of Maine history.
Dr. Augustin Thompson hailed from Union, Maine. Thompson is described as a Civil War veteran, a playwright, and a homeopathic physician. Let’s just call him the inventor of what started out, in the 1880s, as Moxie Nerve Food. “Moxie strengthens and invigorates,” read a print ad from 1897.
Beverage of gourmets
It was billed as an elixir and, truth be told, does have a bit of a medicinal taste to it; apparently from the gentian root extract among its ingredients. Like revenge, Moxie is best when served cold. Ice cold.
But the best advice for Moxie newbies that I’ve ever heard comes from the mouth of Frank Anicetti, whose corner grocery store in Lisbon spawned what has become an annual Moxie Festival that draws 20,000 to 30,000 people each July:
“To a newcomer that has never tasted Moxie, I might say this: Because of the difference in taste, it can be compared to nothing else on the market.
“On the first taste, you may want to spit it out and throw it away. Don’t! On the second taste, you may want to do the same, but don’t. Wait for that third taste to allow the true flavor of Moxie to tickle the taste buds. Then you’ll know why we call it the beverage of gourmets.”
You can learn more of the Moxie story, as told by Anicetti, in this video. [Really cool aside: the woman wearing the Moxie trucker hat is Sandra-Lee Phipps, the photographer most associated with early R.E.M. She shot the kudzu-covered cover of “Murmur.”]
I had talked up Moxie with uninitiated work colleagues in Pennsylvania, and when we moved to our neighborhood in Hershey, we held our version of a Moxie Festival. Guests were supposed to take a sip of Moxie to gain entry (few were brave enough).
Around this time I stumbled upon a beer distributor near Harrisburg that sold Moxie cans by the case. That’s when I learned that a Pennsylvania company – Catawissa Bottling Co. – had ties to Moxie.
In 1926, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture issued a license to Benjamin and Suzanna Gregorowicz to operate Catawissa Sparkling Beverages. Besides manufacturing its own line of soft drinks (now the Big Ben brand), Catawissa has bottled Moxie (from 1945 to 1967, 1978-present, according to Wikipedia) under a franchise agreement with the brand’s owner, currently Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Northern New England.
When my son and I made our pilgrimage to Catawissa, the founders’ granddaughter, Paula Gregorowicz Clark, was running the store, which sells Moxie, Big Ben and a multitude of beer brands.
Catawissa Bottling has been at the same location (a former creamery at 450 Fisher Ave.) since its inception. The complex comprises a house (where the store operates seven days per week) and a series of attached buildings that accommodate the bottling, packaging and warehouse operations.
Catawissa Bottling purchases Moxie concentrate from Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Northern New England and then does the mixing and bottling, in 12- and 20-ounce bottles. While Moxie made in New England is sweetened with corn syrup, Catawissa Bottling has stuck with pure cane sugar.
Moxie manufacturing occurs on an as-needed basis, Paula explained.
“We try to make it enough to last, but summertime you really get hit hard with different things, and you never know,” she said. “Sometimes people walk in from New York or wherever and buy 20 cases of Moxie to take back with them.”
Sold through beer distributors
Customers are known to drive an hour or more out of their way to pick up a supply of Moxie. Besides its own store, Catawissa Bottling sells Moxie through beer distributors in much of Pennsylvania, but not in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh. Catawissa Bottling also sells Moxie by the pallet to distributors in other states.
Almost on a regular basis, Paula said, she is asked, “What is Moxie?” Tourists come into the area for camping and Knoebels amusement park. Bloomsburg University and the Bloomsburg Fair are just down the road.
Of course, this begs the question: Why doesn’t Catawissa leverage Moxie the way my hometown has, with its own Moxie Festival?
Perhaps it’s because Catawissa Bottling doesn’t make all that big of a deal about Moxie. Surprisingly, the outside of the company’s complex betrays no connection to Moxie, however; the signs are devoted to beer brands. While Moxie Beverage Co. operates a robust website and has 17,000-plus followers on Facebook, Catawissa Bottling’s website was offline at the time of our half-hour visit. Several customers stopped by for beer (“Thirty-pack of Miller Lite cans,” one man requested) but none bought Moxie.
That is, until I did.
Paula’s nephew was kind enough to carry a case of 12-ounce glass Moxie bottles to my car. He represents the fourth generation of the family to work at Catawissa Bottling.