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San Francisco's Banquet Beverage

by Jacqueline M. Newman


Summer Volume: 2007 Issue: 14(2) page(s): 17 and 18

Unique, obscure, hoarded, and heralded, are words that can be applied to this golden colored bubbly non-alcoholic beverage called Belfast Sparking Cider. This 'must have' at San Francisco Chinese banquets is not Irish, includes no cider, and does not even have any fruit juice in it. So what is it? And, where does one get to purchase and taste it?

Our first view was in a drug store in San Francisco. It was behind a counter in the Walgreen's in Chinatown. We were lucky to see it. Later, we did get some thanks for a gift from a good doc who acquired it from the parents of two of her patients. She and they provided not one bottle, but an entire case. Therefore, what a windfall we had to consume and comment on.

Before leaving for the Bay Area, as the nine counties in the San Francisco Bay are called, we enjoyed lunch with a New York Chinese friend. When we asked her about this drink, she said: The Chinese love it, they know about it even here in New York, and though I doubt if you can purchase any in this state, I know that it is golden and has roots in America's Gold Rush. We were soon off to check on her comments and those of others; and to check on this Belfast beverage.

Once in San Francisco, no matter what side of any of the seven bridges we were on, the Chinese we spoke to had seen it on banquet tables, and many had consumed it plain, or with scotch or another alcoholic beverage. We were amazed because we had never seen it during any of our previous visits to this region. San Francisco has the oldest and largest Chinatown in North America; we have visited and banqueted here dozens of times over the past several dozen years, and it was new to us.

We were amazed to learn that dating back to 1849, Belfast Sparkling Cider has been continuously bottled in California. Furthermore, it is the oldest continuously manufactured soda in this state. Carolyn Jung of the Mercury News, a local newspaper, notes that it is an entrenched non-alcoholic beverage at Chinese banquets. She advises that the Chinese mix it with whiskey or gin, and add it to their glasses of ice. And she says they simply take it for granted.

Bob Stahl, president of Golden Brands Beverage Distributors-–a company that distributes one hundred drink brands, says he did not know what he bought six years ago from the now defunct California Beverage Company. He also says it is the only beverage his company manufactures. He claims he knew less when he purchased it and still does not know a lot about it. He has commented that had his company not acquired it, it might have disappeared.

There is something but only one thing different about this bubbly now than when he acquired it. Nearly three years ago he switched to packaging it in plastic bottles, and no longer does so in glass. Stahl is quoted as saying that he produces about forty thousand cases a year, and that about fifty thousand of those bottles hold thirty-three and eight-tenths ounces each of this soda. He advises that it is made in his company's Modesto California facility, that it is only distributed in the Bay Area, and that virtually all of it is consumed by patrons of Bay area restaurants. We were told that Galeo's Soda Pop store in Highland Park California did and still does sell twelve ounce glass bottles of his Belfast Sparkling Cider. We also learned that the Sunset Super in the Sunset district does, too. We just learned that Galeo's lists it for sale on their website, however, we have yet to purchase it from them.

The origin of Belfast Sparking Cider goes back to Ireland when, in about 1845, Irish refugees fleeing the potato famine there brought its recipe to the new world. In Ireland it was packaged in kegs, that was never true in the United States, our sources told us.

One tale Ms. Jung tells, is that miners in San Francisco treated bar girls to what they believed was French Champagne. In actuality, they were duped because it was this very soda. The California Beverage Company took over its manufacture in the early 1900's. They were located on Pacific Avenue next to Chinatown. The story continues that in its early days, this company sold seltzer to Chinese customers and that they later added flavorings to the seltzer. With the Chinese as one of their markets, they knew what they liked. Eventually, this company became the Pepsi Bottling Company, and when it did, Pepsi had no interest in this Belfast brand, but Golden Brands did.

Grace Young, a San Francisco born cook-book author, was quoted as saying that she believes the gold label appeals to Chinese-Americans because that color symbolizes wealth and good fortune. The label on the large bottles we had was red with three gold stars. Would it have become popular had it been that way from the beginning?

There are those who say the gold stars are fortuitous, for weddings at least. Did they help to make it popular? Martin Yan disagrees with much of this thinking; he believes that the Chinese tend to copy each other. That said, he thinks when one restaurant served this cider at a banquet, the others then did, too.

Whatever the reason, with a case at our disposal, we had many opportunities to taste this beverage. Its label says its ingredients are carbonated water, nutritive sweetener (sugar or fructose), citric acid, artificial flavoring, vegetable gum, caramel color, and sodium benzoate (preservative). Wonder how many of its consumers have ever read it?

My husband says he has become addicted; he was a major consumer of the largess we were given. He says he adores it because it has a delicate flavor, is not very sweet, and it is not too bubbly. I do not like soda nor champagne, so I was not as enthusiastic as he was. Others we spoke to did report it as flat. Still others do not notice that, they just mixed theirs with another bubbly soda. We liked ours without ice, and with no other bubbly or alcoholic beverage added.

Everyone agrees that when in San Francisco and at a Chinese banquet or a fancy Chinese meal, it not only belongs on the table, it is already there. They believe it should be consumed at those times, with or without alcohol. On this recent trip, we can attest to its popularity and its consumption at such events. At every Chinese restaurant dinner meal in this region, we saw it on almost all tables.

Needless to say, with the help of others we drank the entire proffered case. On these pages, we offer a public thanks to the Doc and to those that gave it to her. And my husband says, if you are driving east do bring him more.

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