The Comeback Kid: Reviving Tower Root Beer
by Genevieve Rajewski
This summer's hip new local thirst quencher may well be one of New England's oldest. The third generation of the Cusolito family has rediscovered their original recipe for Tower Root Beer-and is reintroducing the storied drink after a 30-year hiatus.
Rooted in History
Tower Root Beer traces its origins back to Domenick Cusolito, who settled in the Boston area after emigrating to the United States from Salina, Italy.
Domenick-along with his brother Felice and cousin Giuseppe-founded Prospect Hill Bottling and Soda Water Company in 1914. The company originally produced ginger ale (then a popular mixer with whisky) in the basement of a small shop on Cross Street in Somerville, near the bottom of Prospect Hill and its famous tower.
When Domenick went to register the new company, the clerk at the Secretary of State's office suggested a shorter name than Prospect Hill Bottling Ginger Ale. His offhand remark ("Isn't that where the tower is?") inspired the Cusolito family to name its brand "Tower." As tonics soared in popularity, Domenick noted that many producers' success seemed tied to specializing in one product. He put his money on root beer.
"My grandfather developed our root beer based on a recipe he received in the early 1900s," says Carolyn Cusolito-Tavares, who is working with her brother, Larry Cusolito, to resurrect and market theTower brand. "He tinkered with it and took out the vanilla and gave it more of an Italian spin."
"He added anisette, which gives it a slight licorice aftertaste," notes Larry.
In 1920, Tower Root Beer added another signature element. A tip from a friend led Domenick to an abandoned South End warehouse full of amber beer bottles, a casualty of Prohibition. Run-of-the-mill clear bottles became history.
Displaced by the McGrath & O'Brien Highway project, bottling operations moved to an abandoned church on Tufts Street in Somerville. However, by 1938 the company had outgrown that space. The former location of beer-bottling company Jake E. Wirth, at 52 Roland Street in Charlestown, became available, and this served as the home of the business until 1969.
"The building next door was Hood Ice Cream and the workers used to trade ice-cream sandwiches for cases of root beer over the wall, all summer long," recalls Carolyn with a laugh.
A Father's Foresight
After World War II, Domenick's three sons-Richard, Jack and Paul-took over the management and operation of the family business. By the 1950s, Tower Root Beer had a strong presence in all six New England states and, around 1960, saw its production peak at 160,000 cases a year.
By 1969, this success had attracted the attention of a soft-drink conglomerate, which purchased the company and dissolved the family business.
"The merger really turned out to be a bad deal. My dad and uncle left just six months before the company went bankrupt," says Larry. "But my father just didn't have heart to see Tower Root Beer fade like that," adds Carolyn.
"I had been working on the possibility of franchising the product when the opportunity to sell the business arose and the family made the decision to sell," recounts her father, Richard Cusolito. "When that company failed, I reacquired the formula, name and brand from the receivers in order to start a franchise company with it."
"For a while, the franchises worked out pretty well," says Larry.
"There were still a lot of independent bottlers, and they knew Tower Root Beer had a large following. But Pepsi and Coke came on strong in the '70s and swallowed them up."
In 1978, Richard dissolved his franchises and removed Tower Root Beer from the market.
The Road to Resurrection
Larry, now 55 years old, began exploring the idea of bringing Tower Root Beer back in the early 1990s. "I have been in the restaurant business for 30 years and thought it might be time for change," he says. However, his lack of the original recipe tabled his dream for more than a decade.
"My father and his two brothers worked the business. None of us kids ever worked at the plant," says Carolyn, 56. "But about two years ago, Larry called me up asking if I had read the Boston Globe. There was a story about how they're bringing Moxie back. He said, ‘If there's a market for Moxie, there must be a market for Tower Root Beer. What do you think?'"
"Well, it was just the weirdest thing," she continues. "Just a few months before, my dad had piled a bunch of family history stuff on me. I had casually gone through it but hadn't organized the pile. Well, I went looking and found an envelope with our grandmother's birth certificate-and along with it was a folded note with a recipe for root beer in my grandfather's handwriting."
Excited by this unexpected turn, the siblings began to dig deeper. They asked a chemical engineer to review the recipe, which was deemed viable, and also began to investigate the fate of the root beer's concentrate manufacturer. It had been bought and sold several times but still existed.
Larry wrote the company asking if they still had the formula. "They got back to me a few months later," he says. "They wrote, ‘Yes, we still have the formula, but it has proprietary rights and we need to know who you are and your ties to company before we provide any samples. It hasn't been produced for more than 30 years.'"
A phone call settled the matter, and the siblings next turned to the New England Independent Soft Drink Association (to which their father had once belonged) to find a small bottling operation to explore co-packing.
Larry wrote a handful of companies suggested by the association. Several months later, on Christmas Eve, he finally heard back from one: Ed Borges, whose company Empire BottlingWorks has operated as a family business out of Bristol, Rhode Island, since the 1930s.
"Ed told me, ‘You come down to the plant and, with a handshake, you'll have product,'" says Larry.
Last February, Empire BottlingWorks ran off 25 test cases before a family audience.
"I was in my early teens when they sold the bottling plant and in my early 20s when my dad took the product off the market," recalls Carolyn of this test run. "So Larry and I didn't know if we'd really remember how it should taste."
"My dad pulled the first bottle off the line and cracked it open," she continues. "It was one of those sensory-memory moments: As soon as Larry and I got our first whiff of it, we knew it was going to taste right. It came right back to us. The root beer was exactly the same."
Back in Action
The Cusolito family took the samples and passed them around to friends, family and acquaintances. Encouraged by the product's positive reception, they went on to produce 1,500 cases, including a new sugar-free diet version, in the first quarter of 2010. Close friends (the owners of Better Life Photography) scanned an original Tower Root Beer bottle, which had a painted-on label, and manipulated the image to create the new label.
Harold Tavares, Carolyn's husband, has given up a career in marketing for defense contracts in favor of getting Tower Root Beer sold and served in specialty stores, corner grocery stores and restaurants. He models his approach on that which launched the Samuel Adams brewing company.
"I'll go tromping into North End mom-and-pop shops with my data sheet and a cold bottle, selling owners on our product one sip at a time," says Harold.
A cousin in New Hampshire has acquired eight vendors aroundWaterville Valley, and other members of the family have been pressed into making deliveries from the trunks of their vehicles-with SUVs doing double-duty in place of the eight delivery trucks that once bore the brand.
The 83-year-old Richard's buttons are near bursting to see the family business reborn. And, for the grown children, the effort has been well worth it.
"The best thing about Tower Root Beer is that everyone who remembers it has a great memory of it. It's a really positive thing," says Larry. "Someone will tell you, ‘My dad used to go to the store Saturday night and get a bag of cheese curls and a bottle ofTower Root Beer and sit with me and my sisters and watch a movie.' Those kinds of stories make you feel good."
Find a grow list of locations selling Tower Root Beer at towerrootbeer.com.
Genevieve Rajewski plans to kick back with a Tower Root Beer-and-ice cream-sandwich float this summer. A frequent Edible Boston contributor, Genevieve has written for Smithsonian, wired.com,Washington Post Magazine and the Boston Globe. Read her articles at www.genevieverajewski.com and follow her local "meat club" adventures at www.wickedtastyharvest.com.