I don’t sit behind a desk and count all the money,” joked Ron Filbert, fourth generation Filbert and present owner of Filbert’s Old Time Root Beer and its additional twenty-nine varieties of pop. “Even though I’d like to be able to do that,” he added, on his way to bottling a batch of ginger beer in the back room. Dressed casually in a t-shirt and shorts, Filbert radiated boyish joy when talking about his products. With a contagious grin across his face and a look in his eye that could only be called a twinkle, Filbert doesn’t seem too let down by the absence of cash counting in his life.
About the size of a middle-school classroom, the area where Filbert bottles soda makes up a little less than half of his plant on the first floor of a brick building at 3430 South Ashland Avenue, in the McKinley Park neighborhood. It’s this small space, however, that helps make Filbert’s soda something special.
The room is a protean sprawl of conveyor belts, clunking metal pieces, and alien-looking do-dads all snaking along two walls. To Ron Filbert, this assemblage is simply “the machine that makes the pop.” The bottling and barreling machine was bought new, Filbert will proudly tell you, in the year 1965. None of the equipment except the “taper,” a contraption that, well, tapes the boxes shut, has been replaced since then.
At full-fledged bottling mode, when Ron and his crew are packaging up to 120 cases an hour, the machines let off a cacophony both wonderful and terrifying. The bottling and barreling machine produces “clunk-clunks” and “chuck-chucks.” The conveyor belts whir. The labeling machine produces the loudest floor-shaking thunk, grabbing labels off a spool and slamming them down in front of glass bottles queued anxiously, jostling gently in their metal tracks. All of the noises are heavy and mechanical except for the bottles’ light dings off of each other, as if toasting to their sweet contents.
From here, the bottles just need to be tucked cozily into boxes, a job reserved for the most experienced workers, and usually carried out by either Ron Filbert himself or a man named Dennis.
Dennis has white hair and glasses, occasionally wears bright red, noise-cancelling headphones in the bottling room, and almost always dons a black stocking cap, despite the heat. Ron jokes that he “bought Dennis with the building.” He’s not too far off the mark—Dennis worked at 3430 S. Ashland when it was still churning out Newport beverages. “We thought we’d buy Filbert’s, and Filbert’s thought it’d buy us,” Dennis remarked. In the end, Filbert’s won out. The only bottles that leave the plant with Newport labels these days are “Mr. Newport Lemon-Lime,” a flavor that Filbert’s picked up in homage to the previous tenants.
The 3430 S. Ashland building even predates Newport Beverages—it housed Rush and other Chicago bottlers all the way back to 1890 or 1891; Ron and Dennis still quibble about the precise year.
During the early 1900s, around the same time the Ashland plant first opened its doors for bottling, George Filbert delivered milk, ice, coal, and other necessities in his horse-drawn wagon to his Bridgeport neighbors. His son, Charlie Filbert, started making root beer in 1926, during prohibition. For years, the bubbly brown liquid was bottled at 3033 S. Archer, until a fire in 1984 forced them to move, first to 3307 S. Archer, then in 1989 to 2996 S. Archer, and finally in 1993 to their current location.
According to Ron Hazucka, who handles Filbert’s marketing, “Nobody else on the planet does what Ron Filbert does every day.” That is: mixing, bottling, and barreling his own beverages in one plant. (“Brewing,” Hazucka added, “is a bad word for sodas. No heat touches it.”) “You want orange cream soda? We can barrel it for you,” Hazucka insists. The same is true for every other Filbert’s flavor you could want, or perhaps didn’t even know you might want, like their banana soda: a Ron Filbert original. Ron dreamed up twelve of Filbert’s current thirty flavors himself, including the ginger beer the crew was bottling when I visited.
The whole process gives the impression of a Gilded Age torture session crossed with some odd form of robotic ballet. It’s a sight worth seeing. Although it appears pretty complicated, the whole assembly process is only a few steps, which, as I sip a ginger beer handed to me fresh off the production line, Ron and his team gladly narrate.
First the bottles are loaded by hand onto the machine from huge pallets holding 4,050 glass bottles. Filbert’s uses clear or brown glass depending on the soda being bottled. Root Beer is always brown; the more colorful flavors, such as blue raspberry, come in clear bottles.
Guided by metal railings, the bottles head one-by-one down a conveyor belt to be rinsed, and are then dried as they pass through a sideways loop worthy of an amusement park. From there they receive a spurt of concentrated syrup from vats upstairs and are promptly filled with carbonated water before being sealed with a Filbert’s bottle cap from a contraption not unlike the ammo belt on a Gatling gun. Next they’re seized by a machine nicknamed the “Octopus Arm,” a many-limbed device that picks up each bottle individually and gives it a slow shake to mix the drink. From there the virgin sodas need only a label (noisily affixed) before they’re ready for boxing.
Suddenly, a bottle drops to the floor and shatters. The few more that follow suit keep time with the machinery’s clunking and chucking. Someone quickly slams a button, and the machine stops before any more soda is spilled. Ron, Dennis, and the other workers fiddle with gears and inspect the metal gates shearing the bottles like bumpers in a bowling alley. The noises almost wind down entirely. But there’s little breathing time before the problem is found and the conveyor belts are spinning again. Ron takes up his spot at the end of the line, deftly grabbing four bottles at a time and loading them into brown cardboard boxes.
Ron and Dennis paced themselves to the machine. Arms flicking outwards, hands splayed to grab two bottles in each hand, tucking back and up to drop the bottles into boxes. It was active meditation, neatly synchronized and totally unvarying. I had to wonder how often the spell was broken. After all these years—after every 4,050 bottle pallet—does Ron still sneak a bottle of the pop he spends his days sweating over?
“Oh, all the time I drink ‘em,” he said. “If you’re having a soda you’ve gotta have a Filbert’s.”
Filbert’s Old Time Draft Root Beer, 3430 S. Ashland Ave. Found throughout Chicago. (773)847-1520. filbertsrootbeer.com