In the 1870s, Otto Carlson (pictured right) 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.
Otto’s root recipe for root beer: Sassafras, sweet fern and princess pine roots were steeped in a cauldron of water over a wood fire to which sugar and yeast were later added. After cooling the liquid was stored in cedar vats to a critical point and finally bottled by hand.
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. The business also used the name Granite Rock Spring for its spring 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. The spring was formerly known by the names of ‘Indian Spring’, ‘Cold Spring’ and ‘Warm Spring’ and was said to be warm in the winter and cold in the summer. It is believed to remain at a constant 48 degrees year round”.
In the early 1900s, 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 1935 the Undina building was damaged by fire and rebuilt. 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 1950s, 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. Undina Beverages in 16 flavors were sold in stores as well as provided county-wide to restaurants, bars and hot dog stands.
By 1980 the old spring was no longer used; there was not enough water capacity for the soda operation.
Undina Root Beer Advertisement
Exterior sign from Undina bottling building