Dr. Brown’s Soda: A Flavorful and Fizzy Deli Classic

If you’ve ever perused our grab-and-go case, you might have spotted a line of sodas neatly arranged at the bottom, each with an artful label depicting a famous New York landmark. Dr. Brown’s, a line of kosher soda that originated in New York over 150 years ago with humble door-to-door beginnings, is a staple for just about any Jewish deli in America. Whether you’ve had a sip alongside your sandwich before, allow us to share a brief history lesson!

The History of Dr. Brown’s Soda


Dr. Brown’s is, funnily enough, older than the landmarks it boasts on its labels. Established in 1869 in the Lower East Side by the eponymous Dr. Brown (who may or may not have actually existed) and sold by Schoneberger & Noble, this line of soda began as part of a health trend! The first flavor, Cel-Ray, was originally marketed as a “health tonic” made of a celery seed slurry, seltzer, and added sugar to make it palatable. In the 19th century, seltzer was seen as somewhat of a cure-all for everyday ailments, and celery itself was considered a superfood (the açai berry of its day, if you will). The fact the soda only contained celery seed and no actual celery was of no importance; seltzer and carbonated drinks were associated with health and luxury, and it quickly rose in popularity as soda fountains began adding sweet syrups for an additional charge. 

How did these botanical sodas become so associated with Jewish delis? We’re glad you asked! The majority of New York’s population of Jewish immigrants in the 19th century came from Eastern Europe, and because of their experience with the sugar industry that was prevalent in Poland and Ukraine, they easily found work in soda production. “Savory” botanical beverages were common for Eastern Europeans (think of the Ukrainian fermented lettuce beverage, kvass!), so a botanical soda like Cel-Ray was a familiar flavor profile. There were other celery soda manufacturers during this craze, but those died out as the celery fad receded in the 1930s. Dr. Brown’s, however, made a name for itself as a perfect accompaniment to the fatty, salty fare that so many people enjoyed across countless delis throughout New York. It also adhered to kosher laws in an age where mainstream sodas like Coca Cola did not (Coca Cola became kosher certified in 1935). While most beverages naturally pass kosher laws by virtue of their ingredients (MOST — looking at you, Clamato), there are certain artificial flavors and dyes that are not permitted. Sources argue whether Dr. Brown’s was exclusive to delis for the first half of the 20th century, but it became ubiquitous with deli culture regardless. Barry Joseph, author of “Seltzertopia,” writes, “Dr. Brown’s soda comes in the middle of seltzer’s transition to the elite to a beverage for the masses.” 

Today, Dr. Brown’s enjoys a cult following of deli lovers and Jewish-Americans, and through many mergers and acquisitions since the days of Schoneberger & Noble, is now owned by the Honickman Group. It faded out of the mainstream after World War II, when consumption began to congeal as a means of expressing identity. White ethnic groups like Jews and Italians, who were previously ostracized, could now become a part of the “mainstream” fabric of America by consuming products like Coca Cola. Dr. Brown’s serves as a means of recalling heritage, with the story of Dr. Brown himself becoming a fable of Jewish diasporic history. In recent years, folks have been getting back into the groove of funky botanical beverages, so we may very well see a Cel-Ray resurgence. In fact, Ann Arbor’s very own Mayor, Christopher Taylor, has told us his go-to order is a pastrami reuben with a cold and refreshing can of Cel-Ray!

Flavors at the Deli: 

Cream Soda / Diet Cream Soda: Best seller! Smooth and velvety and creamy, loaded with that delicious classic vanilla flavor. Caffeine free and also available in diet. 

Black Cherry / Diet Black Cherry: Black cherries offer a unique dry finish without being too overpowering. Caffeine free and also available in diet. 

Cel-Ray: Nicknamed “Jewish champagne” by columnist Walter Winchell in the 1930s, this is the soda that started it all. Crisp, dry, peppery, with a perfect balance of sweetness. Caffeine-free. A favorite of Deli Chef and Managing Partner Rodger Bowser!

Root Beer / Diet Root Beer: Rich and velvety with a hint of wintergreen, licorice and vanilla. Drink it straight from the can or use it as a delicious base for an ice cream (or gelato!) float. Caffeine free and available in diet.