By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Jun 13, 2002 at 5:55 AM

In 1920, Louis Patmont opened a spring water bottling company at the source of a spring in St. Francis. In choosing a name for his company, Patmont looked no further than his own unusual pet -- a bear cub. He named the business Black Bear, and today it is most famous for its flavored sodas, which have grown into a beloved hometown tradition.

The business introduced its sodas in 1931 when Lucas Unger became its owner. In 1961 Black Bear passed it to the Caruso family where it remains today with Peter Caruso at the helm. Black Bear Bottling Co. moved last August from its 10,000 sq.-ft. St. Francis facility to an 80,000 sq.-ft. production and distribution center in Oak Creek.

Black Bear is best known for its variety of unique flavors, including orange, punch, grape, peach and the two most popular flavors, blue raspberry and black cherry. About a month ago the company introduced diet blue raspberry because blue raspberry is so popular, says Caruso, who started his career in his family's business 20 years ago as a bottle washer.

And though Black Bear sodas come do come in standard cola and diet cola varieties, Black Bear connoisseurs know that Black Bear is not your usual Pepsi or Coke.

Take Black Bear Black Cherry soda, for example. Cherry Coke just doesn't compare, says Lisa Wolack as she sips a Black Bear Black Cherry soda at Brewed Awakenings on Brady Street.

"It just tastes better," Wolack says of the Black Bear soda. "This is the best cherry-flavored soda out there."

Black Bear sodas are distributed in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois, but the company's main focus is southeastern and central Wisconsin, Caruso says. The company's current distribution focus is to expand its market into the Fox Valley.

"Our biggest marketing tool is word of mouth," Caruso says. "Once we're in a store, customers love it."

Caruso says Black Bear sodas are available at about 450 bars and restaurants in Milwaukee and Waukesha counties. The sodas also are sold at about 70 percent of church festivals in Milwaukee County, he says. Additionally, Black Bear sponsors Catholic Knights tailgates and the Milwaukee County Sheriffs Department's DARE program tailgates.


In addition to Black Bear production and distribution, Black Bear Bottling Co. also does bottling and packaging for Lakefront Brewery's root beer, Green River, Jolly Good and Frost Top root beer. The company offers a premium line of sodas in glass bottles, Caruso's Legacy Robusto Root and Cremoso Cream. And, continuing in the tradition of the company's founder, Black Bear bottles its own line of water called Claire Baie.

No Black Bear flavor has ever failed, Caruso says with pride. All flavors are tested on crew members before a decision is made to market them. There are no new soda flavors in the works at this point, but Caruso says the company is considering developing a seasonal line of sodas.

"I don't know if there even is such a thing," he says, "but maybe we'd be the first to do it."

Here's a complete list of Black Bear's soda flavors: cola, diet cola, cherry, black cherry, diet black cherry, punch, blue raspberry, diet blue raspberry, root beer, diet root beer, orange, cream soda, lime, grape, peach, pink lemonade, lemonade, ginger ale, club soda, white soda, sour soda, tonic soda.