Category Archives: curmudgeon

Beer Gadgeteer and the Fabulous Fizzbuster

File this one under ‘Oh lord, what now?’

scurrilous fake gadget

It looks like it’s designed to rewind DVD’s . . . .

If you’re having trouble guessing what the gadget is, don’t feel bad: other than the strange label (which makes it sound like it’s for shaving cream or perhaps for cartoon hedgehogs) there’s nothing about it that suggests a function. My first thought was that it was for rewinding DVD’s. However,  according to the website,

Using ultrasonic vibrations, the Sonic Foamer excites the gases in your beer for an amazingly creamy head.

Oh. Okay. I can do the same thing by pouring the beer between two glasses, or stirring it with a spoon for a second, but sure, make an expensive gadget for stirring-impaired people, no problem. But why do they think you should stir it up and make a foamy head?

The aroma of a beer is released as the bubbles in the head pop. 

No, that is not how the aroma in a beer is released. The aroma in a beer is released when the low-weight molecular compounds that comprise the bouquet and aroma of the beer travel from the liquid and travel through the air to the receptors in your nose. Bursting bubbles in the head aren’t especially relevant to the process.

Certainly, agitating the liquid helps increase the amount of these compounds released–that’s why wine tasters swirl their glasses. And beer judges do the very same thing, swirling sample glasses to chase out elusive aromas.

moronic foaming gadget

Nobody with hands that smooth drinks beer. I’m just sayin’.

So it’s a gadget that’s a solution to a problem that exists in the minds of their marketing department. C’est la guerre. But even though their claims are malarkey, I can think of a brilliant use for one of these doohickeys: degassing excessively foamy beer.

This is a pet peeve of mine. Anyone who has gone on a pub crawl with me has had to watch me restlessly pour my beer between two glasses to chase off three-quarters of the carbon dioxide gas before I drink it. I don’t do it to all styles, because some styles like wheat beer, Kolsch and light lager need sufficient volumes of CO2 for proper mouthfeel.

‘Volume’ is the science-word for amount of gas in a liquid solution. The actual sciencey part of beer carbon dioxide saturation is governed by Henry’s Law and a bunch of frightening math. For our purposes, one volume of CO2 is the equivalent of one litre of carbon dioxide gas dissolved in one litre of beer at one atmosphere of pressure (sea-level, more-or-less). If you’re not metric, a litre is about a quart. If you’re having trouble conceptualising what this means, if you drink a litre of one-volume beer, you’re going to belch out one litre of burps, eventually.

A classic Czech Pilsner will have 2.3-2.5 volumes, very appropriate for that style, while Standard Western Industrial Light Lager will have 2.7+ volumes. That’s only fair since it doesn’t generally have any other character to speak of.

Where this all falls apart for me is ales. Classic British pale ales will have 0.75 to 1.3 volumes. If you’re a fan of these beers, they drink smooth and taste wonderful, and you don’t have to belch like a foghorn if you decide to have several pints. American ale styles on the other hand,  have as much CO2 as lagers. American Pale Ale clocks in at up to 2.78 volumes, making the much heavier, more flavourful style of beer as gassy and belch-worthy as lawnmower S.W.I.L.L.

fizzy

I’ll have a glass of greenhouse gas. And can it get it dissolved in fermented corn and rice juice?

For my palate, this destroys the flavour, mouthfeel and enjoyability of the beer. CO2 gas in solution produces carbonic acid, a flat, bitter tasting substance which dulls the bright flavours in the beer, and it makes me feel bloated and belchy after only a couple of pints. I keep questioning brewers as to why they continue to overcarbonate their beer like it’s a practical joke drink but the standard reply is, ‘That’s what consumers expect’.

hop-circle

One of my favourite IPA’s, but I pour it this way on purpose–gotta get the fizzies out.

Some day I’m going to punch those consumers in the snoot, because they just don’t seem to know what’s good for them. If they tried the beer at a proper carbonation level they’d find it much more interesting and drinkable. Maybe some day. Until then I’ll have to content myself with making my own beer and carbonating it to the levels I like, degassing commercial beers right at the bar, and complaining about how everyone is wrong about everything except me.

But I’m thinking I need to order me one o’ those de-foamers to do a little testing . . .

Neuroanthropology, Beer, and Business

 

beer-brain

‘The only thing I want floating in beer is my liver.’ Okay, brain too.

According to the Wikipedia, neuroanthropology is the study of culture and the brain. What is beer, if not culture, I always say, and yet it was a pleasant surprise to see the fellows over at the Public Library of Science Blogs saying the same thing in an entry, Carefully Crafting Consumption: Understanding the Craft Beer Revolution, where they examine (and get some experimental data on) ‘What are the driving forces behind the increased popularity of craft beer?’

It’s a good and timely question: over 400 new craft breweries opened in the last year in the USA. In my home of British Columbia we’re getting something like thirty new craft breweries a year right now–and it’s picking up every day.

Why are people so hot on craft beer–particularly at a time when macro beers (the pale, fizzy stuff that requires advertising on television) are declining precipitously? It’s so bad for the major breweries right now that they’re on incredibly aggressive acquisition schedules, buying foreign premium breweries (such as Becks) and then tossing the recipes and filling the pretty ‘imported’ bottles with BudMillerCoors Standard Western Industrial Light Lager (S.W.I.L.L.) It’s not doing them any good, mind: as soon as they acquire and ruin a new brand, sales fall off a cliff. 4th quarter sales for MillerCoors are down 2% on domestic sales. Pete Coors, chair of the Molson Coors Brewing Company and Chairman of MillerCoors summed up their problem quite succinctly in an interview with The Denver Post:

“Basically the biggest trouble we have is on-premise sales,” he said. “We have a lot of bar owners who are enamored with craft beers. They are beginning to take off the premium light handles and putting bottles behind the bar instead and replacing the handles with craft beer handles. We lose 50 percent of our volume when that happens.”

The company is trying to compel bar owners to keep their beers on tap by impressing them with facts.

“We have done research that shows it’s not in the economic benefit for a bar to do that,” he said. “Having a premium light brand, whether it’s Coors, Miller or Bud on tap actually improves the economics of their business. People stay in their seats an average of 18 minutes longer when they have a light premium beer on tap. That means they are spending more money, leaving bigger tips. We have a little algorithm and an app that we give to our distributors to evaluate and analyze these businesses and bars.”

It’s hard to be cynical enough with that series of statements. Coors is, of course, a deluded plutocrat, scion and heir to a fortune (which tends to make people quite able to deny observable reality and substitute their own) and really wants to preserve that fortune.

I WILL DRINK YOU ALL

Girls, girls, you’re all pretty.

Simply put, the reason why bar owners are replacing S.W.I.L.L. with craft taps is that’s what beer consumers want. The extra 18 minutes he mentions probably comes from the fact that people can’t drink his beer fast enough because it’s ludicrously over-carbonated and they needed 15 of those 18 minutes to belch.

Back to neuroanthropology: why do craft beer lovers reject S.W.I.L.L. ? The article at PLOS is excellent and covers a lot of ground, hinging on the paradigms put forth by anthropologist Daniel Lende, who ‘proposes the following items as useful to understanding what drives consumption: sensorial, corporal, experiential, decision engaging, social, and meaningful.’ 

All good stuff and there’s a great bit on blind trials using different beer glasses to gauge drinkers responses to actual rather than presumed flavours and aromas, but the two most significant points pretty much cover what drives craft beer drinkers away from S.W.I.L.L. and into better beer, flavour and engagement.

Typical S.W.I.L.L. beer uses very few ingredients (one malt, one or two hops, and some sugary adjuncts), that have low flavour (rice and corn taste like almost nothing after fermentation). The sad truth about these beers is that blindfolded, the most fervent of their partisans cannot tell them apart–they are specifically designed to be as flavourless as possible–offend fewer people, grab greater sales.

beer-misalign

One of these things is not like the other . . .

Craft beers on the other hand have the option of using many different kinds of malt–there are hundreds available–and in addition to the explosive growth of new hop varieties, they also add anything that strikes them as a positive–licorice? Sure! Coconut? You bet! And so on. They also use different yeast, and since yeast contributes heavily to the profile of a beer they can really stick the flavour knife in and twist it, adding aromas and flavours of bubblegum, melted butter or tropical fruits, if they desire. S.W.I.L.L. is universally made with alcohol-tolerant, neutral profile yeast.

All it takes is for a lover of beer is to try a few craft beers and as soon as they become normalised to the very different flavours and aromas, all S.W.I.L.L. tastes weak, watery and fizzy. It doesn’t matter if it’s the same alcohol content or the same body, the relatively weak palate of flavours and neutral character makes it wimpy.

Engagement is the second part and it’s the secret key. It’s impossible to engage with a corporation that concentrates of return for its investors above all else–no matter how many small brewers they buy, no matter how hard they try to use those breweries and their beers as a mask to try to cajole people to like their overall portfolio, it won’t work.

I engage with breweries that can tell me an authentic story about their beer–who made it, where the recipe came from, how they feel about it, and what cool stuff they’ve done and plan to do next. A corporation, designed only to make money for investors, doesn’t have a story like that, and as soon as they purchase a craft brewery they destroy its story as well.

And a corporation will never, ever understand why. Because they could be making bricks or shoes, and don’t care what the vehicle for their revenue stream is. Real craft breweries engage their drinkers with not only flavour, aroma and choice, but also with a real dedication to the idea that beer is more than just a drink–it’s a gateway to an experience.

Yet Again, Powdered Alcohol.

This is really the non-story that would not die.

You may recall from such blog posts as Powdered Alcohol: Some Dry Observations and Further Observations on Powdered Booze, the faux product Palcohol made some headlines. People who did not understand organic chemistry were delighted by the idea that there was a magic powder that you could sprinkle into anything and make it an instant alcoholic beverage, and the ‘will nobody think of the children’ crowd went absolutely insane at the idea that kids would be snorting it at parties, and next thing you know they’d be addicted to the marijuana . . .

People. I’ll never understand them. Even being one does not seem to help.

However, the chaps over at Vice Magazine (warning: the magazine and the website are relentlessly naughty) have an occasional practical bent. One of their intrepid reporters obtained the necessary ingredients and with a few modifications (he used 192 Proof grain alcohol) he made a batch.

How was it? Two quotes sum it all up:

The powder drunk creeps up on you, and sometime on the walk it kicked in. I went from mostly sober to buzzed to the kind of drunk where you already have a headache and can feel the hangover coming like a distant high-pitched whine. 

The headache was still present—a throbbing pressure at my temples—but the powder drunk was giving me a weird, out-of-body feeling. If you like headaches and gummed-up sinuses and numb, dissociative (sic) drunks, you’re going to go apeshit for powdered booze.

boozefire

Photo courtesy Vice Magazine

There you have it. The author notes that the stuff burned like Napalm, which may in fact be the killer application for the product–burning up in a fire.

 

Powdered Alcohol: Some Dry Observations

Tang. It's out of this world.

The powder? It’s Tang. I’m an astronaut.

In my previous life as the go-to technical guy for retailers and consumers, I’ve spent a lot of my time giving answers to questions both simple and complex, about beer and wine making. I’ve spent even more of my time trying to counter misconceptions, folk tales, and outright jiggery-pokery about beverage alcohol. Most of the time it’s a case of imperfect understanding or incomplete information that I’ve dealt with, but every once in a while something perfectly ridiculous shows up. You’d think that the sheer dumbness of an idea would make it easier to debunk, but that isn’t the case. Because clickbait/aggregator sites like Huffington Post, Gawker, Buzzfeed and the like keep sensationalising and promoting dumb ideas with witless, boundless and breathless enthusiasm, it only takes a small number of people not reading critically to keep the very dumbest ideas in circulation, spreading them out like a slick of dumb across the media waters.

Case in point, ‘Powdered Alcohol’. An enterprising self-promoter named Mark Phillips set up a website to promote Palcohol. After as much checking as I can manage, I haven’t found a strong indicator that this is a hoax. There’s a credible-seeming document showing label approval for a distilled spirit under the name Palcohol, and the Lehrman beverage law firm is leading on the story, which has, somewhat predictably, made the aforementioned sensationalist sites go absolutely insane with joy, crowing from both sides of their mouths about the joy of smuggling ‘vodka powder’ into stadiums and the danger of ‘snorting powdered alcohol’. All in all, it’s a fabulously rich tapestry to hang fantasies of danger and intrigue on.

You can't fool an idiot.

Actually, pretty sure.

Thing is, it’s total crap. Hooey. Malarkey.

Physics prevents alcohol from becoming a powder. Ethanol (CH3-CH2-OH, the good alcohol that we know and love) is a volatile liquid. ‘Volatile’ refers to a substance that vaporises (evaporates) readily, and ethanol evaporates extremely quickly, far faster than water (that’s why rubbing alcohol feels cool on the skin: it evaporates rapidly). At room temperature pure alcohol doesn’t last, and can’t be made into or ‘converted’ to powder. It just goes away.

You can, however, stabilise it by mixing it into an appropriate powder and sealing it in a vapour-proof package. You could use sugar, or more likely a polysaccharide like maltodextrin, which bulks like sugar and has similar hygroscopic qualities, but would not taste abominably sweet in the amount needed.

Now the key to why ‘powdered alcohol’ is a load of bovine feces: the putative TTB label to Palcohol declares 100 ml of powder at 12% ABV, (never mind the mock-up labels on the Palcohol site. They declare much higher levels, but they’re not legal and not approved–fake or simply erroneous, take your pick) and also states that the product is 58% ABW (alcohol by weight). Running the numbers a little, 12% of 100ml = 12ml of 100% pure ethanol. That doesn’t sound like much, but most spirits are sold at 80 Proof, or 40% ABV. Divide 12 ml by 0.40 and you get 30, or roughly one fluid ounce worth of 80 Proof alcohol.

And confirming this bit of math, the packet is marketed as the equivalent to one cocktail. However, the 58% ABW number tells us that the alcohol is much denser than the powder it is suspended in, making the packet fairly bulky–100 ml is almost exactly the same volume as three standard ping-pong balls. This bulk means you’d need 26 of the packets to make up an entire vodka bottle’s worth of cocktails, which is 2.6 litres of powder or 7/10ths of a US gallon.

Assuming you do make this damp maltodextrin substrate-with-alcohol mix, where does that leave you? With a product that’s only 12% ABV, probably costs more, and bulks much larger than simple beverage alcohol, is tough to dissolve in cold liquid and doesn’t taste like anything without the addition of lots of extra additives. Additionally you’d be consuming some form of unidentified powder in vastly higher quantities than the alcohol you’re seeking. Peachy.

So yeah, it might be a thing, but it’s not the thing people want it to be, which is a tiny pinch of magic powder that will turn water into hard liquor like magic.

I lit one up and my house drowned to the ground.

Water matches! Keep away from open flame.

And in this, I blame Warner Brothers. Specifically, I blame their employee, Wile E Coyote, and the Acme corporation that he supported so strongly. The technology that was displayed in the cartoons was surreal and magical–holes you could drop things into and then roll up and take away, paintings that you could enter or alternatively smash your face against, gravity that only acted long after you stepped off the cliff, and so on, all examples of magical thinking, where the observed could not always be understood and actions and events had absurd causal relationships.

About as plausible as powdered alcohol anyway

Just like mom used to make

And really, that’s what human beings want: easy answers that make sense on an emotional level–alcohol is bulky, if it were dried out, you could carry lots with little bulk or weight, hurrah! Only no, reality has to intervene with its fancy college learnin’, laws of physics and general fun-spoiling party-pooper attitude.

I’m not immune to the desire for magic answers. When I was a little kid I was promised moon vacations and a jet car. I’m still waiting for those to be practical, but I know they’ll never come my way. It may make me a cynical curmudgeon now, but on the other hand I save space in my brain for things that are physically possible. Powdered alcohol is a pretty strong marketing hook, but snake oil often is.

This is why we cover our nose and mouth when we sneeze. So our cocktails don't fly out.

I’ll have what she’s having!

Oh, and the danger of ‘snorting’ Palcohol (which Phillips’ coquettishly advises against): if you can snort a volume of sugar/maltodextrin the size of three ping-pong balls to get the stinging equivalent of an ounce of booze up your nose, you’re not human, you’re a vacuum cleaner. Plus, ever get alcohol in your sinuses? It doesn’t stay there: your body won’t let it.

Credit to my friend Peter Cargasacchi for letting me clutter up a Facebook post of his with my immoderate ranting on this topic earlier today. Comments there made me do better math (trust me, as bad as my math is, this is better than it was) and think harder about why we want things like this to be true.