Five Essential Inventions For A Tolerable Quarantine

We’ve been self-isolating for more than three weeks now, and while many people are complaining about being cooped up for so long, I think it’s important to recognize those things that have made our collective bout with quarantine more tolerable.  I’ve come up with a list of five things that I think have been essential, listed in reverse order of their first invention.  Two of them are about as old as civilization, interestingly.

  1.  Alcohol — Where would we be without wine, beer, and other adult beverages?  At the end of a hard day of working at home, a glass of wine or a cold tumbler of suds sure make the graphs showing how curves can be flattened and the news about ventilator production go down a bit easier.  Liquor sales spiked after the shutdown was announced, and it quickly became clear that Americans put alcohol on the same exalted level as toilet paper when it comes to being absolutely certain of having a more than ample supply.  As somebody said, it’s not clear that people are drinking more during the work-at-home period, but they’re sure not drinking any less, either.  As for the invention of adult beverages, humans have made both wine and beer for so long that their dates of creation have been lost in the mists of time.  Scientists recently discovered earthenware jars containing wine residue that indicated humans were guzzling fermented grape juice more than 8,000 years ago, and beer is the subject of the oldest recorded recipe in the world — instructions that were found on ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls that date back to 5,000 B.C. 
  2. Soap — You’ve got to give people something to do during a pandemic to make them feel like they are pitching in, and for Americans the instructions are clear:  wash your hands, thoroughly and repeatedly.   As soon as we get back from our allotted exercise walks we head dutifully to the sink for our required 20-second bout with lathering, scrubbing, and rinsing.  It may not sound like much, but those constant 20-second scrubbings add up and help to pass the slow-moving quarantine time, and they make us feel good about doing our part.  Soap also dates back thousands of years, with historians believing that the Babylonians invented the first soap, made from fats boiled with ashes, about 5,000 years ago.
  3. Canned food and crock pots — It’s probably safe to say that people are cooking more at home than they’ve done in the last 50 years, and because there’s an interest in trying to minimize trips to the grocery store, people are trying to stretch their food stores and leftovers farther than ever before.  That’s where canned food and crock pots really strut their stuff.  In fact, I think it is safe to say that no single device is more adept at converting aging leftovers into tasty meals than the crock pot.  Whether it’s stews made of random items hauled from the cupboard, or last night’s chili made with leftover meat loaf, leftover sausage, a can of black beans, some chopped onions, and liberal doses of Texas Pete’s hot sauce and sriracha sauce, our crock pot has been a high-producing kitchen item during the last few weeks.  The smells coming from the crock pot also help to make the quarantine household a happy place, too.  Canned foods were first invented more than 200 years ago, and the first slow cookers — the precursors to the crock pot, which was first call the “bean pot” — were invented about 80 years ago
  4. PCs — Where would we be without personal computers and laptops?  For many of us, they are the one, essential device that allows us to work from home, and without them the unemployment statistics in America would be much, much worse.  They also allow us to get the latest news with a few touches of keyboard buttons, and to catch up on our friends and check out the latest coronavirus memes and political rants on social media websites.  The laptop PC is the fulcrum that has moved the working world, and the COVID-19 quarantine is the singular event that will probably change our approach to how people work and do business, forever.  The first personal computer — the Altair 8800 — was invented in 1975, and the first laptop — which weighed more than 30 pounds, incidentally — was released in 1981.
  5. Netflix and other streaming services — One very popular topic among friends on social media these days is swapping information about nightly viewing options.  Everybody’s got an opinion, because we’re all watching a lot of TV during this shut-in period, and we’re running through viewing options faster than ever before.  (The ten episodes of season three of Ozark, for example, flew by far too quickly.)  Netflix and other streaming services allow us to pick from an enormous array or TV shows and movies, old and new, and then advise our friends on whether options like Tiger King or Messiah are worth checking out.  What would we do without constant entertainment?  Netflix first started streaming content in 2007 — just in the nick of time, relatively speaking.

So there you have it — millennia of human invention and creativity, all combining to make the Great Coronavirus Crisis of 2020 a bit more tolerable for American shut-ins.  Thanks to the ancient winemakers, the Egyptians and Babylonians, and the techno-geeks and food canners.  We owe you a great debt of gratitude.

And now, it’s time to check out a few websites and think about what we’ll be making for dinner tonight.

Post-Apocalyptic Brewskis

Back in the 1950s, when American scientists and military advisors were regularly test-detonating new nuclear devices to see whether they should be added to America’s nuclear arsenal, scientists decided it made sense to conduct a special experiment — and “Operation Teapot” was born.  Its purpose was to determine the “civil effects” of an atomic blast on commercially packaged food items, including bottled and canned beer.

small20boy20test201962The Operation Teapot researchers reasoned that, if the United States and the Soviet Union started hurling nuclear bombs at each other, the American water supply would quickly become contaminated by fallout, and determining an alternative source for fluids therefore was important.  The report on Operation Teapot explained:  “Consideration of the problems of food supply show the needs of humans for water, especially under disaster conditions, could be immediate and urgent.”  The report added:  “At various times some consideration has been given to special packaging of potable water, but since packaged beverages, both beer and soft drinks, are so ubiquitous and already uniformly available in urban areas, it is obvious that they could serve as important sources of fluids.”  In short, since American households already had ample supplies of beer and Coke, why not see if the U.S. could rely on those to supply post-bomb blast refreshment?

So, in 1955, researchers at the Nevada Proving Grounds put bottled and canned beer and soda at three locations, ranging from 0.2 to 2 miles from ground zero, and then set off a bomb.  Some of the bottles and cans at the location closest to the blast were obliterated, but others survived and, after testing, were found to be largely unaffected in the taste department and “within the permissible limits for emergency use” from a radiation standpoint.  The canned and bottled beers that were positioned farther away from the blast site showed no signs of change whatsoever and even retained their carbonation and airtight seal.

Some of the two-fisted scientists working on Operation Teapot, no doubt thirsty after witnessing the blast, apparently cracked open some of the beers and soft drinks and downed a few swigs to conduct an “immediate taste test.”  The report on Operation Teapot noted:  “Immediate taste tests indicated that the beverages, both beer and soft drinks, were still of commercial quality, although there was evidence of a slight flavour change in some of the products exposed at 1270 ft from GZ [Ground Zero]. Those farther away showed no change.”  The remaining bottles and cans were sent to several commercial laboratories for further taste testing, and the consensus was that the beer could unquestionably be used as an emergency source of potable beverages.

So there you have it!  After following “duck and cover” techniques to weather the initial atomic blast, Americans of the ’50s would be able to crack open a cold bottle of suds and quaff a few without concern about their beer supply going flat or having a skunky taste.  It would make the post-apocalyptic landscape and the clumps of hair falling out of your scalp a little bit easier to take.

Drinking The Beer The Monks Drank

Important news from Belgium for beer lovers — the monks of Grimbergen Abbey have managed to piece together long-lost information about the ingredients and methods used to brew their different beers going back in the Middle Ages, and have started to brew beer again.  The rediscovery of the recipe is a kind of historical detective story where language plays a key role.

rtx6vw88The story starts with the monks of the abbey, who like other monks of the Middle Ages, brewed, and enjoyed, beer.  (In fact, some monks fasted during Lent and drank only specially brewed beer that was a kind of liquid bread during that period — which probably made for an interesting Lenten season.)  The Grimbergen Abbey brews were known far and wide, and their ingredients and the methods used by the monks were set down in books first written in the 12th century.  The monks continued to brew their beer, changing their recipes periodically, until 1798, when French Revolutionaries, who were no friends to religion, burned the monastery to the ground.  The 1798 incident is one of three times that the monastery has burned down.

But the monks of Grimbergen Abbey are resolute.  Fortunately, some of the monks rescued the 12th-century books and stored them, but the recipes and methods were thought to be lost because no one could read the writing, which was in a mixture of old Latin and old Dutch.  Four years ago, the monks at the monastery decided to tackle the problem and invited volunteers from the community to help them in trying to decipher the writings.  Together they were able to identify ingredient lists, the types of hops and bottles and barrels that were used, and even the names of the different beers the monks brewed over the centuries.

Now the monks, in partnership with Carlsberg which offers a number of the Abbey’s previously known beers for sale, have built a new microbrewery on the site of the original brewery and have started to brew a beer based on some of the old recipes and methods.  It’s a heady brew — 10.8% alcohol, by volume — and will be sold by the glass in Belgium and France.

A toast to the indomitable beer-loving monks of Grimbergen Abbey, and the volunteers who helped them to recover a bit of liquid history!

Pretentious, Indeed

The Doc Next Door knows I like sour beers, so when he and Mrs. Doc came over for a visit last night, he brought along four assorted sours he picked up at the Pretentious Barrel House. The bottles are a bit pretentious, I suppose — they hold 8.45 ounces and are shaped like tiny champagne bottles — and with handles like Grandiloquent and Magnanimous the beer names are, too. But the beers really aren’t. The Grandiloquent, which I enjoyed last night, was a great, mouth-puckering, as sour as sour can be effort, and today’s Magnanimous is a bit fuller-bodied and less tooth-curdling . . . the perfect beer to sip and savor along with Tiger Woods’ improbable Masters triumph.

Pretentious? I’ve never thought of making tasty beer as pretentious, but who am I to argue with brewers who produce these kinds of results?

Debunking Drinking Wisdom

Shortly after I passed the legal drinking age and started drinking adult beverages, I first heard the aphorism “wine, then beer, and have no fear.”  Some years later, I heard the flip side:  “beer, then wine, and I feel fine.”  The idea behind each of the sayings — which are seemingly contradictory, in case you hadn’t noticed — was that if you sequenced what you drank, you could avoid a hangover.

wineandbeerAre either of the sayings true?

No, of course not . . . and now a study has confirmed it.  Researchers from the Witten/Herdecke University in Germany and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom — two countries, incidentally, that are very serious about their wine and beer — studied whether the sequence in which alcoholic beverages are consumed might affect how people who overindulge feel the next day.  One group drank beer, then wine, and another drank wine, then beer.  A third, control group drank only one or the other.

The study found that the drinking sequence made no difference in the hangover impact.  One of the researchers explained: “The truth is that drinking too much of any alcoholic drink is likely to result in a hangover. The only reliable way of predicting how miserable you’ll feel the next day is by how drunk you feel and whether you are sick. We should all pay attention to these red flags when drinking.”  (No kidding!)

And get this:  another of the researchers makes the dubious argument that hangovers actually can have positive effects.  He stated: “Unpleasant as hangovers are, we should remember that they do have one important benefit, at least: They are a protective warning sign that will certainly have aided humans over the ages to change their future behavior. In other words, they can help us learn from our mistakes.”  Boy, scientists are perverse, aren’t they?

I’d never argue that hangovers are a good thing, but I do know this — any perceived folk wisdom about drinking that rhymes and is capable of being remembered after a few drinks probably isn’t that wise after all.

All Beers Are Not Created Equal

Deutsche Bank has performed a useful service for travelers who enjoy a fermented beverage now and then:  its latest Mapping The World’s Prices report includes a pint of beer as one of the cost items being surveyed.  As a result, beer fans (like me) can get a sense of the comparative cost of a glass of suds in 50 different cities around the world.

save-pubs-hed-page-2018According to this year’s report, the most expensive pint is in Dubai, in the Arab Emirates, where the average cost of a cold one is $12.  Oslo, Norway is the only other city to exceed the $10 barrier for a brewski.  The most expensive beers in the U.S. are found in New York City and San Francisco — no surprise there — where you’ll pay an average of $7.70 and $7.40, respectively, and Boston isn’t far behind at $6.70.  The cheapest pint can be found in Manila, in the Philippines, where beer afficionados can slake their thirst for only $1.50.  Columbus isn’t one of the 50 cities on the list, but in my experience the beer costs here are closer to the Manila end of the spectrum — which is one of the many nice things about living in Ohio’s capital city.

But while the Deutsche Bank report is useful for travelers who might want to factor in beer costs to their trip planning, it really doesn’t tell the whole story.  A beer isn’t always just a beer.  To me, at least, whether we’re talking about a lager, an ale, one of those infernal bitter IPAs that seem to dominate beer menus these days, or something else, would make a real difference.  Even $1.50 for an IPA would be more than I would pay.

And the setting is important, too.  I’m guessing that someone coming into a pub from the fiery heat of Dubai might consider $12 for a cold one to be a bargain.  And speaking as someone who particularly enjoys the dark, warm, woody ambiance of a real British pub like the Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden, I’ll gladly pay $7.20 that is the average cost of a beer in London.

North Haven Brewing Company

These days you find American craft breweries just about everywhere. So I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to find the North Haven Brewing Company tucked into the walkout area of Calderwood Hall in North Haven — even though it’s a town on an island off the Maine coast that is accessible only by boat.

We stopped by to sample the wares NHBC offers and found them to be excellent. I had a red ale, and Russell enjoyed the coffee stout, brewed with coffee from 44 North in Stonington. One of the proprietors said they started a home brewery and found they liked it so much they decided to start a company. All of their offerings are brewed on the premises at Calderwood Hall.

The American craft brewing movement is a great thing, and it’s pretty cool to see it represented in a community like North Haven.

Beer Serape

In Ohio, we have cheap foam beer coozies. They don’t look great, but they do keep your beer cold — which is important.

Out here in San Diego, they’ve got much more classy coozies. In fact, they’re not coozies at all, but rather beer serapes. It’s the Corona covering of choice for any fiesta.

The beer tasted very good and went down easy, so I’m not sure whether my serape kept my beer “coozie cold.” It sure looked good, though.

Merry Christmas (Ale)!

Every year, beer lovers in the Midwest wait impatiently for the delivery of the Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Christmas Ale, in the same way that credulous seven-year-olds wait for Santa Claus — with a mixture of fervent belief and outright greed. Every year, Great Lakes delivers a delicious, spicy concoction that is designed to make the holidays more merry.

This year’s version, which I happily quaffed at the Olde Mohawk this afternoon, does not disappoint. Even Ebenezer Scrooge would savor this brew!

Toasting Regionality

One of the great things about traveling to different parts of the United States is the chance to experience the differences that exist from one region to another.  Whether it’s mountains versus seacoast versus rolling prairie, odd local food favorites, or curious accents found only in one part of the country, the intrepid traveler strives to check out, and appreciate, the unique aspects of different sections of our large and diverse country.

Regionality was once in danger of being lost, back in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, with the rush toward sprawling national brands, like McDonalds and KFC and WalMart, that used the power of economies of scale and familiarity to put a lot of local concerns out of business.  But the tide seems to have turned, and craft beers are leading the way.

Wherever you go — whether it’s Asheville, North Carolina, or San Antonio, Texas, or the Pacific Northwest, or Columbus, Ohio — small local breweries are creating their own unique brews, with labels and brands that typically celebrate some element of local culture.  Even better, these entrepreneurs of the suds have been able to convince local pubs and grocery stores and gas stations to carry their offerings.  Boosters are touting their successful local breweries as examples of the special qualities of their communities and how small concerns can thrive in their business-friendly towns.  And virtually every sizable city and town lays claim to being one of the premier craft beer settings in the country.

Our recent trip to Maine was no different.  New England generally, and Maine specifically, offer a lot of local beers that you simply can’t find here in the Midwest.  I felt honor-bound to sample some of the distinctive offerings we found in restaurants and at the grocery store — it’s one of the duties of the intrepid traveler, in my view — and all of them were good.  A particular favorite was Allagash White, a light, fizzy, crisp beer that went especially well with a steaming bowl of haddock chowder and oyster crackers on a rainy day.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to try the Smiling Irish Bastard, but I did get a kick out of the name and the label.

It’s interesting that breweries have become a source of distinctive local pride, and it’s a trend that is good to see.

Tubing It

Today we took an inner tube float trip on a segment of the Medina River in the Hill Country of Texas.  The river drifted lazily beneath a canopy of shady trees, the cool, crystal clear water felt good against the keister, and the ice-cold beers went down easy along the way.  There may be a more relaxing way to spend a Friday afternoon, but if so I don’t know what it is.

The wise river tuber carefully ties up to the cooler tube, by the way.

Summer Beer Selections

So, it’s July, and tonight it’s a perfect summer evening for sitting outside.  Not too hot, a little sultry . . . the kind of night where fireflies circle about lazily and a cold beer tastes mighty good against the lingering heat.

And speaking of cold beer . . . what to choose?  The local convenience store offers a surprisingly wide and diverse selection that is a far cry from the shelves of Budweiser, Schultz, and Stroh’s that I remember from my childhood.

Tonight, it’s going to be an alternation of goses and brown ales, the better to appreciate a near-perfect summer evening.

Learning To Like IPAs

Traditionally, I am not an IPA guy.  They tend to be bitter, and I am more of a sour, or wheat beer, or lager fan.  But because my mentees got me a bunch of IPAs for my birthday, and because I think it is criminal to let a beer — any beer! — go to waste, I’ve been gradually working my way through the IPA collection in the fridge. Tonight I’m drinking my last birthday beer, a Switch Blade IPA from Ohio-based Four Strings Brewing Company, and I can honestly say that it’s not half bad.  I’m not sure IPAs will ever be my brew of choice, but I feel like I’ve acquired an appreciation for them.

Birthday Beercake

At work today some of my colleagues surprised me with a birthday beercake — locals brews configured to form a kind of layer cake, with a special sour beer as a quasi-candle on top.

What a thoughtful and artistic gesture!  They insisted, however, that I leave their creation in my office for a few days, so all visitors can enjoy it.  I wonder how the nightly cleaning crew will react to the new addition to my desktop art?