A Timely Translation Teaches Us Again How to Drink

The story is told of a student of philosopher and spiritualist George Gurdjieff, who approached him one day with wonderful news. “I’ve stopped smoking!” he exclaimed. “Great,” it’s said Gurdjieff replied, offering him one of his own long, thin, Russian cigarettes. “But, have you stopped NOT smoking too?”

This philosophy, moderation in all things–even moderation, is wonderfully and humorously espoused in the 16th Century book How to Drink by Vincent Obsopoeus (ca. 1498-1539). In a new release, Michael Fontaine, Professor of Classics at Cornell University makes the original Latin text accessible to 21st Century readers with an up-to-date translation that includes clever neologisms and familiar terms. As a bonus, the original Latin is included on the facing pages for those who wish to practice their classic language skills!

Obsopoeus was German humanist, Latin poet, and translator active in the Reformation. In Germany at the time, the climate had become uncharacteristically hot, and German grapes, usually low in sugar and hence capable of making only weak wine, were instead turning out fearsomely strong drink. As a result, it seemed to Obsopoeus, the entire nation had become a citizenry of drunks.

Now, according to Obsopoeus, taking a bit–and sometimes quite a bit–of wine is a perfectly fine passtime. But “if you drink in an uneducated manner, wine will hurt you.” On the other hand, “if you are educated about your drinking…wine is enjoyable and good.” Obsopoeus endeavors to educate his readers in good drinking practices.

Falarnian was the type of wine he most favored. This was an ancient Roman vintage, something akin to Sherry, with the grapes grown on the slopes of Mount Falernus in southern Italy. With a cult following at the time, it was a white wine, though produced from black grapes. Like Sherry, it was strong, as much as 15% alcohol. Harvested after late frosts, it was allowed to mature in amphorae for as long as 20 years, turning it amber to dark brown in color. Also like Sherry, it could vary from dry to sweet in flavor.

So enamored was he of this gift of the harvest that he writes a litany of praise to the god of wine, Bacchus and His power. “You make men rich, handsome and genteel! You alone, my lord, can gladden the gods of heaven.”

Vincent Opsopoeus

Vincent Obsopoeus

Obsopoeus offers hints and tips about how the gentleman should approach the indulgence of wine. Drink at home with your wife he recommends. Or drink moderately with friends and family, always being reserved and discreet. Honor the god Bacchus, and always be appropriately thankful and mindful of his gift of alcohol.

On the contrary, getting smashed and vulgar every day is a terrible sin, and an insult to the divine gift offered to humankind by Bacchus. Obsopoeus spends an entire section of the book describing in lurid detail the degradation and debauchery exhibited by his fellow citizens while under the terrible influence of their own self-poisoning.

But at this point Obsopoeus introduces a plot twist to his book. How to win drinking games: a skill he studiously practiced in his younger years! Evidently there was only one kind of 16th Century drinking game: take turns downing glasses of wine until all but one player passed out.

Obsopoeus offers his tried-and-true strategies for winning these drinking contests, including several methods of cheating. You’ll have to read the book to discover his secrets, but there is one worth mentioning up front: don’t try to compete with women! “The reason, you’ll find, is that women who indulge are equipped with a breathtaking ability to hold their liquor. They put Bacchus Himself to shame when they drink wine.”

And one more hint: to relieve a hangover, get yourself an amethyst crystal. The name of this sure-fire cure comes from the Greek a- (against) metfhyo (drunkenness.) Bet you didn’t know that!

Obsopoeus published this, his most famous work, in 1536. He was about 38 when he wrote the book, aimed in part at hard-drinking 19 to 25-year-old college students. He addresses bro/frat culture with the admonitions of experience. By 41 he was dead, having wished he had taken his own advice in his youth. Hopefully, very many medieval bros heeded his message; here we are today, with the benefit of hearing it anew. Enjoy your drink, but respect its power. To Bacchus he exclaims “For crying out loud, I’ll be damned if You can’t resurrect dead bodies with the juices that flow from Your vine!”

Robert Rivelle George is the author of “The Umami Factor: Full-spectrum Fermentation for the 21st Century”

A Classical Guide to the Art of Imbibing
By Vincent Obsopoeus
Translated and Introduced by Michael Fontaine
320 pages Princeton University Press $16.95

Sizing up the Growlerwerks uKeg Pressurized Growler

I first came across Growlerwerks at the Craft Beverage Conference in 2015. They had just completed their Kickstarter campaign, and were showing prototypes of their innovatively-designed uKeg beer dispensing system. They’ve come a long way since then, and the uKeg, which is available both on the company website, and through Amazon, routinely receives four-star reviews. Growlerwerks is getting pretty creative too in suggesting ways to use the keg to dispense soft drinks and pre-mixed cocktails, and as a means of force-carbonating beverages.

I’ve tested the 2-liter (64 ounce) version for the last four months, and here are my findings.

The uKeg comes very nicely packaged. The box is well-compartmentalized, and contains, besides the keg itself, a nice tote bag for transporting the keg to and from a fill station, 12 spare CO2 cartridges, a spare pressure cap seal, Growlerwerks sticker for your beer fridge, and a comprehensive user manual with excellent detailed instructions and blow-up drawings showing all the parts assemblies. A pocket-sized manual is included as well.

The uKeg itself is a 2 or 4 liter double-walled, vacuum-insulated aluminum pressure vessel with an adjustable pressure-regulator cap. It’s available in brushed aluminum, copper finish, or anodized black. The dispensing system is a cool-looking Steampunk styled tap attached to the side of the keg. The dispenser incorporates a sight glass and a pressure gauge, making it functional as well as decorative. The keg comes with a one-year warranty. Growlerwerks also offers phone and email customer support.

My experience with the Growlerwerks uKeg has been largely positive, with only a few minor quibbles. First of all, this little fellow is going to turn some heads when you bring it to the growler filling shop, picnic, or friend’s party. The classic lines remind me of the look of the equipment in some of the very old breweries still operating in Europe. The copper-clad version is particularly handsome.

I found that Growlerwerks is also fairly conservative in their estimation of its performance. For example, officially the keg is supposed to keep beer fresh for “at least two weeks.” I have had beer in it a month with no deterioration of quality, as long as the keg was kept full. Even a partially-filled keg’s contents were fine after two weeks.

Growlerwerks says your beer will stay cold “all day.” I found that beer would be drinkably cold for 24 hours, and would be at least “cellar temperature” (typical of English cask ales) for up to 36 hours. It helps to pre-chill the keg with the cap off before filling it. (The keg is nicely sized to fit on a typical refrigerator shelf.)

The uKeg is also rated to use one CO2 cartridge per fill—kind of economically daunting if you like to fill your keg a couple of times a week. I have gotten two to three fills out of a cartridge however. I found that if I apply the minimum amount of pressure to dispense the liquid inside, and turn off the pressure between pours I can conserve the gas and make it last. (Growlerwerks says turning off the pressure doesn’t conserve gas, and I have not tested the functionality both ways.)

I found that the tap-handle lock is also a great feature, preventing accidental discharge of the contents when the keg is being moved.

Now for the quibbles, and I stress that they are trivial in consideration of the overall performance of the uKeg.

The cap, with considerable pressure inside (about 10-15 psi) will occasionally leak. It’s not a serious issue in my experience, a few drips a minute. Nonetheless it helps to be aware of the possibility, and put the keg on a tray or platter. This helps to also contain the inevitable drips that will come from the spout after a pour.

Many of the online complaints filed about the uKeg involve problems with the pressure cartridge leaking. I suppose this is understandable, because the cap is the product’s most complicated assembly. Others refer to the poor quality of assembly and finish, and leaks elsewhere in the piping.

To be fair, many of the complaints appear to be from the early days of production, and evidently Growlerwerks has sorted these problems out. My unit arrived without any of these issues. In any event, customer service seems to be quite responsive to complaints after a few growing pains typical of start-ups.

A number of my fellow brew club members have had a chance to play with the uKeg too, and are similarly impressed. A few mentioned that the Steampunk pouring assembly looks like it might be a bit fragile, and I certainly wouldn’t want the keg to fall off the counter or roll around in the footwell of the car. With proper caution however, and transporting the unit in its carry bag, that should not be an issue.

In conclusion then, I too join the ranks of customers giving the Growlerwerks uKeg four out of five stars. Despite some minor drawbacks, I’m very happy with its performance, as well as its handsome looks. I think you will like it too!

Evaluation by Robert Rivelle George
Author: the UMAMI factor: Full-spectrum fermentation for the 21st Century
Director and Division Manager, Torchlight Brewing Company
FB: theumamifactory