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10 Wild and Weird Drink Ingredients

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ThinkStock

When it comes to booze, humanity has stuck with the classics for a long time. The first recipes for beer production appear 4000 years ago, in a series of Sumerian tablets that include a hymn to the Goddess Ninkasi—“the lady who fills the mouth.” Back in the Sumerians' day, they made beer by crumbling up barley bread into a mash. Brewing techniques have since changed, but people are still pretty consistent with what they like: Beer made from grains; wine from grapes; spirits distilled from fruit or grain. But some intrepid drink-makers have gone far beyond that well-trod path. We've combed the corners of the world to compile some of the wildest concoctions you can find in beer, wine, or spirits.

1. Artichokes

Courtesy of Campari

It's not unusual to use vegetables in distilling alcohol. Sugar cane and the agave plant, for instance, are used to make rum and tequila. Less known, however, is that the lowly artichoke has become the star of its own drink. Cynar, an Italian liqueur made from 13 plants and herbs including artichokes, is popular in Europe. Cynar tastes more bittersweet than identifiably like any particular vegetable, and is often paired with orange juice, or served on the rocks as an apertif. It's starting to become more trendy to drink in the U.S., so look for its artichoke-adorned bottle at a bar near you.

2. Asparagus

Courtesy of Kellie Fox

“It was kind of an experiment that turned out not-so-bad.” 

That's how farmer Kellie Fox describes her latest creation: Asparagus wine. Fox and her husband, Todd, own a fruit and asparagus farm in Oceana County, Michigan, also known as the “Asparagus Capital of the World.” 

On a lark a few years ago, Fox tried to make wine from asparagus and it turned out to be a hit. The white wine smells and tastes like asparagus “and it's a little sweet,” Fox says.

The couple sells the wine during their harvest festival. One customer buys eight bottles every year to use during a dinner where every item is made with asparagus.

3. Baby mice

Wikimedia Commons

On the more horrifying end of the weird-drink spectrum is the practice of drowning animals in rice wine or whiskey, supposedly for health benefits. For this tonic, newborn mice are drowned alive in rice wine and left to ferment. It's difficult to confirm where one might purchase or even find such an item since it fortunately won't be appearing at Costco anytime soon.

4. Civet poop

Wikimedia Commons

Caphe cut chon is one of the ingredients in “Beer Geek Brunch Weasel,” a coffee stout made by Danish brewer, Mikkeller. Caphe cut chon, which translates to “Fox-dung coffee,” is made when the civet, a small weasel-like creature, digests and poops out coffee cherries. Yes, this is actually a thing. This special coffee “processing” is difficult to mass-produce so the coffee fetches a high markup, costing anywhere from $30 a cup on up. Opinions differ on the quality of the coffee, but the beer earned a “World Class” rating at Beer Advocate.

5. Hair

Courtesy of Rogue Ales & Spirits

Technically, the upcoming “beard beer” being produced by Oregon-based Rogue Ales is not made from hair, but rather, the wild yeasts found clinging to brew master John Maier's “old-growth” beard. Last year, the brewery wanted to develop some wild yeast for new beers, so Maier sampled nine hairs from his beard and ended up cultivating a stellar and unique wild yeast strain. The brewery is still in the process of developing the beers from that yeast, but you can check for updates on Maier's beard blog.

6. Wasp guts

Courtesy of birradelborgo.com

In yet another case of brewers gone rogue, a brewery in Italy developed beers using on a strain of yeast found in wasp bowels. Birra del Borgo brewers are no strangers to interesting beer experiments, having previously attempted to replicate ancient beverages from the Etruscan age. In the case of the wasp beer, the brewers worked with researchers who were studying how wasps and hornets transfer and store yeasts from grape skins. As it turns out, wasp intestines make a cozy place to temporarily store wild yeast. And that yeast was used to develop a beer called Maia (named after a cartoon bee). The brewery is also in the process of developing a second beer called Calabrone (hornet).

7. Mare's milk

Wikimedia Commons

Should you happen to be in the neighborhood of the Mongolian steppes, be sure to try some airag, or kumis, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented mare's milk. Because of the higher content of sugar in mare's milk, the drink ends up with a mild amount of alcohol instead of resembling something like kefir, a yogurt-like drink. Mare's milk contains a much higher amount of lactose than cow's milk, so the fermentation process lessens the laxative effect of the milk as well. The bonus to this drink is that you can get your probiotics and buzz on at the same time.

8. Nicotine

The nicotini (nicotine infused spirit) popped up a couple years ago in response to smoking bans. Smokers can get their fix of nicotine all while legally enjoying a (delicious?) beverage. You can make a nicotine syrup by cooking the tobacco leaf with water and sugar, but there are some concerns. Nicotine is a toxic substance, even lethal if the dose is high enough, so you might think twice before having a three nicotini lunch.

9. Snakes

Wikimedia Commons

Whether it's snakes, mice (see above), giant spiders, scorpions, sea horses, or even giant deer penises, there is apparently a demand in East Asia for more than just ice to be found floating in your cocktail. Unlike mice wine, there are plenty of opportunities to purchase giant bottles of alcohol with cobras floating in them; one site advertises its snake bottles as the “best mother's day 2013 gift." You might want to stick with flowers instead.

10. Spit

Wikimedia Commons

Chicha, a drink found in south and central America, can be made from fermented maize, yucca or fruits. The corn version is a mildly alcoholic beer that tastes like apple cider. The traditional method of making chicha involves chewing ground maize into little spit balls that are laid flat to dry. The saliva helps break down the starch into malt sugar.

 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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