the Clear Craze & Prison Electronics

The design fad that had a practical application in prison.

In the late 1980s a trend for clear products took hold – clear electronics, clear drinks. Clear beverages were pitched as more pure than their traditional counterparts because they were free of artificial colors. Health conscious consumers began to associate clear with clean. There is of course no correlation between clarity and health but the trend for clear beverages took off regardless.

Learning from the failure of New Coke, that you don’t mess with your best selling products, various brands created new clear products to appeal to underserved demographics. In 1992 Pepsi released Crystal Pepsi which was a clear soda without preservatives or caffeine. In response to this Coca-Cola released Tab Clear which was created solely to sabotage Crystal Pepsi. Tab Clear was marketed as a diet soda which they hoped would confuse people into thinking Crystal Pepsi was a diet soda, which it did. Both clear sodas were retired by 1994 (although Crystal Pepsi has come back from time to time in limited releases).

In 1993 the Coors Brewing Company released the clear alcoholic beverage Zima. Building off of the 1980s popularity of wine coolers, Zima was a new alternative to beer. It was a lemon-lime drink that was produced for a surprisingly long time (until 2008), and was more popular in Japan than it ever was in the US. Part of Zima’s popularity problem in the US had to do with the fact that it was more popular with women than men which (for some consumers) made it seem like a drink for women. This cut out a large part of the potential male customer base.

A 1993 Zima commercial, complete with a peppering of Z’s substituting for S’s.

In 1993 the Miller Brewing Company chose a few American cities for a limited release of Miller Clear. Through intense filtering they removed the color (and by some critics, the flavor) from a lager to make a clear beer that was less heavy than traditional beer and with greater “drinkability.” It never left the limited release stage.

A 1993 Miller Clear commercial demonstrating it’s radical style while proclaiming that it’s “The first regular beer without all the heaviness.”

Besides beverages, electronics also became transparent, allowing you to see the internal workings of the device. The trend for transparent/translucent electronics lasted into the late 1990s, much longer than the craze for transparent beverages.

In 1983 Swatch released the celebrated Jelly Fish model of watch which had a transparent body allowing you to see the gears (a version of which you can still buy today). A variety of brands made clear telephones some of which would flash when a call was coming in. As part of the Play It Loud! series, in 1995 you could buy a clear Nintendo Game Boy (the clear model’s color was also called X-Ray). The first iMac series, which ran from 1998 to 2003, all featured clear / colored translucent bodies. While clear products were a fun novelty that faded out around the late 1990s they are still very much alive in one particular market: prisons.

Clear Prison Electronics

Behind bars transparent goods allow prison security to inspect for contraband. Depending on the prison system there are different rules & requirements for goods in prison. Some rules are to aid in searching for contraband (such as clear plastic), other requirements are to prevent objects from being turned into weapons (such as using silicon instead of hard plastic). Prison music players & TVs frequently have a lowered maximum volume so as to not annoy one’s neighbors, forcing the listener to be very close to the speaker. An alternative is that some players have the speakers removed altogether and only provide a headphone jack (to be used with clear headphones).

While the cassette was a popular music format in the 1980s, and has seen a resurgence in recent years, it never completely went away. Cassettes have been in steady use in prisons because they’re harder to turn into weapons than CDs and clear cassettes in particular can be quickly inspected for contraband. Thanks to the US’s prison population (the largest and highest per-capita in the world, something America is definitely #1 at) they were able to keep the cassette industry alive long after it fell out of favor with the mainstream public. Even with the introduction of mp3 players into prisons, cassettes are still popular as they are easier to share/trade than digital files.

Bob Barker and Keefe Group are just two examples of companies who specialize in clear products intended for correctional facilities.

Today

You can still find transparent/translucent products today (in and out of prisons). Coca-Cola Clear is a clear version of Coke (but with additional lemon flavoring) introduced to Japan in 2018. You can still find different video game consoles and/or controllers with special clear/translucent editions. Swatch still makes several different clear watches. While clear beer never happened, and Zima hasn’t really come back strong, the hard seltzer craze of 2019 has introduced a plethora of profitable clear alternatives to beer.

Added info: If you’re interested in owning second-hand clear prison electronics (for the novelty and certainly not for their quality), you can find various options on eBay. Here’s a selection of clear prison televisions. Urban Outfitters has also gotten in the game of selling clear electronics that were originally designed for prison, such as this cassette player.

Mat Taylor of Techmoan does a fantastic explanation of prison technology.

The SNL commercial for Crystal Gravy was a parody of the Crystal Pepsi commercial.

Sparkling Wine Sweetness

Sparkling wines range from dry to sweet based on how much sugar is added after the second fermentation.

The most well known kind of sparkling wine is Champagne which coincidentally comes from the Champagne region of northern France. The word “Champagne” is a protected designation of origin (PDO) term which means only sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France may be legally called “Champagne.” As such other countries have their own regional names for sparkling wine. The Spanish call their sparkling wine Cava, the Germans and Austrians have Sekt, the Italians have Spumante but their better known protected designation of origin variety of sparkling wine is Prosecco, etc.

While there are a variety of methods to making sparkling wine, they all start with making wine. This is followed by adding a little sugar & yeast to each bottle to generate a second fermentation. This second fermentation, which takes place in the capped bottle, is what produces the CO2 bubbles sparkling wine is known for. Depending on the production method, wine makers then add a mixture known as “le dosage” at the end before the final corking. Dosage is a sweet mixture of still wine and sometimes sugar to balance out the flavor of the sparkling wine. How much dosage is added makes all the difference.

Sparkling Sweetness

The sweetness of a sparkling wine is determined by how much sugary dosage is added – the more sugar, the sweeter the sparkling wine (makes sense). To know how sweet a sparkling wine is, wine makers label their bottles with a variety of terms. Unfortunately, different countries use different words to convey the same general idea. The following is an explanation of sparkling wine sweetness terms.

BRUT
Brut comes from the French for “dry” or “unrefined”. There is some overlap in Brut categories depending on the wine maker but they are all fairly unsweet sparkling wines.

0-3 grams of sugar per liter
Brut Nature / Naturherb
No added sugar, as unsweet as you can buy. 

0-6 grams of sugar per liter
Extra Brut / Extra Herb
Just a little sweet

0-12 grams of sugar per liter
Brut / Herb
A fairly unsweet common sparkling wine variety.


EXTRA DRY
12-17 grams of sugar per liter
Extra Dry / Extra Sec / Extra Seco / Extra Trocken
While it may be extra dry it is still sweeter than the brut category.

DRY
17-32 grams of sugar per liter
Dry / Sec / Seco / Trocken
These words all mean “dry”, but are dry in context of the range of possible sparkling wine sweetnesses. They’re midway between the driest and the sweetest options.

DEMI-SEC
32-50 grams of sugar per liter
Demi-Sec / Semi Seco / Halbtrocken
Only “partially dry” or “half dry”, these fairly sweet sparkling wines can still have a balanced taste.


DOUX
Doux comes from the French for “soft” or “sweet”. These bottles are the candy aisle of sparking wines.

50+ grams of sugar per liter
Doux / Dolce / Mild
The sweetest sparkling wines on the market. For comparison 1 liter of Coca-Cola has about 105 grams of sugar.
Sparkling wines range from brut to doux. Brut comes from the French for “dry” or “unrefined”. There is some overlap in Brut categories depending on the wine maker but they are all fairly unsweet sparkling wines. Doux comes from the French for “soft” or “sweet”. These bottles are the candy aisle of sparking wines.

Added info: the most famous early sparkling wine was by the 17th century monk Dom Pérignon, however sparkling wine originated in England. In typical wine bottles, sparkling wine has the tricky problem where the second fermentation inside the bottle builds up enough pressure that the bottle can explode. Because 17th century English glassmakers used coal in their glass production they could produce a stronger bottle which allowed them to reliably produce sparkling wine before the French.

Starkbierzeit (Strong Beer Season)

Munich’s strong beer season began as a work-around to Lenten fasting.

During the Lenten season leading up to Easter, the German monks of the Neudeck ob der Au Monastery would fast. While they were forbidden from eating solid food they were allowed to drink beer. “Liquid bread wouldn’t break the fast” was the idea – but they didn’t drink just any beer. The monks created the nutritionally-rich, and high in alcohol, doppelbock Salvator beer for the Lenten season. First brewed in 1629, the beer’s name of Salvator comes from “Sankt Vater”, or “Saint Father”, essentially meaning “Holy Father beer.” This beer was not only the start of the Paulaner Brewery but it was also the origin of Starkbierzeit, or “strong beer season.”

Strong Beer Season

Not as big or as well known as Oktoberfest, Starkbierzeit is the multi-week strong beer festival of Munich. While Oktoberfest beers have an alcohol content around 6%, all of the Starkbierzeit beers have a minimum alcohol volume of 7.5%. In the lead up to Easter, breweries around Munich release special high-alcohol beers for the season and host parties in beer halls. There’s music, dancing, people dressed in traditional tracht – it’s like a Lenten smaller-scale decentralized Oktoberfest … fueled by high-alcohol beer.

Irish “Pub In A Box”

As part of a Guinness marketing effort in the early 1990s, thousands of Irish pubs around the world have been built using standardized design templates.

Recognized around the world, the Irish pub is one of the most well-known Irish cultural exports – and where there’s an Irish pub there’s usually Guinness. In the 1980s Guinness began to track the causal relationship between new Irish pubs and regional increases in Guinness beer sales. As new pubs opened, Guinness sales went up. If Guinness could help create more Irish pubs then they could also increase their own revenue.

Ahead of the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Guinness sales representatives traveled around Italy meeting with potential Italian business partners with the goal of opening Irish pubs. Their pitch was built around revenue generation and how Irish pubs have a more profitable beverage-to-food ratio than most other bars. From January to June of 1990 Italy opened 58 Irish pubs, welcoming Irish soccer fans and drinkers of all kinds. However, the critical factor to revenue generation was that these pubs needed to appear authentic – enter the “pub in a box”. 

Pub in a Box

Successful Irish pubs outside of Ireland have the look & feel of the real thing. As part of their expansion effort Guinness assembled a team to analyze, quantify, & document the seemingly ineffable essence of the Irish pub. The Irish Pub Concept helped determine the critical success factors to operating an Irish pub. Chief among these factors is visual authenticity.

Founded in 1990, the Irish Pub Company of Dublin was one of the first companies to offer “authentic” Irish pubs for export. Instead of doing all of the work yourself they’ll take your dimensions and design, manufacture, and ship all of the necessary materials to you. Do you want the rural Irish pub style or the Victorian? Maybe you want the general “Celtic” style. They offer a variety of prepackaged pub types that come complete with all the knickknacks for the walls. To date they have designed & shipped over 2,000 pubs to more than 50 countries.

Fadó in Chicago, designed by the Irish Pub Company in their “Celtic” style.
Mandy’s Apothecary in Moscow, designed by the Irish Pub Company in their “Shop” style.

The Irish Pub Co. isn’t alone. Ól Irish Pubs and GGD Global also offer to design & ship you a “pub in a box”. This Disney-ized packaging of Irish culture is not without criticism. For one it raises questions of authenticity. It’s true these are pubs that have been designed & manufactured in Ireland. However, it’s difficult to claim authenticity when your pub has a fake Irish country store as part of the decor. Instead of organically collecting meaningful mementos for your bar, these superficial design packages ship all the rusty farm equipment, dusty old bottles, and framed photos of strangers you need to give the illusion of authenticity. Why take years cultivating a unique local flavor when you can just throw up a portrait of Michael Collins or the Molly Maguires?

An additional criticism is of Guinness for helping to bring these “pub in a box” bars into existence. Established Irish bars were expected to keep serving Guinness beer while the Guinness company was busy creating additional local competition. Beginning in the early ‘90s some bars boycotted and stopped serving Guinness. McGillin’s Olde Ale House of Philadelphia still does not serve Guinness as a result of the “pub in a box” fallout with Guinness.

The Wild Rover in Barcelona features framed photos of random Irish people, used purely as decoration.

Better than nothing

To many customers the ambiance that these cookie-cutter bars generate is all that matters – the question of authenticity never crosses their minds. The theatrical set dressing used by these bars creates a fun environment. Even for those who recognize the dubious credibility of these establishments, some feel to have a “pub in a box” Irish bar is better than having none at all.

As America has helped transform St. Patrick’s Day into an all-out extravaganza, Irish pubs (authentic or otherwise) are increasingly patronized not only by the diaspora but by people of all backgrounds. The pub offers people of all stripes an environment that is hard to find anywhere else. The long tradition of the pub serving as a gathering place for the local community can still be carried out by these “pub in a box” bars … just don’t scrutinize the bric-à-brac too closely.

Added info: If you’re interested in standardized / templated restaurant experiences, you may also be interested in learning about how the Thai government’s culinary diplomacy has successfully spread Thai restaurants around the world.

Syrah or Shiraz?

Starting in France and making its way to Australia, Syrah and Shiraz are the same thing.

When the French dark grape varietal Syrah arrived in Australia from France, the local Australians began to change its name through their accent calling it “Shi – RAZ” and eventually through actually spelling it Shiraz.

Syrah and Shiraz are the same grape. Today which name a winemaker uses is based on where in the world they are making their wine.