I’ve used this theme many times in this column. There are products and conveniences that have become so commonplace to us they are essentially invisible. We so depend on them, or they have become such a common component of our daily living, it’s almost impossible to envision how life really would be without them. In fact, our minds create a revisionist view of historical settings when we see a movie or watch a play set in a different time period.
For instance, we have almost no concept of not having warmth in the wintertime readily available to us with the assistance of the thermostat or the turn of the hot water faucet. When we see a character in a home set a couple hundred years ago, we can’t fathom what it took to get out of bed in the morning and get a fire going to warm the house. No wonder people slept in beds with thick comforters, wore caps to keep the top of their heads warm, and warmed the sheets with a bed warmer — essentially a special long-handled pan filled with glowing coals.
Nor can we adequately recreate the sounds and smells of towns only a mere 150 years ago. Public sanitation and sewage systems were rare. Animal manure was a common sight in the streets, along with attendant smells and, in the warm weather, swarms of flies. Hygiene was certainly not at the level we are accustomed to today. Keeping teeth white and breath fresh was difficult, as was having clean hair or having a regular bath. Showers were not the norm — that’s a later development.
The list could go on and on, but you get the idea. As for the range of food and beverages we readily enjoy today, that was another “no-go” back in the day. Fresh “sweet” milk was the exception as there was no widespread refrigeration during the warmer months. Most milk that was drunk was “clabbered,” what we know today as buttermilk. Other beverages, particularly carbonated varieties, are what we are going to take a deeper look at today.
Carbonation, in a wide range of drinks, is so commonplace today, it’s easy to fall into the illusion that that’s the way beverages have been served for a long time. Not so. Commercial carbonation is a fairly recent invention, although natural carbonation, either through fermentation or use of sparkling mineral water, has been known for a long time.
Carbonation is a natural bi-product of fermentation, due to yeast consuming sugars and creating alcohol and carbon dioxide (CO2). Champagne, also commonly called “bubbly,” is a good example. In fact, champagne purists will not acknowledge a champagne as being the real thing unless it is naturally carbonated. Carbonation with the addition of CO2 moves it, in their mind, from the “real thing” to a “knock-off.” Of course, beer, as well as some “sparkling” wines, are carbonated to varying degrees as well.
How is carbonation achieved outside of naturally occurring processes? How was it discovered?
Artificial carbonation is a process used whereby carbon dioxide gas is dissolved into water that has its acidity reduced (sodium bicarbonate is a common compound used to accomplish this). The water is chilled to 46 °F or below, the carbon dioxide gas is introduced, and the mixture is pressurized. The gas then readily dissolves into the water. The whole container is pressurized, after a final “top off” of carbon dioxide.
Carbonic acid, at a low concentration, is formed. The acid gives the solution a slightly tart taste. The chilling of the water allows the maximum amount of carbon dioxide to be absorbed by the water and it keep it in solution longer. The two main factors that allow the mixture (such as your favorite soda) to hold the CO2 is lower temperature and higher pressure. We know, from experience, what happens when a glass of soda sits and starts to warm. Bubbles form and rapidly escape to the surface of the drink and into the surrounding air. And, if we open a bottle of pop, carbon dioxide escapes from the solution, seen as bubbles. This is known as effervescence. If the drink is agitated or overly warm, the pressure for the carbon dioxide to escape the solution is greatly increased. We’ve all probably “enjoyed” the outcome of that unfortunate experience a few times in our lives!
If you’re nervous about all that carbon dioxide, remember that our atmosphere contains it naturally. It accounts for about a half of a percentage point in overall content. Nitrogen is the largest component, coming in at 78 percent, oxygen at 21 percent, and the remaining components (including carbon dioxide) being 1 percent. Carbon dioxide is the by-product of atmosphere-breathers (that would include you and me) and combustion. Fortunately, plants loves carbon dioxide, and is a key component to their life cycle.
Back to carbonation. How was the process of being able to produce carbonation discovered? Like any significant discovery, there were partial discoveries along the way. Englishman Christopher Merret began creating “sparkling wine” in 1662. In just less than a century later, in 1750, Frenchman Gabriel François Venel was able to produce artificial carbonated water for the first time, apparently after analyzing natural sparkling waters from his locale. It is believed that others also infused water with carbon dioxide around this time.
The most significant breakthrough occurred in 1767, when Englishman Joseph Priestley discovered how to infuse water with carbon dioxide. He did this by suspending a bowl of water above a beer vat at one of local breweries in his hometown of Leeds, England. This set up caused the air surrounding the fermenting beer to generate what he called “fixed air.” The water that was exposed to what we now know as carbon dioxide had a pleasant taste. Five years later, he published a scientific paper on the rudiments of carbonation. He created carbon dioxide gas by dripping sulfuric acid (called “vitriol” in those days) onto chalk (which is calcium carbonate). He would then dissolve the gas into water he was agitating. This came be known as soda water, and the rest is, well, history, including the Swiss Schweppe family that developed a process (based on Priestley’s method) whereby they would manufacture carbonated mineral water.
Nowadays, commercial operations carbonate in very large batches producing product for individual bottling. Small local brewers also exist using both natural and induced carbonation methods. There are several regional and local brands that have generated some very loyal followings. Some make distinct flavors that could be called nostalgic, such as Boylan’s Birch Beer. Others distinguish themselves by using cane sugar instead of sugar beet sugar of high concentrate fruit syrup (HCFS). You might have experienced and enjoyed brands such as the southeast U.S.’ “Cheerwine”, or Texas’ “Big Red”, or even brands that you can get in our local stores, such as “Stewart’s” (I really like their key-lime flavor) or even a southwest legacy brand that is no longer available, Pleasure Time. Heck, you can even “brew your own,” using devices like Soda Stream.
Like, love, or hate it, soda pop and other effervescent drinks are here to stay.
On another note, for your learning pleasure, there’s a great FREE public gardening presentation happening on Wednesday night, Jan. 25, at 7 p.m. Holly Christley will be taking us through the ins and outs of plant botany. You might think, “BORING!” Au contraire! Holly will bring this to life for you. She is an avid gardener that lives right here in our valley, possessing both a Master Gardener designation as well as a degree in Horticulture from USU. There’s a lot to plants — and the better we understand how they work and what they need to thrive, the more successful your gardening efforts will be. Don’t miss it!
Here’s yet another friendly nudge that this year’s Master Gardener’s Class is beginning soon on Tuesday, Jan. 31, from 6-8 p.m. This is a 14-week Tuesday-night class that covers all the key areas you’ll need to take your gardening results to the next level. Cost is $150 per person or $180 per couple and includes all instruction, course materials, and a one-year membership in the Tooele County Master Gardeners Association. Register by visiting Andrea DuClos at the USU Extension Office located at 151 N. Main, Tooele. Or, you can contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call at (435) 277-2409.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at email@example.com, or you can visit his channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on the hands-on life of gardening, shop and home skills, culinary arts and landscaping.