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A bottle you can eat


Whitey reports on the first serious potential change in beverage packaging since Tom Angove introduced the bladder pack.

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Sip by tender sip, a boxed bottle of St Agnes Very Old Seven Star Brandy gradually crossed my consideration this past fortnight: a generous gift from a spiritous friend who understood its worth. Rare and precious gastronomic worth, not monetary, of course.

Angove’s deserted this old bottle shape to favour a posh crystal decanter, and changed the brand to Angove’s XO in 1996, so my Seven Star had been in bottle at least a decade. In retrospect, having devoured the last of it, I think a lot longer. Some of its beautiful spirit may have been 50 years old.

It was glorious burnished spiritual fuel from the distant past, full of the hues and aromas of autumn. It reminded me of a lovely day on the Murray with Tom and his “Missus” on his old wooden boat when I was but a babe in this game. He cooked us river fish and we drank Angove’s Fino Dry Sherry which I reckon would have been made by Mike Farmilo, now making great contributions in McLaren Vale.

The Seven Star cork was on its last crumble, so the prime condition of the brandy was a miracle. We saved the old girl in the nick of time.

Which led to me to ponder the static state of wine containers and seals.

Nothing much has changed since Tom Angove, who died at 92 years of age in 2010, first sold wine in plastic bag containers in 1965.

The great wine scientist Ian Hickinbotham, who survives in Melbourne, has always claimed the bag had been used for vinegar in Italy for decades before Tom’s Australian introduction of the bold, modern cork-free technology for wine. Hick had planned back in the ’50s to use huge bladder packs to line the 31,000- litre fermenters at Kaiser Stuhl. He knew he could so control oxidation during vintage but his plan was never tested.

When Hick accepted Max Schubert’s invitation to manage Penfolds Victoria in the mid-’60s, the two even considered putting Grange in bladders so the consumer could enjoy the odd glass without the bottle going off. But the Penfolds board couldn’t get its head around that, which left the brilliant rival David Wynn to name it the Wynn’s Wine Cask, change its components to much better food-grade plastic and perfect it with a non-drip tap.

Off it went. To this day about half Australia’s wine is drunk from bladders; Bacchus only knows what percentage of our exports are sent off in shipping containers holding one enormous bladder of wine each.

And the rest is in glass. The premium wine bottle’s carbon footprint ain’t too dainty. Take the current fad for ultra-heavy Italian wine bottles aimed at the luxury market, the presumption being that weight means quality. The Australian exporter imports the bottles from Italy, fills them with wine then sends them back off to the Old World and North American markets. Energy, right?

They’re as heavy as their contents. And it’s likely some of that glass sand started off as a beach or river in Australia. And then they melt them down and recast fresh bottles for the next fill.

So. Apart from the Australian wine industry’s revolutionary abandonment of the dreaded cork and adoption of the screw cap, not much has happened in containers.

Until the edible global bottle came about. It’s another bladder, actually, made from plants and seaweed. It’s called the Ooho, and its inventors, the sharp gang at Skipping Rocks Lab in the UK, have just doubled their target in a phenomenal online fundraising effort. Like they wanted ₤400,000 ($A695,525) and look like they currently have ₤850,000.

The Ooho is designed to be served fresh like fruit. If you don’t eat it, it biodegrades anyway in fewer than six weeks and it’s cheaper than plastic.

The current prototype would probably dissolve in alcohol, but they sure have it working with water, plain or flavoured.

Their nascent technology’s brilliantly simple. You freeze a sphere of water and dip your ice ball in the Ooho liquid made from plant cellulose. This sets, forming a dry, flavourless, harmless, edible waterproof seal. Let it thaw, pop the whole damn thing in your mouth, or nip it and suck and there’s no waste. No waste. You eat the skin. Roughage.

Given the market’s eager attitude to funding this development, research on finding the ethanol-proof skin should surely be not too far off. It’ll then be up to the winemakers and alcohol manufacturers to develop products that can be frozen without clouding or any deterioration of subtle ethereal wafts of flavour and aroma.

As Mike Wehner wrote of Ooho’s promotion to date on BGR – the Boy Genius Report – on April 13: “Rocks Lab’s current mission to make Ooho a staple of festivals, marathons, and other outdoor events is a great start, since those are situations in which single-serving beverages without waste are well suited, but the wider goal of becoming ‘the global solution to water and drinks on-the-go’ is really an impossible task.”

Wehner states the obvious: like a ball of any fresh perishable food, people will expect it wrapped or packaged if it’s not presented like a breast implant, jiggling on a sterile tray or plate … maybe peeled rambutan or litchi is more digestible in the imagery stakes … not to mention flavour … the mind wobbles.

Detractors are many, of course, as they were on that Penfolds board in the ’60s. The makers, and the market, are still certainly nowhere near putting Grange quality in bladder packs, but bladders are everywhere else. And there’ll be Angoves and Hickinbothams and Wynns spread along the development of this truly brilliant Ooho as the bright sparks at Skipping Rocks get on with it.

Their first task is to chip away at the cursed water bottle.

Imagine if instead of using petrochems and poisons to make all the water bottles to date, we’d grown them. Rather than chucking all that plastic in the Pacific we could have eaten it safely with our drinks in the first place, and turned it into top-grade compost.

I’ll give the compost that had the 50-year-old brandy in it to my Carolina Reaper chillies, I reckon. They’ll make me reach for a small bubble of Krug.

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