Berkeley Radiation Expert Sells Laboratory-Grade Beer Steins
©2010 Bloomberg News
By Ryan Flinn
April 3 (Bloomberg) — Ask Phil Broughton if he’s ever dismantled a nuclear bomb, and he’ll pause, clasp his hands around his thick red beard and give a couched answer.
“Not that I can talk too much about,” said Broughton, a radiation safety specialist at the University of California, Berkeley.
What he does want to discuss is beer: specifically, a stein crafted from lab equipment normally used to keep liquid nitrogen so cold it doesn’t boil off into vapor. Beer will stay perfectly frosty for days if left alone in the vessel, he says. That discovery has turned into a business for the 34-year-old, who began selling high-tech mugs for as much as $375 last year.
“The primary buyers have been coming out of academic and research institutions, but by no means are limited to that,” Broughton said. “I’ve had bankers, lawyers, architects, IT folks and, in one case, a Coast Guard lieutenant.”
He first realized he had something valuable while celebrating Oktoberfest at a bar in Ben Lomond, California. He poured a pitcher of beer into one his steins, keeping it cold for hours. The bar owner told him he could get hundreds of dollars for his invention, showing him a hand-carved German stein that cost $3,000.
Broughton has worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. He acted as the bartender during his stay at the frigid lab, specializing in removing the water content from cocktails by dumping liquid nitrogen into the glass, Broughton says.
‘Steins of Science’
He decided to fashion his first “stein of science” in September, during one of the mandatory furlough days that all California state employees take because of budget cutbacks.
The steins are made from a piece of lab equipment known as a Dewar flask. It was invented more than a century ago by James Dewar, a Scottish chemist and physicist who was the first person to produce hydrogen in liquid form. Dewar didn’t patent his invention and lost out on a commercial opportunity when a German company called Thermos started manufacturing a similar product in 1904.
Broughton’s steins are made with more precision than a typical thermos. That means liquid, whether beer, coffee or tea, will retain its temperature much longer. Empty, they weigh between half a pound (0.2 kilograms) and 5 pounds.
Anthony Langford, an instructor at Bank of America Corp. in San Francisco, uses his stein as an icebreaker during training sessions.
“It’s sort of a piece of art,” he said. “So I have a talking element to say, ‘Who can guess what this is on my desk?’ The problem is that it works really well and people try to swipe it.”
Langford, 33, likes to show off the stein’s effectiveness by pouring piping hot coffee in it in the morning, then removing the cap six hours later to see steam rise out of the cup.
“I have had executives who come from the East Coast that look at it, and eyeball me, and I say, ‘Don’t touch the cup, back off.’”
Broughton has sold at least a dozen of the steins and is receiving more inquiries after being featured on Uncrate.com, a Web site for men, and social-trend site Thrillist.
Customers include tasting room staff members at St. George Spirits, the distiller of Hanger One vodka in Alameda, California. Sales of the steins have just gone international: Broughton shipped one to a Northwest Investment Management Ltd. employee in Hong Kong.
Broughton’s first customer was a colleague at Berkeley: Antonio DiPasquale, an X-ray crystallographer at the university’s chemistry college. DiPasquale purchased a 4.3-liter (1.1-gallon) stein.
“It’s so big and so cumbersome that it really isn’t recommended for anything other than trophy drinking,” DiPasquale said.
He uses it during chemistry department socials known as chem kegs, where colleagues share kegs of beer. The stein Broughton made for DiPasquale is now called the ChemKeg Dominator.
“The beauty about this is that your beer never gets warm,” he said. “You can literally fill it up at the beginning of Chem Keg and just talk for hours and hours on end and you will not run out.”
–Editors: Nick Turner, Lisa Wolfson