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The Uncommon Life

Gift Lab: Flip & Tumble + Wine Tote + Bentgo: A-leftovering we will go

November 22, 2013

Research

I hate waste. I’m really OCD about it. Disposable shopping bags, takeout containers, and water bottles really bug me. And yet, I do shop, eat on the go, and need H2O. Thus was born my quest for the perfect personal food transport equipment.

3-ItemCollageHypothesis

Our Flip & Tumble Reusable Shopping Bags are light and small and hold a lot. Sounds promising. Our BentGO Lunch Box is good looking. Most of its lunch-toting brethren are decidedly not. It’s also a good size, and except for the lids, microwaveable (for warming up, not cooking), and dishwasher safe. Also promising. Our Wine and Beverage Tote, with its tough canvas outer skin, seems a lot sturdier than fold-up plastic bottles I’ve used before.

Experiment

Step 1: Shopping.

This was mostly accomplished at the Park Slope Food Coop, of which I am an enthused member. A sustainability-minded organization since forever, the coop doesn’t give out shopping bags. Flip & Tumbles are perfect for shopping there. They weigh virtually nothing, open up in a jiffy (faster and easier than any shopping bag I’ve ever used), hold a lot, and are strong and sturdy. The even have a non-slip patch on the inside top of the shoulder strap.

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Here’s how they look full of groceries.

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Here are most of the ingredients, spread out. (The bags actually held a lot more than this.)

Step 2: Cooking.

I bought a spaetzle maker no less than 6 years ago, and until now, had never used it. Sound familiar, gadget lovers? I saw this recipe in the New York Times, and knew this was what would make spaetzle happen in my kitchen.

To round out the meal, I decided to make mashed sweet potatoes with lime and honey (the recipe calls them yams, but they are NOT; shame on you, Saveur!) with broiled grapefruit for dessert.

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I put the sweet potatoes in a casserole dish and stuck them in the preheated 350 degree oven.

I then sliced the leeks and cabbage (separately) very thinly in the food processor. I melted a bunch of butter in a big frying pan and sauteed the leeks. But I forgot to take photos of all that, so you’ll have to use your imagination.

CabbageCookingCollage

The savoy cabbage, sauteeing on top of the already-sauteed leeks.

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Above is the mixed white all-purpose, whole wheat, and whole rye flour (yes, I ground it from the berries, here’s why), to which I added an egg and whole milk. It’s supposed to end up like cake batter, not bread dough, so you keep adding milk until it feels right. Because I used whole wheat flour, which the recipe doesn’t call for, I used more milk than recommended, because whole wheat flour absorbs more liquid.

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My spaetzle maker in action, at long last. You pour the batter gradually into the white hopper which you then slide along the holey stainless steel part that’s straddling the pot of boiling, salted water. The dough slips through randomly, drops into the pot, and cooks very quickly, rising to the top.

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It’s pasta…it’s dumplings….it’s spaetzle!

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The recipe calls for thyme, which I conveniently have growing in one of my kitchen windowboxes.

Now it’s time for it to be topped with grated Gruyere cheese, put in a casserole dish, and baked. But wait–where’s that dish?!

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Oh yeah, it was baking these. When I took them out, I didn’t bother cleaning it, because sugary, gooey sweet potato ooze can only improve a dish. I did mix it in, though, so it wouldn’t just burn on the bottom.

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The casserole in a state of baking readiness.

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The sweet potatoes, mashed with a fork and mingling with their new BFFs: butter, fresh lime juice, and honey.

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20 minutes after being put into the 425 degree oven: Done.

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Now for the broiled grapefruit. Easiest thing ever: cut in half, top with brown sugar (or not), turn broiler on, pop in citrus.

~An interlude, during which I eat this delicious dinner, and sleep. A new day dawns.~

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The true and ultimate destiny of this food, of course, was being consumed as leftovers. I added some homemade kefir I put into a can that I’d fished out from the recycling and washed (see above re: “OCD about waste;” also, it was the perfect size), because I thought it would go well with both the casserole and the grapefruit.

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Stick a fork in it–it’s done.

Step 3: A) Eating and B) Drinking

A) The spaetzle dish, like most casseroles, was even better the next day. It nuked up beautifully in its spiffy BentGO container. I ate it in about two minutes flat. No, I will not show you what that looked like. My mother might be reading this, and it would make her cry to see that all those years of table manners lessons were wasted on me.

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B) The Wine and Beverage Tote, alas, was filled only with water, because I was at work. (You think I can write all juiced up? No. I leave that to pros.) For purely scientific purposes, I did fill it with wine the night before. Miraculously, it holds an entire, normal-sized bottle, though you have to make sure the bag is poufed out all the way while (carefully) pouring. I recommend red wine, because the Tote isn’t insulated, so the wine will be at room temperature before long.

I really appreciated its sturdy canvas exterior, because it freed me from the nagging worry that something sharp in my bag might gouge it. If there’d been red wine inside, I would have appreciated it even more–no, not because of the alcohol; because of the potential for mess. (OK, the alcohol, too.) Note that I swapped out the original petite black carabiner with a larger one of my own, partly–but ONLY partly, I swear–because mine is pink.

Recipe links:
New York Times: Rye spaetzle gratin with savoy cabbage, leeks and caraway
Saveur: Mashed sweet potatoes with lime and honey
TheKitchn: Sweet and smoky broiled grapefruit

Gift Guides

Gift Lab: How to Make Grilled Cheese (in the Toaster!)

November 15, 2013

Anna Moreno | UncommonGoods

Research
I love a good grilled cheese. The gooey goodness inside reminds me of childhood memories past; always paired with a tomato soup, of course. I first saw the Toaster Grilled Cheese Bags and thought it would be a fun, and super easy, way to make that delicious, buttery comfort food. I’d never heard of such a product before! How simple! Just put it in a toaster! I’m, however, familiar with the iron-grilled cheese approach…enough said. In comparison, that ironing approach is quite barbaric.

Hypothesis
Given my experience with toast, and grilled cheese, I suspect that the sandwiches will be nice and melt-y. However, the warm buttery flavor (that is signature to anything cooked with butter on a frying pan) will be missing.

Experiment
Step 1: Checking out the goods
The Toaster Grilled Cheese Bags are very different than I expected! They’re a silky-papery material. Very tough and pliable. So far, I’m impressed. Three bags are included in the package (wish it was four for those 4 slotted toasters). The grilled cheese in the picture looks really delicious! Nice and golden.

Make grilled cheese in your toaster!
Toaster Grilled Cheese Bags | UncommonGoods

The Ooma Bowl!
I love the clean and colorful look. It’s meant to easily fit into the hand for holding. Overall, the style gets two thumbs up from me. The bowl may also serve as a nice pet food dish? Food on the left, water on the right.

Ooma Bowl | UncommonGoods

Step 2: Assemble the ingredients!
For my experiment I’m making 2 recipes.

First: The Classic. Simple and to the point; white bread, sharp cheddar.

Making Grilled Cheese

Second: Italian Craving–Featuring the Ooma Bowl! Yummy take on the classic done Italian style. My plan is to cut the finished sandwiches into sticks and use to use the Ooma Bowl for easy dipping. Using mozzarella, pesto spread, fresh basil, and sundried tomatoes. For the dipping sauce I’m using my favorite marinara Rao’s Homemade (it’s the best I highly recommend trying it!).

Italian Grilled Cheese

Step 3: Get’m grilled
Attempt Number One:
The Classic. It was pretty simple to get them into the bags. It needed a little maneuvering, but nothing difficult. I have a nice toaster that accommodates bagels. After getting them bagged I put them in, I set the toaster to level 4 and set it into motion.

Easy Toaster Grilled Cheese | UncommonGoods

The end result was not what I was hoping for. Setting 4 didn’t cut it. The cheese didn’t melt, and the bread was not toasted enough. Compared to the picture on the packaging, my sandwich was a total fail. Try again…

Sandwich

Attempt Number Two:
OK, so the setting was too low; I overcompensated by upping the game to a level six setting. Also, I was thinking I would try to add some butter to the bread in hopes of obtaining that nice golden buttery glow. I melted 2 tablespoons and brushed the outsides of the bread with a pastry brush. Drum roll please…

I got the taste spot on and beautiful melted cheese. However, I ended up with burnt bread. It didn’t taste bad, but charred is no good either. Also, the butter made the bags all greasy.

grilled cheese

Toaster Grilled Cheese | UncommonGoods

Attempt Number Three:
I completed my attempts with the Classic recipe and moved onto the Italian Craving. First things first, I washed the bags. They got greasy from the butter and the melted cheese. Washing was incredibly easy. I used a simple sponge with handle and hot water. I hand dried but noticed that the bags held moisture. I didn’t have time to let them air dry, so I continued on with the sandwich making. I made a total of 4 sandwiches; all of which came out a little darker than I expected. I’m not sure what’s to blame. My toaster setting, the moist bags, the butter; I really am not sure. What I do know is that the sandwiches were tasty. (The chef has to taste their food before it leaves the kitchen).

Italian Grilled Cheese | UncommonGoods
Italian Grilled Cheese | UncommonGoods

Step 4: Plate & Taste
Time to eat, drink and be merry. As planned, I cut the grilled cheese into long strips and placed them into the Ooma Bowl. I heated the sauce and added that to the smaller section. Et voila! A culinary masterpiece! (At least for moi, a simple cook.)

Grilled Cheese Fingers with Tomato Sauce

The bowl was easy to hold. Modeled by my fiancé (thank you for your help). Recommended for couch activities such as Sunday sports and Netflix. A delicious end to a full day of ingredient shopping and toaster cooking.

Grilled Cheese Dunk
Noah

Conclusion
Did these match up to the classic grilled cheese? Not completely; however, they were 1. Easy to make and 2. Melt-y and tasty.

Lessons Learned:
1. Don’t apply butter before toasting! It may be good to apply after? Question for thought.
2. The bags need to thoroughly dry before the next use. I later washed, hand dried, and placed on the handle of a frying pan to dry.
3. Toaster settings are key; you need to find the right one. (I have yet to find the right one for my toaster.)

Photo Credit: Moi! Anna Moreno
Model: My fiancé Noah Perkins

Maker Stories

Thomas Both & The Art of Tableless Dining

October 14, 2013

Thomas BothMix and mingling at cocktail parties, couch lounging on movie night, and eating Sunday breakfast in bed just got a whole lot easier with Thomas Both’s Ooma Bowl design. “It struck me that all the plateware we use is designed for tables, yet often we eat without a table.  So my point of view was to design something that is suited for eating without one, and to do it in an elegant way.”

Thomas earned his BS in Engineering at Harvey Mudd College and shortly after worked as a mechanical engineer for three years.  Yet as a person who was a bit more right-minded, Thomas recognized that he held a creative heart, and wanted to finally wear it on his sleeve. He was admitted to Design School at Stanford University, which paved his way to teaching innovative designs at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. “Now, I work much more as a designer than an engineer, but both play a part.”

Thomas BothObserving small living spaces was how Thomas’ inspiration behind the Ooma Bowl came about. After speaking to people living in small apartments he was inspired by the idea of tableless dining. Thomas realized that most non-table plateware lacked a level of elegance, such as bad TV dinner trays or strange party plates. Soon, he turned these discussions and observations into a real life design solution.

oomabowl hospitalThomas believes that a strong perspective helps design a unique product.  He didn’t want to just make a cool looking bowl; he wanted the design to be tied in with a direct purpose. In the early stages of designing the bowl, a friend of Thomas’ broke his leg and was stuck in the hospital for a quite a while. Because the Ooma Bowl was “a bowl that’s designed to be held” without the use of a table, Thomas took this opportunity to have his bedridden friend become one of his first experimental guinea pigs. “I called him up. While everyone else was checking if he was okay and visiting him, I asked him if he’d test out my prototypes. He liked the feeling of being locked into the bowl, not holding it but the bowl holding you.”

Thomas brought his designs to the next level of actual production. At first, he had no experience with ceramics. “Except maybe in grade school messing around with clay. It was a dining design project that just so happened to end up in a ceramic piece.” He had to learn about slip casting, working with clay, glazing, and firing all at once. After rough prototype after rough prototype, including failed plastic forming attempts, Thomas finally made the first buck out of REN shape into two pieces. “One side on a lathe, and the other just sort of by eye and feel.” He then glued the sides’ backs together and made adjustments. The next iteration he worked on was stacking and getting a nice feel in the hand, which was much more work than he ever anticipated.

thomasboth2

thomasboth3Once the design was perfected into its brilliant form, Thomas found a manufacturer in Los Angeles, but just as it was a difficult process to design the perfect bowl, it was probably an even more nerve racking time to manage the products. “Selling and managing production, storage, sales, and shipping is a lot of work. I had way too many boxes in our living room for a long time. That part wasn’t so much fun for me; it was more of an on-going nuisance.”

Yet, after only a short hiatus, Thomas is proud to see that the Ooma Bowl sought its way back out into the world, licensed, and it’s now an exclusive item on the UncommonGoods site. Sarah Stenseng, our Senior Product Development Associate who attended Stanford with Thomas, worked with him to get the Ooma Bowls back into production. Thomas says, “The Ooma bowl would probably still be sitting on the sidelines if it wasn’t for UncommonGoods.”

thomasboth4 Thomas’ advice for designers who are producing a product from just a simple idea is to “get engaged and excited about how people do things and how they think within a certain domain , and pay attention.  Opportunities will emerge.  Then you have to try things.  Make stuff.  It can be crappy, you’re just working on the concept. Work your way to a product idea that you’re excited about and other people love.  Then you can bring more refinement to it and move toward manufacturing.”

Thomas Both

Gift Guides

Gift Lab: How to Make Music by Playing Wine Glasses

September 27, 2013
Major Scale Musical Wine Glasses | UncommonGoods

Research
As a developer of the Major Scale Musical Wine Glasses™, my knowledge of the product is quite comprehensive, but this was my first chance to test a random unit straight off the production floor. In developing these musical glasses, we looked for a glass that would allow for a full A major scale, allowing for more versatile music-making. We used a high-quality lead-free crystal glass here to ensure the best resonance we could achieve.

I’m not a big wine drinker, but you’ll find me sneaking a swig of water every now and again – so I’m conducting this experiment with water as an alternative. I try to keep practice on my violin, but I’m much more likely to produce something resembling music with my finger on these glasses than with my bow on strings – so I’m looking forward to the chance to actually hit the right notes for a change.

Musical Wine Glass Packaging | Uncommon Goods

Hypothesis
Due to variations in glass we knew absolute, orchestral perfection was a bit too aspirational, but we have been pleased to find that the fill lines correspond quite nicely to the note indicated. My hypothesis is that I’ll have a pretty happy match today.

Experiment
Fill ‘er up! I poured to the first note – an ‘A,’ moistened my finger in another glass to allow for smooth movement around the rim, and round my finger went firmly in a circular motion. As I draw my finger around the rim, the alternating slipping and sticking creates a vibration pattern in the glass. The speed of vibration, meanwhile, is affected by the volume of liquid in the glass, and different vibrations will produce different notes. The results of my first attempt?

Playing Music on Wine Glasses

A lovely ‘A’ note resonates through the dining room, accompanied by a hypnotic ripple along the surface of the wine. As you can see…a successful ‘A’!

'A' Note

I toast to a successful first pour and continue on my journey through the A Major scale.

I poured a taller glass and around I went again.

Major Scale Musical Wine Glass | UncommonGoods

Crosschecking with another tuner – a direct hit! SuccEss with a capital ‘E’.

'E' Note

Conclusion

Though slight variations in glass will yield somewhat different performance, a random test proved more than satisfactory to my unprofessional, yet music-appreciating ears. Very content and ready to wet my whistle, I toast to beautiful music with my fiancée and Franklin Broccoli, our almost-real pet bulldog.

Musical Wine Glass Toast

To see and hear these uncommon instruments make music with your own eyes and ears, check out this video of me playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

The Uncommon Life

Mixtape Mixed Drinks: Manhattan Cocktail Recipe

September 11, 2013

The Manhattan is a classic New York cocktail, so of course it inspired a playlist of classic New York songs. The Manhattan’s a sophisticated drink that evokes images of the city it’s named after during the Mad Men era. (Don Draper typically drinks an old fashioned, but we could see him drinking this as well.)

The drink can be made with Bourbon or Rye–my Manhattan is made with Bourbon.

Manhattan Cocktail Recipe | UncommonGoods

Sipping a Mahattan in a Mixtape Glass can put you in a New York state of mind, no matter your location.

The Drink:
2 parts bourbon to 1 part sweet vermouth
1-2 Dash bitters
Maraschino cherry (optional)

Place ice in a cocktail shaker and then add bourbon, sweet vermouth and bitters. Shake and pour (strained) into a chilled glass or pour over ice. Top with a cherry (optional).

The Playlist:
1. Incident on 57th Street-Bruce Springsteen
2. Spanish Harlem-Ben E. King
3. Positively 4th Street-Bob Dylan
4. Take the A Train-Duke Ellington
5. New York State of Mind-Billy Joel
6. New York City Serenade-Bruce Springsteen

Maker Stories

Inside the Artist’s Studio with Jeff Knight

September 3, 2013

UncommonGoods Artist Jeff Knight

The moment I saw Jeff Knight’s Nimbus Cloud Serving Board in our Woodworking Design Challenge I started rooting for it. I love the combination of sturdy, yet beautiful, hard maple and the whimsical cloud shape of the board–and the little raindrop serving trays are the perfect finishing touch to make this simultaneously playful and functional piece truly uncommon. When I found out that Jeff is from my hometown, I crossed my fingers a little harder, even though I was pretty confident our voting community would make sure the design made it to the final round. In the end, our community and our judges agreed with me that this wooden work of art was perfect for our assortment.

Since I happened to be planning a trip back home to Fargo, North Dakota, I HAD to jump on the opportunity to see where this winning design was born. Upon my arrival Jeff, in true Midwestern fashion, graciously welcomed me into his wood shop, offered up coffee, and gave me a tour of a beautifully sawdusty space called DIY Wood Studio, a shared woodworking environment filled will tools of all sizes, projects in the works, and a lot of inspiration.

Continue Reading…

The Uncommon Life

Our Homemade Beer Tasting Brew-haha

June 13, 2013

Some believe that Plato said, “It was a wise man who invented beer.” While Plato probably never actually said that, and we don’t know who exactly came up with the ingenious idea to turn cereal into booze, we do know how to make beer. Or I should say, we learned, thanks to our exclusive Craft a Brew Beer Brewing Kits.

To make sure our educational experience was comprehensive, we decided to test each of our new home brew flavors by comparing them during an in-office beer tasting; but first, we had to wrangle some brewers.

The Brewers

Warehouse Operations Coordinator Bradley cooked up a batch of Southern Bourbon Stout, Product Development Associate Sarah celebrated her home state with the Texas Chipotle Amber, Marketing Analyst Kira revisited beer making by giving the West Coast IPA a try, and Marketing Analyst Matt tapped into his inner lumberjack by bottling some Vermont Maple Porter.

The goal was to keep this competition fair and balanced, but Brad did make an attempt to pick up some bonus points by adding a personal touch to his finished product. Kira went another route and, knowing that the way to a beer judge’s heart is through the stomach, brought some homemade pretzels. (She insists that these were for the purpose of palate cleansing between sips, and were no way intended as a bribe.)

There is also some suspicion that two of the contestants may have been in cahoots.

While it wasn’t too hard to get the brewers on board, recruiting judges was almost too easy. (Apparently, people jump at product testing opportunities when they involve delicious adult beverages.)

The Judges

Copywriter Stephanie, Director of Marketing Brian, and Systems Administrator Paul agreed to sample the goods.

With beer flavor checklists in hand, the judges tried each carbonated creation. Here are some beer basics discovered during the tasting.

West Coast IPA
Kira’s brewing tip: “Be Tall. It’s hard to pour things!” You have to place the strainer on top of a funnel on top of the carboy, so a step stool (or a short table) may be required to help shorter folks make beer with ease.

Judges’ Notes: Stephanie said “it definitely smells like an IPA,” but upon tasting said that this IPA “isn’t super hoppy.” She commented on notes of “citrus” and described the flavor as “75 degrees and sunny.” The beer was served cold, though. Just for clarification, the IPA could be described as tasting like a summer’s day.

Brian agreed that the beer “tastes like California,” and said that it may be a good choice for someone who doesn’t love IPAs, since it’s not too “IPA-ie.”

Texas Chipotle Amber
Sarah’s Brewing Tip: “It’s a weekend project, because it does take a while to set up.”

Judges’ Notes: Brian called this brew “ridiculously good,” “smokey and spicy,” and “interesting.” Paul agreed with the interesting comment, and added that it was “fresh,” and had “a hook…not a gimmick.”

Stephanie also called out the unique spiciness of the beer, and said she was a fan of the “big, bold Texas flavor.”

Southern Bourbon Stout
Bradley’s Brewing Tip: “Malt, grains, and patience.” He also reminded us that his kit took a little longer to brew, on account of the extra step of soaking oak chips in bourbon to infuse the beer.

Judges’ Notes: Paul was near-ecstatic about the subtle, unexpected sweetness of this stout. He described it as “almost like eating cookie dough.” Brian agreed that it was sweeter than expected, but said that though the smell was intense, like a “shot of vanilla,” the actual taste held a “multitude of flavors.”

The judges agreed that the bourbon taste was there, but it wasn’t overpowering.

Vermont Maple Porter

Matt’s Brewing Tip: “Read the instructions before you start, and make sure to sanitize everything.” Matt’s tip came about after a bit of a brewing faux pas. It turns out, that his inner lumberjack was actually neglected–he forgot to add the maple syrup.

Judges’ Notes: “It’s hard to judge accurately without the syrup,” said Stephanie. But, despite the porter’s syrup-less-ness, she called it “creamy,” “very malty,” and “smooth drinking.”

Brian didn’t appreciate the deviation from the recipe. “Matt’s renegade style often gets him in trouble,” he said. “This is another example of that.”

Paul was also unhappy with the not-maple porter, and decided to add some syrup after the fact. This improvisation is not recommended.

When the flights were finally empty, the judges all agreed on a favorite. While the Bourbon stout was a close second and “equally as good [taste-wise as the winner],” according to Brian, the champion was the Texas Chipotle Amber, which is “more memorable.”

Sarah took home the prize (which is the knowledge that she chose the beer kit the judges liked best) and all involved in our brew-haha finished the remaining spicy chipotle, (sans) maple porter, subtly sweet stout, and refreshing IPA.

Gift Guides

Gift Lab: How to Stay Chill & Kick Back Cold Ones

June 11, 2013

Research
I was already familiar with the Corkcicle, but was excited to hear of the introduction of the Chillsner— a stainless steel tool you freeze and then put in your beer, juice, or soda.

Hypothesis
My hope is that my beverage remains cold, even if I get distracted playing video games.

Experiment
I have to admit I was a little skeptical about using the Chillsner. Also I was a little nervous my lips would get stuck to it, due to the Chillsner’s time in the freezer. So on the first night, I put the product in the freezer for an hour. (The instructions call for 45 minutes.) I took it out and stuck it in the bottle, but not following the instructions, I spilled some of my beer because I didn’t take a sip first. Stupid physics.

The first attempt worked pretty well, even though I purposely put the Chillsner in a warm beer, and it cooled it pretty quickly. Yum.

The next night, the Chillsner had been in the freezer for 24 hours. My lips still didn’t get stuck. Also I made sure not to spill my beer. It kept my chilled beer chilled as I nursed it for an hour and a half. Normally I don’t take this long to drink a beer, but sacrifices must be made in the name of science.

Conclusion
Overall, I was pleased. My beer stayed cold for much longer than I was used to. I look forward to using the Chillsner this summer.

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