Blocktails Are The New Cocktails: How Blockchain Technology Is Invading The Food and Beverage World

March 7, 2019

Let’s say you’re relaxing in a bar, sipping a dirty martini. That means a shot of vodka, a splash of vermouth, and a splash of olive brine combined with ice in a cocktail mixer and shaken — never stirred. The concoction is strained into a chilled martini glass and garnished with one, maybe two olives.

As you savour the martini and do your best Sean Connery impression, have you ever wondered about the real value of your cocktail? Your bartender might tell you the name of the vodka, but would he know where it was distilled? Did the wheat farmer treat his workers fairly? What kind of pesticides did the farmer use? Which part of Italy were the olives grown?

These questions plagued Ryan Chetiyawardana, known as ‘Mr Lyan’. Mr Lyan is a regular winner of global bartending awards and is considered among the most influential bartenders around the world. His search led him towards cryptocurrency and the underpinning technology of blockchain.

In an open letter addressing the bar industry, he stated that they are the last link in a long chain of events not open to observation.

We hold ourselves accountable for our actions. But what of the others in this chain? There’s no point in having an amazing drink if the farmer at the start is being exploited.

Blockchain technology can trace the myriad supply chain intersections that culminate in a cocktail, creating new accountability in the industry.

There are a wide range of opinions about cryptocurrency. Some people declare it to be a universal remedy to the tyranny of the corporate world, while others discard it as a dangerous frivolity doomed to self destruct. But amid the ongoing debate, blockchain, the foundation of most cryptocurrencies, may hold the true potential of the technology.

The Benefits of Blockchain

Blockchain is a public, distributed and decentralized ledger. It is controlled by a wide network instead of a single entity. A transaction recorded on a blockchain cannot be erased. Blockchain was originally designed as a public platform, so anyone can participate in the network.

Blockchain can expose the hidden costs behind cocktails by documenting every “trade” involved in the chain. That is to say, the wheat farmer could record when the seeds are sowed, when and which fertilizers are applied, and when the wheat is harvested and sent to the distillery.

The distillery could also record when the wheat arrives and log the processes involved in its fermentation and distilling, including other details such as the mineral content of the water used.

If customers become sick, tracing the causal ingredient in paper records can be time-consuming. With blockchain, however, it can be done in a matter of seconds. The contaminated product is identified and discontinued almost immediately.

The merits of the technology have seen adoption by smaller, innovative brands. The world’s first blockchain beer is Irish craft beer, Downstream. The export distributor of Ireland Craft Beer, Shane McCarthy, made the transition after it was discovered in 2016 that Heineken Ireland Beer was being mislabelled and sold as local craft brews.

To launch Downstream beer, McCarthy partnered with Belfast-based technology company Arc-net, which specializes in creating online platforms to control food authenticity and safety.

On every can of Downstream beer, a QR code is printed on the side that can be scanned with a mobile phone. The code is linked to the Downstream website, stating every step that the beer has passed through.

McCarthy noted that the blockchain provides an immutable record of events. “The ingredients in our cans are very high quality,” he said. “We want to protect that by ensuring authenticity throughout the brewing, packaging and shipping process.”

Arc-net has also partnered with Irish whiskey distillery, Blackwater, to observe their manufacturing process, as well as Ardnamurchan, which prides itself as Scotland’s greenest distillery, to register details of a limited-edition spirit release. They are also currently working on a project to track pork from the United Kingdom to China.

Drew Lyall, General Manager at Arc-net Scotland, declared that they start their records from the birth of an animal and chart its life cycle, before it is shipped to China. When the product arrives, buyers can scan the barcode to determine if it is the same product that left the UK.

Blocktail brings Order to Chaos

It is well known that a distillery, brewery, or pig farm would already have the means of documenting its internal records, which could be redesigned for the blockchain, but what makes Chetiyawardana’s Blocktail project complex is the large scale. A cocktail contains countless products, and as such, multiple players are involved who would need to cooperate and maintain transparency.

Getting brands to join has been thirsty work. Although their supplier, Natoora, provides the fresh produce and is personally acquainted with the farmers whose products they purchase, Mark Low of Mr Lyan Studio disclosed that the team is still seeking a spirit producer brave enough to shoulder the burden.

Chetiyawardana’s business partner Robin Honhold affirmed that the biggest obstacle is explaining the need for blockchain in the first place. The second biggest is appealing to the suppliers to become part of the blockchain, especially as there’s little incentive outside of a philanthropic gesture that defies the norms.

He believes that with the right partners, they will be able to convince larger players that it is truly feasible.

The Drawbacks of Blockchain

Although blockchain has the potential to boost food safety, there are still some shortcomings. Although data on the blockchain is immutable once appended, there’s no guarantee that companies reporting their own operations won’t falsify the original data.

Powering the blockchain is also a problem. For example, a specialist estimated last year that cryptocurrency consumed a whopping 22 terawatt-hours (TWh) per year — almost the same as Ireland, and four times as much as Google. Much of the energy was produced by coal-fired power plants in China, raising questions of environmental sustainability.

McCarthy of blockchain beer Downstream admitted his concerns about sustainability, and called for further innovation in this regard.

About Asia Blockchain Review

Asia Blockchain Review is the largest initiative for media and community building in Asia for blockchain technology. It aims to connect all blockchain enthusiasts on a regional scale and facilitate the technological foundation of blockchain through a range of group discussions, technical workshops, conferences, and consulting programs.

Our goal is to cultivate and encourage a collaborative community for our members to gather, share their experiences and endeavors in the blockchain space, and brainstorm the potential uses of blockchain technology.

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