Inspiration can arrive softly as if it were snow from above. Or it can show up with a bang as if it were delivered by an out-of-control truck. At least that's how we end up saluting a pair of suburban-made inventions that result in tasty beers with funny names, and snow-proof traffic signals that give us safer winter travel.
The flurry of vehicles that have been running into the historic one-lane covered bridge in Long Grove in recent years inspires Mike Marr, founder of the nearby Buffalo Creek Brewing.
"We've had three beers named so far after the bridge," says Marr, who launched his brewery, taproom and outdoor biergarten in Long Grove in 2017.
When the historic Long Grove bridge was struck by a box truck that was too high to pass through, Marr came up with "Too Tall IPA," with a label that used an image of the actual damaged bridge and a 1950s box truck bearing the brewery's logo.
When a school bus full of golfers got stuck under the bridge, Marr came out with "Bus Wedgie," a dark German lager.
"We made 500 gallons of it, and it didn't last long," Marr says.
His last tribute to drivers wrecking the bridge was his "Bye, Bye, Truck," an imperial cream brewed with a sense of humor. "We actually made the alcohol content 8.6, which is the height of the bridge," he says of the 20-gallon batch that didn't last a full day. "The small batches allow us to be fun and creative."
That humor came into play when the village charged the business $42,000 to hook into the municipal water supply and Marr came out with a beer called 42K -- a Belgian strong ale in a can with a label featuring a piglike figure wearing a suit and holding a bag full of money.
The bridge remains inspirational. The "Long Grove Lager," released last month with an image of the intact bridge on the label, sold 500 gallons, and the brewery just made another 1,000 gallons last week.
"In the past year, the bridge has been hit 17 times," Marr says. "I can't make beer that fast."
However, the brewery is growing faster than expected.
"Last year, even being shut down for three months, our revenue was 20% higher than it was in 2019," Marr says, noting he invested in outdoor gathering areas that have helped keep things thriving during the pandemic. In addition to offering live music on Saturday afternoons, the brewery recently expanded its output and distribution. It now can be found in Chicago and throughout Lake, Cook, McHenry, DuPage, Kane, DeKalb, Kendall and Will counties.
As cool as that may be, it can't match the "coolest" title won by the engineers at Termico Technologies in Elk Grove Village. For someone who turned to journalism as a result of attending a summer engineering camp, this might be the first time I've used "engineers" and "coolest" in the same sentence. But Termico can prove it.
The "Makers Madness" contest by the Illinois Manufacturers' Association recently declared Termico's Self-Regulating Traffic Signal Heater the 2021 Coolest Thing Made In Illinois. Voters chose the traffic signal heater from a field of 311 products.
"This unique, energy efficient product from Termico Technologies impacts our lives every day by making sure the people and goods that travel on our roadways get where they're going safely and efficiently," says Mark Denzler, president and CEO of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association.
Just as tasty beer takes time to ferment, so do good ideas.
"It started in 2019, right around Thanksgiving time," Mike Cubon, chief technology officer at Termico Technologies, says of the traffic signal heater. November gave us more snow than normal that year, and also some record cold. Driving to work, Cubon had trouble seeing if the traffic signals were red, green or yellow.
"The snow came and the lights got clogged," Cubon says.
Termico makes Positive Temperature Coefficient (PTC) heaters, which provide uniform heating for all kinds of products, including the taillights and brake lights for trucks. If PTC heaters work for truck lights, why not traffic signals?
"We have a chamber and we can make it snow," says Cubon, whose team tested various applications for two or three months, including wrapping the light bulbs with PTC heaters.
"Watching it for hours and waiting for it to melt, and you stand there for three hours and nothing has melted. It's all the failure up front," Cubon says. "We had this eureka moment when we put it on the visor."
The heated visor keeps snow from building up in the first place.
During this process, village officials came in for a routine inspection. "When they came in, they saw the traffic signals we had purchased from eBay," Cubon says. He showed them how the new product kept traffic lights clean, and the village ordered some for Elk Grove Village intersections.
Then the Illinois Department of Transportation wanted some. They've sold 400 so far and expect to sell thousands to help keep drivers safe.
The engineers don't mind sharing their success in a column alongside Buffalo Creek Brewery.
"Well," Cubon says. "We drink beer, too."