Bottle cap collecting in the Golden Kingdom

By JARED DOWNING | FRONTIER

I wrote a recycling story for the latest issue of Frontier, and, incidentally, started a bottle cap collection. My goal is to collect one of every bottle cap available within Myanmar’s borders.

I told my editors this piece would be about branding and product distribution, but really I wrote it because I want to get an in with the Crowncap Collectors Society International, who I promise I am not making up.*

Here are the rules:

  • The collectable in question will be classic metal crown-style bottle caps
  • They must be sold within Myanmar at the retail level
  • They may be imported, legally or otherwise

Of course, this venture raised some troubling questions. The first being: is this even possible?

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I put my questions to Lester Tan, managing director of APB Alliance Brewery Company, which makes Heineken and Regal Seven, in Myanmar. He was surprisingly optimistic about the project. In fact, he was so helpful that I wondered if he himself was in the bottle cap collecting game (which in turn made me wonder if he was trying to sabotage my efforts, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt.)

Firstly, he told me to start in Yangon: “If you’re talking about legal, stay in Yangon and you’ve generally got it covered.”

One advantage is that most beers are made by a handful of brewers (Myanmar Beer, APB and Carlsberg being the three largest) and are located in and around Yangon. Secondly, when it comes to most drinks products, about 20 percent of the companies produce 80 percent of what is available.

So, after an initial survey of big chains and a few of my neighbourhood watering holes, I ended up with 32 caps, 12 from soft drinks and 20 from hard beverages, including two different Coca-Cola caps (apparently Myanmar prints one of its own).

Viola, 80 percent done.

But now I have bigger problems. According to Mr Tan: “For that final 20 percent, you need to go to 80 percent of the outlets just to get that final 20 percent.”

The good news is that Myanmar’s Food and Drug Administration (a plucky little department that makes the best of its limited resources) has spreadsheets of all registered products and—crucially—the packaging details. Theoretically all I need to do is run a word search for “glass bottle” to identify the gaps in my collection.

Jared Downing / Frontier

Jared Downing / Frontier

The bad news is the list doesn’t account for illegal imports. The last time I spoke with someone from the FDA their teams were dashing around the hinterland trying to catch smugglers of phony Penicillin. Keeping Aung’s Wine & Fine Spirits from stocking contraband Budweiser was not high on their agenda.

On the plus side, beer is usually smuggled in cans, not fragile bottles. On the down side, and for largely the same reasons, what imported glass bottles there are mostly likely reside near the borders. Worse yet, thanks to the spotty transportation infrastructure, regions usually have unique product profiles (although Mr Tan said he would save the Indian border, almost barren of smuggled alcohol, for last).

I messaged our photographer Ann, on assignment in Putao, to find out what bottled drinks are for sale near China. She promptly did not respond. Swell. Looks like if I want that Yanjin Beer bottle cap, I’m going to have to actually go to Kachin State. I’ll ask to cover elephants or something.

In the meantime, I’ll need to infiltrate the embassies, which have special rules for imported booze, apparently.

At an event at the British Club I found London Pride, Spitfire and Woodchuck. I had hoped that all the embassy clubs would have more or less the same drinks, but I was wrong. One of the teenagers in my church’s youth group had access to the American embassy, and I sent him in on reconnaissance. There he found four new bottled brands—each American, blast them.

This means not only do I have to find a way inside to purchase them, but I have to worm my way into all the other clubs as well to see what they have. Swell. Perhaps for part II I’ll don my dark suit, press badge and move from club to club trying to report on their bottled beverage selection.

In the meantime, my collection stands at 39. Let me know if you find any good ones.

*They even have a magazine.

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