Photo of metal caps by Tiia Monto on Wikimedia Commons; the Tansan bottle by Jar Concengco
Culture

The origin of ‘tansan’ and the Japanese drink that brought the word to Manila

The story started out in the mountains of Japan
RHIA GRANA | May 05 2021

We Pinoys have referred to the bottle caps that seal our carbonated drinks and beers as tansan for as long as we can remember. While it sounds like a very Filipino term —along the lines of pinsan, minsan, buksan, orasan, ubusan, iwasan—it’s also very Japanese. Many of us would probably know that among Japanese folks, san is a title of respect affixed to a name—like Hiroyuki-san, Kurosawa-san, Kondo-san, Osaka-san, or Yoko-san.

Well, tansan—the word we use to refer to the crown-like caps that cover our Coca-Colas and Pale Pilsens—is actually of Japanese origin, as our good friend, photographer Jar Concengco (@campfiremedia on Instagram), pointed out in a recent Instagram post. Tansan is a popular Japanese brand of carbonated water that dates back to the early 1900s.

So how did we end up calling the crown cap tansan?

Uncorking the annals of Wilkinson, makers of Tansan carbonated water, we found out that it was in 1872 when England-born John Clifford Wilkinson traveled to Japan. It was in those years while hunting in the mountains of Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture that he discovered a potent source of carbonated mineral spring.

Wilkinson sent samples of the water to London for analysis, and found out that it was “an excellent mineral spring” that can be enjoyed by the rest of the world. And so, the entrepreneurial Englishman decided to bottle it up for commercial consumption. He called the water brand Tansan, which literally means “carbonated water” in Japanese. 

On the other side of the world, in 1892, Maryland-born William Painter had already invented the Crown Cork. There were already carbonated beverages at that time, but the stoppers and bottle caps weren’t leak-proof. Painter’s invention solved this.

The Crown Cork bottle cap had a “corrugated-flange edge and was lined with a thin cork disc and a special paper backing to seal the bottle and prevent contact between the metal cap and the drink,” describes Invent.org, a site maintained by the National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF), an organization that honors the visionaries whose patented inventions have changed our world.

The Crown Cork bottle cap was a nifty invention and it was cheap to produce. Painter launched the Crown Cork and Seal Company in 1892 to manufacture and market the cap.

The Tansan carbonated water started using Painter’s metal crown cap in 1902 such that when the drink arrived on Philippine shores in the 1920s, via the Swiss trading firm Lutz & Zuellig, its sole distributor at that time, Tansan already had that cap on it.

In a blog post by Banter from the Bat Cave, he mentioned that historian Ambeth Ocampo wrote in an issue of Philippine Daily Inquirer in August 9, 2013, that “In pre-war Manila, Tansan was a popular brand of fizzy water…It was sold with the distinct metal bottle caps that have since been called tansan by Filipinos.” 

But why are we suddenly talking about tansan in the age of plastic caps? It’s because we suddenly want to try Jar’s suggestion—enjoy the Tansan Carbonated Water with “a swig of [The Den Manila’s] cold brew concentrate (a spritz of lemon too if you have).” The coffee specialty store sells Tansan, but last time we checked, it’s already sold out. We hope they refill their stocks soon.