Wednesday, May 17, 2023

When Star Wars Met Sapporo: The R2-D2-Like Beer Products of Japan

Ron writes:

 Star Wars licenses have been granted for all manner of products. But how many official licenses are associated with alcoholic beverages? None that I can think of. Though I'll happily admit I'm no expert in this area, I just can't think of any official Star Wars product that's tied to beer. That paucity of official alcohol product makes this article by guest blogger Daryl Whitlow particularly interesting. If you love beer and Star Wars, and you want to collect something that bridges those interests, you might consider seeking out the Sapporo products that Daryl discusses below. Just don't get drunk and fall on your collection.

Daryl writes:

With the announcement of Celebration Japan and the rise in interest in Star Wars-themed beers, I thought it would be a good time to look back at a couple of items from Sapporo Brewing that might be of interest to collectors.

Sapporo Breweries is the oldest brand of beer in Japan (founded 1876). It was created by a Japanese adventurer, Seibei Nakagawa, after he traveled Europe and studied the craft of brewing in Germany. In 1906, three of the major beer companies, including Sapporo, merged into the Dai-Nippon Beer Company and held a virtual monopoly over beer in Japan until after WWII. Once these breweries split up, they tried several ways to try and gain market share for their beer by making them more unique, as most beers in the Japanese style tasted similar. This ultimately led to the can wars of the early 1980s.

What do you do when all beer has a similar taste and you need to find a way to convince the consumer to buy your beer? If you don’t change the beer flavor, why not change the can?

Slowly, many of the companies tried different shapes and artwork on their cans. There were lanterns, bamboo shoots, eggs, etc.

Finally, in 1983, Sapporo released the Namarobo can, which resembled R2-D2. 

This can is large -- 8.75 inches tall -- and holds over a liter of beer. The curved dome is a plastic and it opens to provide access to the can. The printed graphics on the front feature multicolored panels, circuits, and a readout. 

The bottom legs look like thrusters from the front; however, when viewed from the side you can definitely see astromech legs. The backside of the can features the beer name, contents, more circuitry, as well as a printed port similar to one of R2’s on its lower left front. 

Although not a direct copy, this can is definitely inspired by R2-D2.

As a side note, the can wars also led to the introduction of the big peel Sapporo can that is so familiar today. This 650 ml can was designed to resemble a tumbler, and it originally featured a removable top so that you could drink from it like an actual tumbler glass. Most Japanese found this can too large and it consequently flopped. However, it opened up the market to the United States, where the can was embraced, and Sapporo opened up a US division in 1984. This style of can is still in use today. 

It was also the basis for our next item, CanBot.

In 2011, Sapporo was hoping to raise awareness of their beer in the US. What better place to do that than the bars themselves, where everyone is already drinking?

Enter CanBot, which was designed by the St. Louis-based Dog & Dwarf firm as an homage to the retro wind-up robots of Japan. The sleek look of CanBot also plays upon the aforementioned big peel Sapporo can resembling R2-D2, although it features arms in place of the can's astromech legs.

These 2.75" wind up figures were given to bars so that patrons could play games with them and hopefully join the audience for Sapporo Beer. The three games, also developed by Dog & Dwarf, were Joust, Sumo, and Race. These games were to be set up by the server with the idea that the figures would be retained by the bar at the end of the game. 
There was also a poster produced with instructions explaining how to use the CanBot. 
Joust used two Sapporo cans with a plank placed between them. Patrons would wind up the CanBot and place one at each end of the plank. The CanBots walk towards each other, and the last one on the plank wins. Sumo was similar but replaced the cans and plank with a napkin or coaster, to be used as the sumo ring. Once again, the last CanBot standing wins. Race was just that, a race. Choose a start and finish point and let them go. In playing these games, the CanBots were dropped and scratched frequently. Add to this the fact that the people playing with them were drinking in a bar, and it's no surprise that many of these did not survive in good shape -- if they survived at all.   

So there you have it: A few items from Sapporo Brewing that bear a resemblance to the droids of Star Wars!

For those interested, Sapporo Brewing does offer tours of their brewery; they also have a museum in Hokkaido, Japan. For those thinking about a trip to Japan for Celebration, it might be worth investigating. 

Cheers, and happy collecting!

Thanks to Kei Sato, the Japan Beer Journalists Association, and Ryan Doggendorf for assistance in this article.