Serious Eats: Drinks

Mr. Brown and Me: How I Came to Love Taiwanese Canned Coffee

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[Photograph: Meister]

I'd like to introduce you to a little friend of mine—and a guilty pleasure, to boot: Mr. Brown. That's right, your resident coffee nerd has a not-so-secret crush on a Taiwanese brand of in-case-of-emergencies grab-and-go iced coffee.

When I was in Taiwan last May, I met the ubiquitous winking cad known as Mr. Brown, in his snappy suit and Panama hat. This little guy's been busy caffeinating the people of the Sweet Potato Island since 1982—not even the contaminated-milk scare that shocked China in 2008 could knock him off his pedestal. With a chain of full-service cafes, a wide variety of pop-top canned beverages, and even instant "cappuccino" powders, our man Brown is all over Asia.

The coffee, as you might imagine, doesn't taste very good—it's pretty safe to wager that it's mostly cheap robusta coffee, which gives it a kind of burnt-peanut flavor. There are dozens of other nearly identical brands to choose from in the mindbogglingly full drink fridges at each of Taiwan's 4,700-plus 7-Elevens.

So why do I have a soft spot for white-suited Mr. Brown?

I think Mr. Brown could be my own version of Proust's famous madeleine. Maybe we develop a taste for the stunningly mediocre simply because of the context, like many a starry-eyed tourist's thrilling first bite of a greasy Philly Cheesesteak or a sadly subpar New York slice. Does falling for this stuff tarnish one's reputation for being a Serious Eater?

I would never put Mr. Brown in the same league as, say, Stumptown Coffee's bottled cold-brew, but its vaguely rubbery aftertaste does conjure memories of hiking through Taroko National Park, and tackling my first bite of chòu dòufu ("stinky tofu") at a night market. (I even carry around a packet of the aforementioned "cappuccino" powder, let's say for sentimental reasons.)

For the curious, cans of Mr. Brown are available from online specialty shops like VeryAsia.com, but New York locals can also sip the stuff while munching Taiwanese gua boa sandwiches at Lower East Side joint Baohaus.

And yes, I'll grant you that this Serious Coffee post is a far cry from my usual "quality trumps all" soap-boxing, but I figure if I'm going to preach, I may as well also confess my own sins.

Join me: Have you ever found yourself enjoying the flavor of something simply because you feel it connected you to the place you're visiting, regardless of how "good" or "bad" you knew it to be?

About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista and an audacious eater, but she remains a Nervous Cook.

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