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Self-heating latté stirs controversy

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Never mind the self-healing minefield, standby for the self-heating latté. From 2 January 2005, US punters will be able to buy a $2.25 cup of coffee that heats itself in six minutes. Previous trial launches aimed at the mass market have floundered on the size and cost of the product, but WP Beverage Partners thinks it might have a winner, and has persuaded celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck to put his name to the venture.

Inside the tin, a cone containing crushed quicklime is introduced to a jacket of water when activated, to generate the heat, and the packaging manufacturer claims the cup stays warm an hour. Contracts to market soup and baby food in self-heating containers have already been signed.

"This will change the way people drink coffee," says Jonathan Weisz, chief executive of OnTech, which developed the heating technology and demonstrates it in a 3-D video, here [Windows media only]. But will it?

Not if our trials are anything to go by. Despite experimenting with slow vapor absorption, and pouring the coffee directly into the ear canal, we've discovered that traditional oral ingestion methods remain the most effective. But what Jonathan probably means is "this will change the way people buy coffee" - and it's a multi-million dollar question.

The most promising markets are the gas station and the motel. Upmarket punters used to visiting Starbucks on the way to work will be asked to give up the social ritual of the queue and a passably fresh brew for convenience. To be frank, the cold pasteurised lattés on offer today taste like sick, and there's little reason to suppose a self-heating version will be any more appetizing.

However the marketers might have an ace up their sleeve. From the way employees in the nation's financial districts tote their coffee holders - almost as a kind of military hardware - there may be some potential in targeting such nascent survivalist fantasies. Nothing seems to appeals corridor warriors more than rugged outdoor or military chic. So rather than marketing it as a convenience beverage, it could be sold as an accessory for would-be urban guerillas. Troops and mountaineers, after all, have been using a bulkier version of the technology for years. ®

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