Plastic to break beer mould

Drinkers are more impressed by a beer’s image than its flavour. Although plastic packaging has worked for soft drinks, forecasts for beer vary.

Despite overall low-volume growth, west European beer markets remain dynamic, with packaging at the forefront of their evolution. With brand loyalty, particularly among young adults, at an all-time low, making brands attractive visually is crucial.

According to the recent Datamonitor report “Future scenarios in beer packaging”, 75 per cent of the beers launched in the young adult market since 1998 rely solely on brand image to secure customers initially. Flavour, content and even product quality, are now arguably of secondary importance. This shift in attitude is potentially a dream-come-true for packaging designers.

However, the most significant changes in the UK beer market are coming from a more prosaic source: plastic bottles.

Polyethene terephthalate (PET) has had a fundamental impact on the global drinks sector. Its influence on the soft drinks market has been enormous, with the bottled water category undergoing a wholesale switch from glass to plastic within a few years.

The beer market has been more reluctant to adopt it. Brewers have been experimenting with PET since 1970, but most early trials were unsuccessful, partly because of consumer hostility to drinking beer from what many perceived to be a low-quality packaging format.

To a large degree, these misgivings were well-founded. Early incarnations of PET were low-tech and restricted beer’s shelf-life to the point that quality was compromised unless the product was refrigerated throughout the distribution process.

Recent technological advances have reduced many of these difficulties, encouraging brewers to believe that not only is the use of PET-based plastic formats now a viable option but they have the potential to partially supplant glass and cans as the format of choice.

For brewers, PET has many advantages. It is unbreakable and therefore safe for markets such as sporting events and music concerts. A 33cl PET bottle weighs about ten to 15 per cent of its glass equivalent, significantly reducing transport costs. It is also cheaper to change the design and size of PET bottles, allowing manufacturers to create limited editions and brand variants more cost effectively.

Bottled beer can be served about four times quicker than draught in on-trade outlets. Despite this advantage, there are strong arguments against using the PET format in the beer market. The use of glass and cans is well established in the UK and continental Europe, and many brewers are reluctant to take on the costs switching would incur. With consumers still unclear about the benefits of the new format, many brewers are reluctant to switch from more established ones.

Given the strong glass recycling/reusing infrastructure in many continental countries, PET could face significant opposition from environmental groups, legislative bodies and other parties throughout the beer manufacturing and distribution chain.

While glass can withstand the heat demands of the pasteurisation processes, early incarnations of PET could not. Brewers are extremely reluctant to change their processes because of the high costs involved. If PET is to be seen as a viable alternative, manufacturers will have to use a format that is capable of surviving existing brewing processes.

Many consumers feel the use of plastic denotes a lower quality product, while glass suggests traditional values, a premium positioning and a good overall product.

Several brewers testing the PET format have found consumers are attracted to plastic because of its novelty value.

But trials of the PET format in the beer market have so far been limited. Bass began selling beer in PET packaging in November 1997, using bottles produced by American National Can. It initially used sports and music events and nightclubs as testing grounds. A 1.5 million-unit release of the Carling Black Label, Hooper’s Hooch and Grolsch brands proved successful, despite the fact that price points were 50 per cent higher than with glass.

International launches have had mixed fortunes. Heineken has released 33 Export in PET across France, and reports 70 per cent repurchase rates. Meanwhile, Anheuser-Busch has abandoned its US test launch after less than a month.

Analysts are split over the impact PET could have in European beer markets, with forecast penetration rates varying wildly. However, it is likely that by the year 2005 at least five per cent of European beer will be sold in this format. With consumers continuing to demand more from beer packaging, brewers across the Continent will keep a close eye on the PET.

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