Don't expect Schmalbach-Lubeca AG's first raid on the beer bottle market to be its last.
First of all, this assault is taking place in France. But the company expects to develop bottles for other markets, including the United States and, eventually, its home country of Germany.
Second, Schmalbach's first beer bottle is made from PET with a nylon barrier layer. But that doesn't mean the Ratingen-based company won't eventually use one of the more exotic plastic recipes being touted for beer containers.
``This certainly is a kind of a starting point. Who knows how it is going to develop,'' Hanno C. Fiedler, chairman and chief executive officer, said in a Nov. 12 telephone interview.
The company expects to sell a total of more than 1 billion PET beer bottles in Europe in the next five years, the chief markets being in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom. That's a tiny slice of the global beer market, which Schmalbach estimates at 300 billion containers annually — including 50 billion in Europe.
Schmalbach-Lubeca, the largest PET blow molder in Europe and a top player in North America, introduced the three-layer bottle for Karlsberg Brauereien KG Weber. The brewer is testing the bottle with a screw cap in eastern France.
Karlsberg's Karlsbrau beer is sold in four-packs, and the bottle is a one-way container — not a returnable/refillable, which dominates the glass beer-container market in Germany.
Schmalbach said in a news release that a refillable PET beer bottle ``is currently still at an early development stage. As Schmalbach-Lubeca operates worldwide, its strategy focuses on serving high-demand markets first. In the case of beer, the major demand is for recyclable one-way bottles.''
When Schmalbach says the bottle is recyclable, the claim carries some weight. The firm is a significant PET recycler, with operations in France and Novi, Mich.
Cor Gansen, Schmalbach's director of research and development, said the company evaluated a lot of designs for beer packaging before settling on the multilayer PET/nylon/PET structure. One of the advantages of the container is its recyclability, he said.
``Nylon and PET are very much compatible,'' he said, because they have similar melt temperatures.
Nylon is needed as a barrier to oxygen, and beer's oxygen sensitivity varies from one brand to another. John Granata, vice president for global research and development for Schmalbach-Lubeca Plastic Containers U.S.A. Inc. in Manchester, Mich., said the Karlsbrau bottle has a nine-month shelf life.
Schmalbach claims the average shelf life of its bottles will be between three months and six months, depending on the brand.
While resin suppliers have touted polyethylene naphthalate resin as the secret to opening up the beer market, Gansen said PEN is still too expensive.
``But don't be surprised if within five years we see monolayer beer bottles'' using PEN resin, he said.
Schmalbach's first bottle is tinted brown, to help protect beer from ultraviolet rays. Gansen said the brown bottles will have to be separated by color from existing clear and green PET bottle streams.
Tackling the beer market is important to Schmalbach, which in recent years has seen its traditional business — carbonated soft drink bottles — slip into the hands of one-time customers. Coca-Cola Co. and Pepsico bottlers have taken PET bottle making in-house, thanks to integrated systems from machinery suppliers like Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. and Groupe Sidel.
As a result, Schmalbach has invested aggressively in new technology. The company beefed up employment at its research and development centers from 93 in 1993 to 155 in 1997. The spending has paid off: The company was granted 124 basic patents in 1997, up from 90 in 1993.
The company has two PET R&D centers. A facility in Dunkirk, France, has specialized in coinjection technology to make multilayer bottles. The center in Manchester, Mich., has emphasized pushing the envelope for hot-fill bottles, Fiedler said.
In addition to beer, Schmalbach is working aggressively to commercialize PET bottles for mayonnaise, mineral water and juices, plus wide-mouth food jars.
``In North America, we do think approximately one-third of our container volume in 1999 will be nonsoft-drink and water,'' Fiedler said. Based on dollar sales the percentage is much higher, because custom bottles carry a price premium compared to carbonated soft drinks.
``This company is going from being very beverage-oriented to more complex — not forgetting that we do need the volume [from soft drink containers] to employ our plants and hedge our resin prices,'' he said. Schmalbach is one of the largest buyers of plastic resin in the world, giving it some leverage with its PET suppliers.
``Of course when you are a customer who buys 50,000 tonnes [110.2 million pounds] per year, you're not as important as a buyer of 500,000 tonnes to 600,000 tonnes [1.1 billion pounds to 1.3 billion pounds], which is what we do worldwide,'' he said.
Although Fiedler doesn't expect the PET beer bottle market to be a significant slice of the market for several years, he said the containers already are competitive with glass, at least in terms of price.
He claimed that the company commissioned a report from a beverage-industry analyst in Europe who concluded that PET was 15 percent cheaper than glass bottles, taking into account the price of the bottles and the cost of transporting PET vs. glass, which is much heavier.
``The total system cost, in the end, is going to be more attractive with PET than with glass,'' he said.