AMELIA ISLAND, FLA. — It's expensive, not a preference among consumers, prone to scratches in transport and may be a burden on recyclers. But brewers still hope that beer sold in plastic bottles will be a success in the long run.
"It's just so early — we're like babes in the woods," said Norman Nieder, senior director of packaging technology with Anheuser-Busch Inc. of St. Louis.
Nieder was a keynote speaker at the Packaging Strategies 2000 conference in Amelia Island.
Nieder opened his speech with excerpts from a Chicago Tribune column blasting the concept of beer in plastic. The article, a response to the March national rollout of beer in PET by Miller Brewing Co. of Milwaukee, drew roaring laughter from the dinner crowd.
After reading the author's comparison of beer in plastic to "guzzling warm castor oil or baby formula," Nieder conceded that his industry must sacrifice being the object of ridicule among nay-sayers for now — holding out for the reward in the distant future.
"This is the kind of uphill battle people face when they want to make change," he said. "This is the type of thing that happens when people don't understand what we're trying to do."
What Busch envisions is a profitable niche market for the product — among the babies of the baby boomers.
"Our target market is minimum [drinking] age to 27 — the people who were born with the plastic bottle," Nieder said. "These are the first people who opened up the refrigerator and had a PET soda bottle.
"These are the guys you get early."
With an identified market that already is accustomed to beverages in plastic packaging, Nieder believes Busch, Miller and other brewers now need to focus on overcoming the real hurdles of this kind of conversion.
And they are major hurdles, he said.
Nieder said brewers have been looking at beer in plastic for more than 20 years, and the first problems to arise are usually cost, package performance, production and recently environmental.
To produce a resin combination that mimics the barrier properties of glass was most challenging, he said, but years and millions of dollars later, PET and polyethylene naphthlate have come as close as possible to glass in preserving the shelf life of beer — thanks to resin producers, packaging engineers and machine producers who took the risk.
Nieder recalled a 1998 packaging conference, when Busch announced the company was seeking a third strategic package to supplement cans and bottles, and listed the specifications for such a package.
"After the meeting was over people came up to us and said `You're crazy, all you did was give us the specs for a glass bottle,'|" he said.
"Today ... there are some excellent candidates that allow us to put our product back in the marketplace."
And with the help of blow molders Constar Inc. and Continental PET Technologies Inc., Busch introduced Budweiser and Bud Light brands in PET to limited entertainment venues this last month.
The Continental bottle is a five-layer nylon/PET container, and the Constar bottle is a three-layer package including a proprietary oxygen barrier between two layers of PET.
But those packages didn't come without some struggle. Nieder relayed to the audience the 1998 saga of the $5 beer bottle:
"In 1998 we launched a bottle made of 100 percent PEN," Nieder said. "We did this for one reason: we wanted to know if you put Budweiser in a plastic bottle, would a Bud drinker even pick it up."
The results told him: probably not.
"The reason we had no intention of selling this thing was at the volumes we bought, we paid $4 a bottle. We paid 40 cents apiece for the closure, because it had an oxygen scavenger, and 5 cents for the pressure-sensitive labels.
"We had $4.45 in this before we even put beer in it."
Busch had no intention of selling the bottle for that much, he said, but a limited test marketing of one of the company's first plastic bottles at least gave the brewer some idea of what they were up against.
That attempt, as well as the following year's test marketing of the package in Southwest convenience stores, still did not discourage Busch, Nieder said — even though cost was the reason behind both failed attempts.
"Aluminum wasn't cheap at first," he reminded audience members. "Right now [beer in plastic is] very expensive, but we see, over time, the price coming down."
Nieder was somewhat encouraged by the success of beer in PEN in Europe, particularly the brewers of the Danish brand Tuborg. Launched in 1999, Nieder said the 100 percent PEN bottle is more costly than PET, but it is refillable.
The multiple layers required for PET beer bottles — though Miller plans to include post-consumer PET in its bottles — and colors make this package an environmental challenge. Some recyclers already are concerned over how to handle this kind of bottle. But Nieder is hopeful in that regard, too.
"This is something we have to learn," Nieder said. "People learned how to recycle aluminum cans, and it evolved to where it is today.
"We see there will be solutions to this [problem], but this isn't a finished package."