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Anheuser-Busch tests PEN bottle to answer some market questions

The first commercial market appearance of a polyethylene naphthalate (PEN) homopolymer bottle in the United States occurred earlier this summer in New York City and on New York's Long Island.
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The appearance of PEN bottles of pasteurized Budweiser beer-in New York's Madison Square Garden and selected marinas in the Hamptons on Long Island-is not only a market first for PEN but the latest move by Anheuser-Busch Inc. St. Louis MO in its continuing quest for a plastic bottle that can be used to market a "mainstream" beer (see Packaging World April '98 p. 68). A-B slipped into and out of the test markets without saying anything about its interests. It's not hard though to guess what they're up to. Clearly the commercial market debut of the first pure PEN bottle in the U.S. gives Anheuser-Busch some of the "hard numbers" it needs before it would put its flagship brew in a plastic bottle on a widespread basis. It also corroborates answers to questions asked in earlier focus groups. The PEN bottle's market appearance also underscores the fact that A-B is further along the plastic bottle path than any other U.S. brewer. And-on some level-it puts glass container suppliers on notice that their largest market beer is susceptible to the market appeal of plastics. Glassmakers don't have anything to worry about in the short term. And-because most packaged beer is sold in single-serving sizes in the U.S.-we're unlikely to see wholesale conversions to plastic beer bottles like those we've seen in carbonated soft drinks where a significant volume is sold in multi-serving bottles. But ultimately inexorably beer will be commercially bottled in plastic. And that's going to affect the beer sales in both glass bottles and aluminum cans. Holding 16 oz of Budweiser beer the amber PEN bottle A-B brought to the two New York playgrounds (see photo) was injection/stretch/blowmolded by Constar Inc. a division of Crown Cork & Seal Co. Inc. (Philadelphia PA). The 6"-high 21/2"-diameter bottle weighs 30 g has a champagne base and incorporates a sealing ring below the closure. The cap looks like a conventional 28-mm compression-molded polypropylene carbonated beverage screw closure with a tamper-evident band. Like the bottle the black PP closure is designed to withstand pasteurization temperatures. Developed for this specific application by Crown's Closure division the cap includes an oxygen-scavenging compound and a foil spot. The PEN bottle/oxygen-scavenging closure combo gives the beer a 60-day shelf life at 72°F. Underscoring the stadium market target of the PEN bottle its screen-printed polypropylene body label carries the images of several athletes in action: a baseball player swinging at a ball a track runner in full stride a pair of dueling soccer players and a basketball player dunking the ball. The basketball player partially obscures Bud's classic "Beechwood aging" banner. That's the first time A-B's taken such liberties with its primary label. Spear Inc. (Cincinnati OH) produces the high-gloss full-bleed PP body label along with its companion bright red neckband. Three questions you might ask about what A-B is doing (and my answers) are: Why is Anheuser-Busch so interested in a plastic bottle? Bottom line? A-B is looking for beer packaging options. Norm Nieder A-B's director of packaging technologies made that clear earlier this year by asserting that "a plastic bottle provides a hedge against the aluminum can and glass bottle." Two other factors are piquing A-B's interest. Consumer attitude is one. Based on its focus group input the company believes beer drinkers like the idea of a plastic beer bottle almost as much as glass-and a lot more than cans. On a scale of 1-10 where 1 represents "I don't like at all" and 10 is "I really like a lot" a plastic bottle scored 8 almost as high as the glass score of 8.6 and considerably higher than the can's 4.8. The other factor is advancing plastic bottle technology. We now have several plastic bottle structures capable of holding cold-filtered beer. And PEN homopolymer bottles can withstand pasteurization temperatures and pressures a key A-B specification. If other plastic bottle architectures-or cup or pouch structures for that matter-could stand-up to beer pasteurization's rigors A-B would probably be evaluating them too. Are we likely to find Budweiser beer in this bottle on retail shelves anytime soon? Probably not. And possibly not for a long time either. It may be significant that A-B chose a sports arena and a select number of upscale marinas to conduct its tests. Sports arenas and coastal playgrounds are markets that typically restrict the sale of glass bottles. Finding a package that's acceptable in such venues could increase A-B's beer sales. When you already enjoy something like 45% of the U.S. beer market you may not be asking a plastic bottle to do more than find additional high brand-visibility outlets like sports stadiums beaches and marinas. Based on what the brewer has said in the past if and when Bud opts for plastic for a full-production run the bottles might be sealed with roll-on aluminum closures or steel crowns. For the near-as-glass barrier properties A-B wants an acrylic-coated PEN bottle has been evaluated. None of the plastic options however comes anywhere close to the attractive economics of glass. The PEN bottle holds pasteurized beer and consumers like it. What about costs? Well two out of three ain't bad. Though consumers in the Madison Square Garden and Hamptons Long Island test were overwhelmingly positive (90+%) about the bottle it still costs so much more than cans or glass bottles that A-B lost money on every PEN bottle of Bud it sold during the test. This particular plastic bottle won't give A-B the hedge against glass and aluminum cans it wants. But it does bring the brewer a step closer to the day-probably still at least a decade away unless somebody does something to dramatically lower the cost of plastic beer bottles-when they will be a common choice in the mainstream American beer marketplace. c

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