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Is Bud ready for plastics?

Wondering what the world's biggest brewer thinks about plastic bottles for beer? Anheuser-Busch tipped its hand, ever so slightly, at a recent technical conference.

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Anheuser-Busch may not have a plastic beer bottle on store shelves. But the St. Louis brewer has done plenty of testing, both with consumers and in the lab. That became abundantly clear at the recent Nova-Pack conference January 26-27, sponsored by Schotland Business Research (Skillman, NJ). There Terence Staed, a manager in A-B's packaging technology group, presented a paper titled "Is Plastic Ready for Beer?" Beer is the one beverage that has for the most part resisted conversion from glass to plastic. Problems with carbonation loss and oxygen ingress are significant hurdles. Resin costs can be prohibitive, too. And then there's the whole question of whether beer drinkers will accept their beer in plastic. Some innovators, however, are pushing ahead with plastic beer bottle development, and Packaging World aims to track their progress. Last month we profiled Bass Brewers' director of package development Bill Dando, who helped develop Bass's plastic beer bottle (see PW, March '98, p. 54) for the U.K. marketplace. This month we examine Anheuser-Busch, the largest brewer in the world. Staed opened his Nova-Pack remarks by acknowledging that yes, beer in plastic does exist. Not only is there Bass' 33-cL bottle in the U.K., there's even draft Budweiser in a 5.16-gal polyethylene terephthalate beer sphere. But thus far, Staed observed, all plastic beer containers are niche-oriented packages. "No real mainstream beer product has been in a plastic bottle for a significantly long period of time," Staed said. Will A-B be the one to change that? Maybe yes, maybe no. "We do things to meet consumer needs," Staed said in a recent phone interview, "and there hasn't been any groundswell from consumers saying we need plastic beer bottles." That doesn't mean A-B has avoided the subject. It's difficult to ignore the animated interest among resin suppliers and machinery manufacturers, as Staed pointed out at Nova-Pack. So A-B created a 16-oz plastic beer bottle and used it to conduct what Staed described as "extensive consumer research." Actually the firm brought two plastic beer bottles to focus groups. One had the look of a long-neck Budweiser bottle while the other mimicked the well-known "tear-drop" shape of a Michelob bottle. Both bottles were amber-colored monolayer PET with roll-on aluminum closures. Shelf life was not a consideration. The bottles were opened and the beer consumed shortly after they were filled. Plastic scores high As Table 1 shows, focus group participants liked the plastic bottles they encountered. In fact, on a scale of one to ten, they gave the 16-oz plastic Michelob bottle a rating of 8. That was just shy of the 8.6 rating they gave to 12-oz glass bottles and considerably higher than the 4.8 rating given to cans. Focus group participants, said Staed, described the plastic beer bottle as "the best of both worlds" in that it had the look of glass and the shatter-resistance of cans. Container preference, however, was price sensitive. While plastic was overwhelmingly preferred to cans, regardless of pricing, plastic was preferred over glass only when plastic is cheaper. Glass was preferred over plastic if price is equal or plastic is more expensive. Intrigued by the popularity of the plastic beer bottle in the focus groups, Staed said at Nova-Pack, "We set out on a worldwide search for a plastic bottle that would satisfy our consumers. No process, resin, coating, or combo thereof was ruled out. Our tests were baselined against a glass bottle." From its research, A-B developed the performance criteria shown in Tables 2 and 3. Commenting on the specifications, Staed noted that, "We're talking about a container size larger than what we generally perceive as single-serve. A key reason was to reduce the surface area of the container." When the amount of surface area is reduced relative to the amount of liquid inside, carbon dioxide loss is minimized. Also worth noting, said Staed, is that "We've lowered shelf life to 60 days. Typical shelf life for our product is 105 days." Staed also added a more subjective performance criterion to the ones he showed in his slide presentation: "The consumer has to recognize that this package adds value. We're not creating packages just for the sake of testing." A-B also tapped outside expertise as it developed its plastic bottle criteria. "To make sure we left no stone unturned, we took our performance criteria to the TNO Nutrition and Food Research Institute in the Netherlands and [discussed it with] an audience composed of the world's top brewers, plastic resin suppliers and plastic bottle manufacturers." The feedback gained from this group helped A-B understand what properties its plastic bottle would need. Conclusion: coated PEN Eventually A-B concluded that the container coming closest to meeting its performance criteria would be a 500-mL (just over 16 oz) homopolymer polyethylene naphthalate bottle coated with a barrier material that would make the PEN, already a superb gas barrier, even more impermeable. (It's worth noting that some in the Nova-Pack audience wondered if coating homopolymer PEN was overkill.) Among the coatings considered by A-B was Bairocade barrier coating from PPG Industries (Pittsburgh, PA). An organic substance based on a patented epoxy-amine chemistry, the clear, glossy coating is sprayed on the outside of the bottle by a high-speed, in-line system from FECO (Cleveland, OH). PPG claims its Bairocade technology extends shelf life of a conventional PET carbonated soft drink bottle by greater than 3X and that the coating's performance is unaffected by pasteurization. A-B's product never made it into one of these coated PEN bottles. In fact, the bottle never got beyond the virtual, hypothetical stage. Cost is the key impediment. By A-B's calculations, if PEN cost $3/lb and the bottle weighed 30 g, it would cost around three times more than an equivalent glass bottle. "So where are we now?" asked Staed rhetorically at Nova-Pack. He answered his question with another. "Would you pay or expect your customer to pay three times the current package cost for a plastic beer bottle?" "That's a hard pill to swallow," adds Norm Nieder, the director of A-B's packaging technology group. (Nieder wrote the Nova-Pack paper delivered by Staed but fell ill and asked Staed to stand in.) But, Nieder adds, that doesn't close the book on beer in plastic at A-B. "There's a lot of exciting things going on," says Nieder, "things like advancements in heat-set technology, continuing resin development, and new PET/PEN blends, for example. To take the next step we need to fortify our lines of communication with the resin suppliers and bottle manufacturers." Some of that communicating, Nieder hopes, was accomplished at Nova-Pack. 'Genuine interest' "For the first time we shared consumer test data showing there is a genuine interest on the part of mainstream beer drinkers in plastic as a package," says Nieder. "They liked it almost as much as glass. No one had ever shown data like that before. No one had ever been bold enough to put something out like that and really say that plastic could be a third strategic package for the brewer." Staed at Nova-Pack also touched on the strategic planning implications that a plastic bottle could have. "A plastic bottle provides a hedge against the [cost of the] aluminum can and glass bottle," said Staed. Nieder hopes A-B's contribution to the Nova-Pack conference sent a clear message. "I hope those guys way back in the cobweb section of the resin research centers will say, 'Hmm, somebody is willing to do this. Let's dust off some of that stuff we never thought anyone would ever be willing to look at.' Because developing a plastic beer bottle really does depend on the performance characteristics of the resin. If the resin requires some unique manufacturing considerations during stretch/blow molding, then machinery becomes part of the equation, too. But if it doesn't, all the better, because then you don't have to reinvent the wheel from the mechanical side." The picture that emerges, then, from Staed's Nova-Pack presentation and subsequent phone interviews with both Staed and Nieder is that while A-B currently remains on the sidelines of the plastic beer bottle game, it seems to be busy drawing up plays. Also clear is that if A-B does fill beer into a plastic bottle, distribution won't be limited to stadiums and night clubs a la the Bass bottle in the U.K. "It should represent our mainstream products," says Nieder. So is plastic ready for beer? Not today, says A-B, primarily due to cost. But as Staed put it to his Nova-Pack audience, "Beer is ready for plastic." Next in Packaging World, a report on a brewer claiming up to six months' shelf life for beer in a plastic bottle.

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