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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Alternate View: The Downsides of Returnable Bottles

Alan Taylor, a talented, German-trained Oregon brewer now in the process of founding his own joint, had a fascinating comment I wanted to highlight.  It came in response to my post about Double Mountain's new bottling line and their effort use returnable bottles.  I said:

In Belgium, they all used returnable bottles.  Everyone.  Remarkably, they get over 90% return rates, and the bottles survive many, many refillings.  (Look at your next bottle of Orval and see if it isn't worn at the wide spot.)...  When I asked them about returnable bottles, Belgians were never convinced it was enormously more green than our system--using a bottle once, grinding it up, melting it back into a bottle, and sending it back out--but I have a hard time seeing how.
Alan sees how.  Here's his comment:
First off, Matt is a great guy, makes great beers, and I trust his call on his system. I can’t wait to see the bottling line.

My comment is a bit long, but some readers might be interested to know why most craft brewers aren't working with used bottles. For some perspective: I worked in a smaller Bavarian brewery in 1998 (20,000 bbl/year sold in a radius of about 20 miles) where they did clean their bottles in a massive bottle washer, which sucked down tons of energy and used lots of water and chemicals. The brewery had to store new glass in addition to the used glass due to lost or broken bottles, so they dedicated a lot of space to holding the bottles on site.
When I was there, the Germans were using the NRW bottle almost exclusively. That helped things a bit. The consumer would buy a reusable plastic case holding twenty 0.5 L bottles, schlepp that home, drink the beer, then schlepp the empty case back. If the retailer returned the cases properly, the brewer would have 20 of his own bottles in his own plastic case (I never worked with a female brewer there, so forgive the use of the masculine pronoun). With one bottle type, you could live with having a retailer send you the wrong case, but you still had to pay shipping to return it to the other brewery. Mark H pointed out the problem with branded glass. That was taking hold in Germany in 1998 and has become even more prevalent, which makes it harder for them as well. So I totally understand the lack of enthusiasm from Jeff’s Belgian brewing friends.

Turning to our craft brewers, we are lacking the infrastructure of selling bottles in a reusable case, using a single bottle type (22s are the closest for this, where almost all of the them are the same bottle type) for 12 oz bottles, having space in the retailer’s storage area to hold all of the cases and bottles returning each day (Germany doesn’t have 50 to 100 brands in their equivalent of an Albertson’s, Safeway, or Fred Meyer, let alone the number of offerings from a Belmont Station), holding the distributors accountable for picking up the retailer’s empties, storing them in their warehouses, then returning them to the brewery.

And…we brewers aren’t sitting on tons of real estate where we can store smelly, nasty bottles and cases, nor can most of us afford a bottle washer (either for capital investment, labor, or energy/water/chemical inputs). For a production brewery of Deschutes/Full Sail/Widmer's size, you are looking at a multi-million dollar investment for the machinery alone. Think of your local, very small brewer who has a mobile bottler come in once a month or so. She probably only has enough space for the bottles that are there that day (I have worked with women brewers here in the States!) and is happy to see the pallets leave as soon as possible.


  1. I visited Yukon Brewing in May. They recycle in a very unusual way. They will bottle their beer in any used amber bottle, regardless of where it came from originally. They receive bottles from the local recycling center, sort them, send back the green, amber, and broken ones, then clean them in a 1950's machine using heavy duty caustic, then fill and label. So one bottle of Yukon beer might be a twist off and the next not, depending on the original source.

    Of course they are in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. New bottles are 32 cents each, so getting them for a nickel and going through this process makes economic sense for them.

  2. Matt Swihart, Double Mtn.11:30 PM, August 31, 2012

    Yep, its gonna be a formidable challenge to pull off. Bet well worth the environmental and cost benefits of a reusable container.
    Lets get a beer together soon, Alan,