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02.2006

Massachusetts Beverage Business

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Article By: Lew Bryson

Actually, chances are, you won't. Because this bottle is made of aluminum, more than three times as thick as an aluminum can's wall. "If you smack a full one against your desk, you'd put a dent in it," said Ed Delia, who does PR for CCL Container, an Ontario-based firm that manufactures the bottles. "Probably put a dent in your desk, too. But you wouldn't puncture the bottle."

There's a new container for beer on the scene. The aluminum bottle joins the glass bottle, the aluminum can and the plastic bottle on the shelf. Some folks have already scoffed and said that it's not a bottle - it's made of metal, it's a can. It does bear a resemblance to the old cone-top cans of the 193Os, which were essentially a can with a bottle cap crimped on. But the dictionary says a bottle is a container with a narrow neck and a mouth that can be plugged or capped. This thing is all of that. It's a bottle. But it's made of aluminum.

But why an aluminum bottle? More to the point, is anyone going to buy it, and what good does it do you? Talk to some of the folks who are using it and making it, and a clearer picture emerges.

Big Sky Brewing of Missoula, Montana, was the first to use the aluminum bottle for beer in the US - they would have been the first in the world, says co-founder Bjorn Nabozney, but someone at Heineken caught wind of what they were doing with the Spanish supplier and got the Heineken H2 bottle out a week or so earlier. (Heineken did a limited release in the US, but has focused on Europe, where the H2 has been successful.)

"We got our first sample bottle in 1999," said Nobozney. "We knew it was something we were interested in. We don't recycle glass in Montana, but it's a very outdoorsy state, and we needed a package that was appropriate."

As we've discussed here recently, the can was available as a non-glass package that was outdoors-friendly. Why didn't Big Sky go that tried and tested route, instead of a completely new package? "Simple," said Nabozney. "We could run a bottle down our bottling line, we didn't have to buy any new equipment. And the perception of inferior quality for cans didn't feel good. We wanted something completely unique."

At the time, aluminum bottles were just that. But Pittsburgh Brewing followed Big Sky in less than a year, putting the iconic but sagging Iron City into an Aluminum Bottle. For this big, aging brewery, losing its big, aging customer base, aluminum bottles represented more than just something outdoorsy and different. They were a lifeline. "It revitalized the brand," said Tony Ferraro, VP of sales and marketing at Pittsburgh. "That bottle is the best POS there is."

To understand what Ferraro means, all you have to do is walk into any corner bar in Pittsburgh. You'll find empty Iron City aluminum bottles on every horizontal surface. That's a point Ed Martin, VP of sales at CCL Container, who makes the aluminum bottles for Iron City, brings up and hammers home. "It's a marketing tool, not a package in those cases," he said. "A brewery asks, 'Can I afford aluminum bottles?' It's part of your marketing package! People don't throw them away. It's a great grade of aluminum to recycle, it's very pure, but people don't throw them away."

Take a look at all the advantages aluminum bottles offer. They're lighter than glass, and that means a lot of savings on transport. "You can put more on the pallet, and put more on the truck," said Ferraro. "If you're paying $1OOO per truckload, you're getting 39O cases more on a truck than with glass bottles, and still staying within weight. Glass is 49 cases per pallet, these can go 64." Lighter on the truck means lighter for your customers to carry, too, in the same ratios.

But it's not just lighter than glass, it's stronger than either glass or cans. "It's amazing," said Ferraro. "Lighter than glass, and it's indestructible. I take them on flights for samples, they drop the suitcase, kick it, doesn't matter: they don't break." The bottles don't break like glass, nor do they shear or puncture like cans. Recyclers actually have problems crushing the cans for shipment.

That strength means no lost product, and it means no broken glass, which is a big deal in on-premise, and particularly in outdoor venues (and every bit as important for off-premise sales for outdoor activities like boating, lawn parties, hiking, camping, and so forth). They're hard to mis-use once they're empty and light, too, an added attraction for sporting venues.

What about for the actual consumer? There's convenience: the aluminum bottle gets beer cold faster than the glass bottle, a lot faster. (Despite what you may have heard, it's not true that they also keep the beer cold longer; blame thermodynamics.) There's flavor: the bottle is coated in inert film inside and out, and that's what the beer - and your lips - touch, and that's all. No seams, no lips, no pop-top hole. And no worry about hygiene: the bottle-cap covers pretty much everything you'll touch if you drink out of the bottle.

Ed Martin touted his product's safe-like seal of the product inside. "The aluminum bottle has better barrier properties than PET bottles," he said. "They keep out ultraviolet light and keep in carbonation. PET bottle barrier properties are only good for three or four weeks for beer. We think the aluminum bottle has the best shelf life.

"Then there's end-use rigidity," Martin said. "Once a can or a PET bottle is opened, it's no longer rigid. The aluminum bottle has that rigidity, and that's perceived value."

Perception and intangibles, however, seem to be the main reason to adopt the aluminum bottle; the intangible 'coolness' of the aluminum bottle. That's apparently what did it for Anheuser-Busch, where they rolled out aluminum bottles in a big way in 2OO5. They developed 16oz. aluminum bottles for Budweiser, Bud Light, Budweiser Select, Michelob, MichelobLight, and Anheuser Select. The bottles are bold graphic statements, color-clad from cap to base.

Why aluminum bottles for A-B? "We're always looking at innovative ways to reach adult beer drinkers, whether through new products or inventive packaging," said Marlene Coulis, VP of brand management at A-B. "It's important to keep beer fun, relevant and in step with the changing preferences of adults who enjoy beer. This was an ideal way for us to enhance the beer drinking experience. While we have no plans to abandon our glass bottles and aluminum cans, the aluminum bottle is an image enhancer over the more traditional packaging and the type of look contemporary adults want when out enjoying a beer with friends. The bottle looks and feels colder, and consumers tell us that's what they really like about it."

Ferraro and Pittsburgh Brewing found the same thing, and in a way that was even more valuable and important for them. "It's unique, cool and hip," he said, enthusiastically. "It's reached some of the younger demographics we can't really afford to advertise to. It's opened markets, in Texas with IC, and now that we have IC Light, it's opened that, too. And it follows with the bottles and cans, because the aluminum is more expensive, sure it is. But it's not about price, it's about quality. We're still seeing growth after 19 months."

CCL's Martin is not surprised. "We want to sell a lot of a bottles," he said, "but for the producer the question is, will this help me drive additional consumption? That's why regional brewers are interested. It gets them out of their neighborhood as a prestige product. You don't take Iron City to St. Louis to sell it for the same price as in your home neighborhood: how do you be different and get a premium product? The aluminum bottle does that, helps the image and the price."

The aluminum bottle is a wedge, and entry. "A-B and Pittsburgh have used it as an off-premise vehicle as well, not only as on-premise," Martin said. "Their growth outside of Pittbsburgh has probably been through off-premise sales." People love the aluminum bottle, but they recognize the premium they're paying - and when it comes to buying beer for home consumption, they'll buy the same brand in glass for less.

The aluminum bottles cost more than glass bottles, about four times as much, and uses three times as much aluminum as a can. In time the cost will come down, as manufacturing innovation and capacity increase. But for now, it's full price for aluminum bottles, because all the manufacturers are maxed out. "Supply is tight," said Nabozney. "It's a technology issue. Bottles can only be produced at 15O a minute."

So prices won't be coming down anytime soon, so long as the bottles remain popular, and hip, and stylish, and so long as brewers continue to sell them as fast as they receive them from the manufacturer, regardless of the price.

What about when the popular hip stylishness wears off? "You have to re-invent the package," said Miller. "You're going to see a tremendous amount of design equity coming to the package. To create a new shape in glass or cans, you have to spend a lot of money on molds. Aluminum bottle shapes are not done with molds. You can change them quickly and relatively cheaply."

Ed Delia thinks it is going to take a while before we see everything that can be done with this new packaging. "It's a whole new category," he said. "There's been aluminum cans for a long time, glass bottles for a long time, plastic bottles for a long time. An aluminum bottle as a beverage package option is a new thing. Whenever you see a new package come on the scene, it takes a while to find its place. Look at edible film. It first came out as mouthwash, now they're in vitamin and supplement delivery. A new idea can take some time to find its place."

It may be a place that's already been occupied. Some old-timers and beer can collectors may remember the old cone-top cans, and wonder what the big fuss is over this new cone-top. Cone-tops were squatter, and didn't sport bold color schemes like this, but Ferraro admits there is a similarity. "I think everything is retro," he said. "Everything that was is coming back, full turn. You're seeing that with a lot of consumer product."

Enough looking back. What is the view ahead for the aluminum bottle, cloudy though the crystal ball may be? "It's given a spark back to the industry," said Ferraro. "I don't know that we're stealing a wine drinker, but I guarantee that we're stealing beer drinkers. Iron City, IC Light and Augustiner are all up. We've exceeded our projections on the aluminum bottles. We're waiting for more."

Coulis reported the same story for Anheuser-Busch. "The demand for this new packaging in 2OO5 was so high that bars, restaurants, clubs, and supermarkets were selling out," she said. "This led Anheuser-Busch to double its capacity for the package by fall (of 2OO5). Adult beer drinkers enjoy variety and new things, and they've told us this is the type of package they like to have in their hands when they are out with friends. We see positive trends for the future."

"We'll continue to see more package developments arrive," said Delia. "When the dust settles, the aluminum bottles will have a place; what that place is remains to be seen. People are still checking it out. There's been enough interest that it will still be around, although I can't tell you that 2O% of America's beers will be in aluminum bottles in 5 years. We'll see."

Customers - and producers - are evidently willing to pay the bigger price for now, whether for indestructibility, light barriers, or feel-good, I'm-cool-you're-cool perception. The bottles certainly make an eye-catching display of rich colors and flashy metal, and they help drive sales of their less flashy brother brands. This looks like a good thing to play a small bet on. You can always increase your position if it looks like it's going to change.

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