INTERVIEW WITH DR. ROLAND FOLZ
Head of the VLB Department for Brewing and Beverage Science and Applications, the German research institute and service provider
What is vLB Berlin?
Founded in 1883 by German brewers and maltsters, VLB Berlin is a German research institute and service provider with a focus on all issues regarding the production and development of beer, spirits and non-alcoholic beverages. Today, around 130 people work in the fields of research, teaching, service and information for brewing, malting, beverages and their supply industries.
What are the main functions of VLB Berlin?
As a 'Registered Association', VLB is an independent institute that has a very close network in the international brewing and related industries, and co-operates with the Technische Universität Berlin in the field of brewing science. VLB also offers a broad range of chemical-technical and microbiological analyses to the industry.
What are the fastest growing regions in the brewing industry?
If you look at the global growth rates for beer production, Africa has overtaken Asia in 2010 with an increase of about 7%. Nevertheless, Asia is still the biggest beer market by volume worldwide. With an increasing economic vitality and a young population, many Asian countries like China, Vietnam, Korea, Thailand and Cambodia have room for growth in the brewing and beverage sector.
What are the general trends in packaging for beer?
These differ a little bit from region to region but the general trend is that packaging is becoming more and more important - especially in the premium sector where the packaging has become a fundamental part of the product. Besides the functional and convenience aspects, it conveys style, quality and image to the customer. Another trend is the growing diversity of the packaging.
Have there been any new initiatives in beer packaging recently?
Originally starting with soft drinks and water, PET has proved its suitability for beer packaging. One criticism was that the permeation of oxygen through PET bottles leads to problems concerning flavour stability - there are now different technologies available that improve this issue significantly. Another recent development is beer kegs made from PET. They have the advantage of being much cheaper and lighter than kegs made from stainless steel. Cans made from PET are also in the early stages of development.
With all the associated benefits, could PET be the future of packaging in the beer industry?
We are sure that PET will find a significant position within the packaging mix of beer. Nevertheless, glass bottles, cans and kegs will maintain their right to exist.
How do you see the market for PET bottles growing in the future?
Market growth for PET bottles in the beer segment must be seen as a regional topic. It seems likely that it won't see further growth in Russia and the former soviet countries where it is already present and discussed even on a political level. However, emerging markets with less of a tradition for glass bottles, such as China, India and parts of Africa, will probably become a good market for PET packaging of beer in the future. In the western world, where glass bottles and cans have a strong tradition, there is more of an opportunity for PET bottles to be introduced as packaging at public events.
What can the beer industry do with PET that it cannot do with other materials?
A great advantage of PET is the flexibility. On the basis of a standard preform you can blow differently shaped and sized bottles. Another important point is the fact that it is lightweight and has high stability. This is an area where PET is clearly superior to glass.
What does the VLB think about beer in PET and the shift towards PET?
VLB has been closely involved in the development of barrier technology in order to reduce the gas permeation through PET bottles. Through this we gained a lot of experience with the material and PET has become an appropriate packaging material for beer. However, the market success of PET packaging depends on consumer acceptance. For example, in Russia and other Eastern European countries, beer in PET is very successful, while in Germany consumer acceptance is still quite low.
How are brewers responding to the multiple social pressures put on the beverage markets today?
There are a lot of market developments and restrictions that make life difficult for brewers, of course. But in general it is very important to point out that beer normally has a quite low alcohol content, and moderate beer consumption could contribute to a healthy lifestyle. This makes beer very unique and valuable.
Where does PET fit into this changing landscape?
In the context of sustainability, there are advantages regarding recyclability, which should be clearly pointed out and addressed within the industry. This goes hand in hand with a social responsibility towards the consumer, especially when packaging alcoholic beverages.
How can PET and its suppliers contribute to the sustainability agenda and/or create a competitive advantage?
Some people criticise the fact that PET is made from crude oil, which is a limited resource. On the other hand, the specific energy consumption for transportation of filled bottles is comparably moderate due to the low weight of the packaging material. On top of this, PET is completely recyclable. These are important facts that have to be taken into account when we talk about the total carbon footprint of a packaging material. An interesting new development is biopolymers - they are made from agricultural raw materials and could possibly be an alternative to PET in the future.
What are the new trends in terms of equipment?
Dominating again is the importance of sustainability - the need to consider the lowest possible consumption values alongside a small carbon footprint and high flexibility towards product changes.
According to VLB, how can suppliers bring additional value propositions to breweries?
They should focus on providing functionality as well as overall competencies that bring long-term successes instead of quick wins. Understanding the brewmaster, listening to brewery needs and brewery innovations can help as well.
Now we turn to look at sorting lines/returnable bottles. do you see a trend from return to returnable?
In general, yes because it is practical, applicable and to a certain extent, sustainable. However, the market trend to individualise bottles in terms of shape, size and dimensions makes any returnable system quite inefficient
And finally, is there a trend for brewers to convert their lines from tunnel to flash pasteurisation?
Yes, there is. This trend is also driven by sustainability and for quality reasons. Tunnel pasteurisation can lead to an unwanted so-called 'pasteurisation off-flavour' in the product - mainly caused by incorrect operation. Flash-pasteurisation gives better opportunities to minimise the thermal load on the product without losing the microbiological stability. At VLB, we are following this trend closely, together with breweries, since it is not only a technical changeover but a significant change of the entire pasteurisation strategy, which needs to be carefully guided.