The bottle crates, elegant vehicles for beverages
In best case, it’s a successful combination of perfect functionality and an appealing look and feel, an elegant vehicle for beverages of all kinds, particularly for beer, mineral water and soft drinks. We’re talking about bottle crates, which are inseparably linked to beverage distribution, as transport and storage containers, of course, but also as brand ambassadors. At least in specific markets, and in particular regions of the world. But in its present incarnation as a plastic crate, it isn’t really all that old – it’s in fact been around for less than 55 years. It was invented by Alexander Schoeller, whose name still survives today in the company name of the world market leader Schoeller Allibert.
We’re in the Bavarian town of Monheim, where Schoeller Allibert runs one of Germany’s two bottle crate production operations: in two lines, 16 plastic injection-moulding machines are arrayed, each of which disgorges a new crate every minute. The production process is quite straightforward, explains Plant Manager Josef Kugler. Standard PE or PP material, depending on the order involved, is removed from large silos and fed into injection-moulding machines. The machine heats up the plastic to a temperature of 250 degrees Celsius, while the desired colouring is added, likewise in the form of plastic granules. The mixture is melted using heat and high pressure, and enclosed in a mould made of steel and special bronze, which during its lifetime produces about one million crates. While it is still in the mould, the crate is cooled down to approximately 50 degrees Celsius, so as to assure its dimensional stability. And now you’ve got a new bottle crate.
The crates are screen-printed by a printshop. If the consumer prefers an in-mould label, then a separately printed plastic label is inserted in the free areas of the sides, and melted onto the crate inside the machine. This type of label offers the marketing people significantly more options for creative design, not least with photos, for example. Screen-printing, by contrast, is usually restricted to two or three colours for simpler design concepts. A second machine then presses in a soft-touch handle if so required. 80 staff are employed here in Monheim, and another 180 at the plant in Schwerin. Worldwide, Schoeller Allibert employs more than 1,500 people.
Lengthy lifetime, shortened by the market’s demands
The vast majority of bottle crates nowadays are made from a plastic called polyethylene (PE). The alternative is polypropylene (PP), which is somewhat lighter, has a pleasanter surface, and runs more smoothly on the conveyors, but in the event of impacts there will be what’s called pearling, which although it does not impair the technical functionality does spoil the visual appearance. A bottle crate then stays in circulation for at least ten to twenty years, sometimes even longer. “Bottle crates are taken off the market less for technical reasons than for marketing considerations”, explains Hans-Joachim Wiedmann, Managing Director of Schoeller Allibert, “because the brand is being relaunched, because the crates are exhibiting too many signs of use, because there are some interesting technical innovations in the field of crate design or because competitors are scoring with new additional benefits featured in their crates.”
Bottle crates provide three different functions: first of all, there’s the transport and storage function, shared by all crates worldwide. For this purpose, they needn’t be decorated or incorporate any special convenience features. The second function, marketing support at the point of sale, is incorporated in the crates using different variants of dress, so as to reinforce the recognition effect of a beverage brand. The third factor, finally, is the additional benefits for the consumers, like palm-friendly soft-touch handles, for example, or making the crate divisible for easier carrying.
The classical markets are in Europe
Not all three functions are equally in demand everywhere in the world. The classical market for beverage crates is Europe, and Germany in particular. The usual pattern here is for consumers to buy entire crates in a beverage cash-and-carry or a retail outlet and take them back home. In Latin America, Africa and Asia, the crate is a common sight in some nations, but here it’s put to quite a different use, primarily as a transport and storage container pure and simple for the retailers. The bottles involved are then sold to consumers individually. In the USA, by contrast, the plastic crate is at present well-nigh unknown; there, it is cartons, trays or shrink-packs that predominate. The major beer-drinking nation of Mexico has up to south of the border, there’s a large-scale shift ongoing towards the bottle crate.
In Europe, there are an estimated 530 million plastic crates or more in circulation, 350 million of them in the beer market alone; the remaining 180 million crates are used for transporting water and soft drinks. The sheer dominance here of the German-speaking nations is reflected in the figures: the beer markets of Germany, Austria and Switzerland alone account for around 200 million, i.e. two-thirds of Europe’s crates, while in the soft-drinks and water markets the figure is even 150 million, i.e. 80 per cent of European crates. Schoeller Allibert estimates the market in Brazil, for instance, at about 60 million crates, in South Africa at roughly 50 million crates and in Nigeria at approximately 40 million crates.
From a plain standardised crate to a high-tech package
Germany is the birthplace of the plastic crate. The producer of wooden crates for beverages, Alexander Schoeller, once he had resumed production after the Second World War, hit upon the idea of using plastic, which was lighter and sturdier than wood. It was in 1959 that he premiered the first plastic crate, a rather plain beer crate holding 20 eurobottles. In the 1960s, not only were many products in general being changed over to plastic, the era of self-service stores was also dawning. This meant the plastic crate quickly found wide acceptance on the market, but its shape and functionality hardly changed at all until the mid-1980s: in Germany, there was the eurocrate for beer and the GdB crate (Association of German Mineral Water Bottlers) for mineral water. That was it. When the majority of German breweries started changing over to the slim-line NRW bottle, this affected crate design as well. The crates now featured a larger advertising area for screen-printing on all four sides, while stability was achieved more through the corners than through the ribs. This was also welcomed enthusiastically on the international markets.
One innovation after another
Schoeller triggered a minor revolution in 1990 with crates that could be divided in the middle, boldly adopted by the huge Paulaner brewery, and which are still bringing Paulaner’s beers to the wholesalers and the consumers. Simultaneously, in the soft-drinks market, Coca-Cola unveiled a display crate with an airmold handle for introducing its returnable PET bottles.
In the 1990s, there was also a discernible trend towards lightweighting, so as to save both resources and costs. The weight of a beer crate was reduced from about 2,000 grams to as little as 1,700 grams. Meanwhile, this trend has gone into reverse, because the breweries, in particular, have now started to stack the crates higher on the pallets, and putting up to four pallets on top of each other. So the stackability requirement involved has meant the weight has gone back to the old values of around two kilograms.
Schoeller’s first crate with an in-mould label was premiered back in 1996, coinciding with a smaller crate of just eleven bottles, in response to the trend towards smaller households. The mineral water producers, too, were increasingly discovering the crate as a marketing tool, presenting their products more eye-catchingly in a display crate. Then, at the beginning of the new millennium, the soft-touch handle appeared, with which a major German brewery was the first vendor to gladden its customers’ hearts with a softer, much palm-friendlier handle. In subsequent years, manufacturers excelled themselves with a constant stream of innovations. For example, high-gloss and matt surface structures were combined for a retro look, the brandname was embedded in the handle, the middle handle lined with softer materials, and different surfaces achieved with the in-mould labelling capability. Two- or three-coloured crates, or even ones with two different types of plastic in different colours, are meanwhile available as well.
Sixpack and single bottles in one crate
“If there’s one trend you can unequivocally identify in the brewing and beverage industries, it’s a move towards more product diversity”, explains Hans-Joachim Wiedmann. “And bottle crate design, of course, has not been slow to respond. Examples include the new Paulaner display crate for sixpacks and single bottles, or the “Tilo” crate for the Leffe Brewery in Belgium, with movable partitions for full sixpacks and individual partitions for returning the empty bottles. There aren’t many consumers, you know, who want to take home an entire crate of “Alcohol-Free Shandy”, for example. What they do instead is put together a crate with three or four different kinds of beers in a sixpack or as single bottles.”
“Ultimately, it’s the customer who decides on innovations”, concurs Michael Rinderle, Managing Director of Schoeller Allibert International. “But the past has definitely taught us that the bottle crate has always played a meaningfully supportive role in the evolution of the brewing and beverage industries.”
A rather complex product
In Europe, Schoeller Allibert operates as a crate designer and producer. Internationally, the market leader manufactures its crates in certain countries, while in others it merely develops the design and outsources actual production to licensees or to one of the beverage producers themselves, as is the case in South Africa, for instance. “The bottle crate is an article that has to be produced locally, because its huge volume entails massive transportation costs”, explains Hans-Joachim Wiedmann. “A crate is a rather complex product. From a technical point of view, it has to be suitable as a transport and storage container, and cope with a weight of up to 4,000 kilograms from the crates on top of it. In the bottling line, it has to run easily over the conveyors, the partitions must be neither too large nor too small, so that the bottles can be easily inserted, and it has to withstand high and low temperatures without suffering any damage. This requirement listing applies all over the world. In Europe, and particularly in Germany, design and marketing have to be taken into due account as well.”
Schoeller Allibert has set up a design centre in Munich Pullach for creating innovative crate concepts. “The bottle is the major determinant”, emphasises Michael Rinderle. “The size of the crate is in Europe mostly a given, at 300 times 400 millimetres, though there’s a demand for smaller crates as well, of course. Every bottler wants to be recognised by consumers as the originator of the brand from the design of the crate. Under these preconditions, there are numerous options for creativity: open or closed crates, a large advertising area with screen-printing or an in-mould label, different surfaces, structured or smooth, more rounded or more angular shapes, two colours – with a differently coloured inlay at the crate’s top edge, for example – or a divisible version. We are guided by the specific wishes of our customers, we put forward our own design proposals, and target a synergised synthesis of functionality and visual appeal.” Nowadays, this almost always produces a result that enriches the beverage market in terms of handling, haptics and visual appeal.
But what happens when bottle crates are worn out, when after long years of use they are weathered and unsightly? About one to two per cent of the entire crate pool has to be replaced each year with new stock. For this, too, Schoeller Allibert has come up with a solution: recycle them. The material can be repeatedly re-used – up to 40 per cent of the new crates consist of recycled plastic. Mobile grinders arrive at the brewery’s courtyard, shred the old crates, and take the material to the crate production facilities, where it is intensively cleaned and can be re-used for making new crates, the elegant vehicles of the future.