Would You Drink Beer from a Reusable Bottle?

November 05, 2018

By Lisa Rabasca Roepe, November 05, 2018

Oregon is known for its beautiful scenery almost as much as it’s known for its craft beer, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative (OBRC) is enticing local breweries and their customers to help protect the environment by participating in a refillable bottle program.

The OBRC announced in July that seven Oregon breweries signed up to bottle and sell their beers in refillable bottles that can be washed and reused up to 40 times. However, switching from disposable to refillable bottles isn’t as easy as it sounds. The breweries need to change their bottling line to accommodate the refillable bottle and ensure their labels can be removed easily. “There are subtle challenges for switching to a different shape bottle and bottling machine,” admits Joel Schoening, OBRC’s community-relations manager. 

So far, only two Oregon breweries, Double Mountain Brewery in Hood River and Buoy Beer Co., in Astoria, are currently using the refillable bottles. Wild Ride Brewing in Redmond hopes to start using the refillables in early 2019. “We have glass contracts that couldn’t just be shut off overnight,” says Paul Bergeman, Wild Ride’s owner and head brewer.

Meanwhile, at least one brewery that initially signed onto the program, GoodLife Brewing Co., in Bend, won’t be making the switch to refillables because its owner and its head brewer want to keep their beer in cans to enable hikers and bikers to bring GoodLife on the state’s trails. Oregon state law prohibits glass containers in parks and recreation areas. “We’ve branded ourselves as the ‘can’ brewery,” says Tyler West, GoodLife’s head brewer and production manager. “GoodLife isn’t a ‘kick back and sit on the couch’ brand. It’s the ‘go outside and hike with this beer’ brand. People want to take canned beer outside and play.”

The breweries that are participating in the program see the refillable bottle as a means to persuade more customers to buy their beer. “The ability for the brewery to show what they care about matters to a lot to our customers,” says David Kroening, president and general manager of Buoy Beer. “As people learn about the program, we’re hoping they will make sustainability part of their purchasing decision.”

OBRC is quick to point out the impact a refillable bottle has on the environment. A refillable bottle eliminates about 95 percent of carbon emissions compared with a one-use bottle, Schoening says. “Every time you reuse that bottle, it’s cutting your carbon footprint in half relative to using a non-refillable.”

Convincing customers to buy beer in a refillable bottle isn’t necessarily a hard sell because Oregon already has a bottle deposit law, which requires a 10-cent deposit on most bottles and cans. Much of the infrastructure for collecting the bottles is already in place, Schoening says, and last year Oregon had an 85 percent return rate. The only difference now is refillable bottles need to be separated from the single-use bottles, washed and returned to the breweries, which OBRC is handling in addition to its usual role of collecting, processing and hauling bottles and cans.

For customers, the program is fairly seamless. They pay a 10-cent deposit, drink their beer, and then either bring the refillable bottle back to the grocery store or to a central bottle drop to collect their deposit. Since July, customers have returned about 5,000 refillable bottles, Schoening says.

“I really like the fact that breweries are cleaning and reusing bottles rather than crushing and creating new bottles,” says Dena Simonds, a Hood River resident, who buys beer in refillable bottles from Double Mountain and her local grocery store.

Double Mountain’s customers might be less hesitant about buying beer in refillable bottles because the brewery has been using them since 2012. “Our initial challenge was doing it all ourselves,” says Matt Swihart, Double Mountain’s owner and brewmaster. When Double Mountain first started using a refillable bottle, the larger grocery chains were reluctant to collect the refillable bottles but smaller stores were willing to help. Initially, the brewery had marginal success with only a 20 percent return rate but Swihart anticipates that rate will significantly increase with OBRC championing the refillable bottle program.

For now, OBRC plans to truck the refillable bottles to Bayern Brewing in Missoula, Montana, to be sanitized. To date, OBRC hasn’t sent any of the bottles out of state to be washed because it’s waiting to send a full truck of 37,000 bottles, Schoening says. OBRC plans to build a bottle washing facility in Oregon. “We haven’t started building the facility but we’re in the process of acquiring the property and going through permitting,” he says.

OBRC is hoping to expand the refillable bottle program to other Oregon breweries as well as out-of- state breweries with strong markets in Oregon and other beverage manufacturers including soda, wine and cider. “We do think it’s a replicable model and we do think it could be recreated with other states with bottle deposit systems,” Schoening says.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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