Germany: Breweries are in urgent need of bottles

Being in the middle of a long and hot summer and after celebrating the FIFA World Cup despite the early and unexpected exit of Germany’s national football team (, 18.6.2018), German brewers are facing enormous supply problems. After a shortage of CO2 (, 21.6.2018) and malt (, 16.4.2018), Deutsche Welle now reports also about shortages of glass bottles and crates. Germany's public international broadcaster cited Privatbrauerei Moritz Fiege in the western German city of Bochum as an example.

The unusal high seasonal demand for its beers created a scarcity of its signature swing-top bottles. Since most of the beer in the country is sold in returnable bottles, the problems is mainly that consumers do not return empty bottles quick enough to be refilled. "We need your help," the brewery appealed to consumers via Facebook. "Although we regularly buy new empty bottles, they're becoming scarce in our bottling facility. So before you go on summer holidays, please bring your Moritz Fiege empties back to the shop. First the deposit, then the party!"

The problem with empties is especially a German problem. Two billion reusable beer bottles are estimated to be in circulation in Germany, in theory enough to satisfy the need even in peak seasons like this summer. However, about 30 years ago the German brewing industry abandoned its system of a single bottle type and crate, which was used widely throughout the industry. Breweries discovered different bottle types to differentiate a more and more interchangeable product and introduced in addition to the traditional Euro bottle new bottle types like NRW, Longneck, Vichy and Steinie to name just a few. The situation became even worse when breweries started to emboss their bottles with their own brand names and logos. Nowadays all major breweries have their own unique bottle, which cannot be used by others.

Supermarkets and beer wholesales face the problem that they are forced to take back empties. However, bottles and crates of different brands are often mixed up and have to be sorted before being send back to the brewery.

Another problem for German brewers is the unique deposit system on non-returnable containers, a contradiction in itself. In 2003 a mandatory deposit for cans and other one-time use packaging was introduced by the then ruling coalition of Social Democrats and Greens. Since this time deposits are unchanged at €0.08 for a reusable container and €0.25 for a disposable container.

However, the deposit of €0.08 for a reusable glass bottle has been unchanged in the last 15 years and does not even bear the cost of the bottle itself. Furthermore the relatively moderate amount does not give a strong incentive to the consumer to bring bottles back to the point of sale.

Another important point which aggravates the current situation is the fact that small or midsize family owned breweries like Fiege do not want to strain their own financial capacities more than needed. Therefore they own a bottle pool which is enough to satisfy the needs of an average summer. If some extraordinary circumstances meet, like this year’s hot summer weather and the Football World Cup, a system like this easily runs up against its limits.

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