Bottle crates have long moved beyond being pure transport containers in the brewery and beverage industries. Instead of simple pragmatism, the feel and design have become more and more important. The beverage crate is a brand ambassador and vehicle for product presentation at the Point of Sale. Demographic change, larger diversity of types, and a wish for sustainability influence development of innovative solutions for new packages as well.

In the early 20th century, beer went on its way from cask to bottle. Portioning the brewery product was to simplify sales logistics but required a new secondary package. The bottle crate has gone through an impressive development over the course of its history – from the quickly assembled wood crate to a piece of art in detailed design.

The victory of plastic packages

Made of wood or metal in its early days, the main task of the bottle crate was that of direct transport from A to B. It was a long way from there to the refined concepts to better stackability or ergonomic handling. This was to change when the first polyethylene bottle crate was put on the market in 1959. The simple beer crate for 20 Euro bottles may not have won any design prizes, but it was more robust and lighter in weight than any wooden crates. Until the 1980s, the image of plastic crates on the market was very homogeneous. In addition to the standardised Euro crate for beer, there was the GdB (Genossenschaft Deutscher Brunnen) crate for mineral water. Only when many breweries switched to the slimmer NRW bottle format were the tired and tested crates and their functions reconsidered. The packages were to be made stable by corner pieces instead of ribs in future. All four sides now also offered enough space for screen-printed brand messages. The foundation for the seemingly unlimited diversity of today's plastic packages was laid. The industry started experimenting with bolder designs, ranging from two- or three-coloured crates to crates of different plastic types for matte or glossy surfaces.

Feel as a Handling Factor

In addition to looks, the way the containers feel has always been at the industry's focus as well. In the 1990s, weight reduction from 2000 to 1700 grams was supposed to save resources and costs. The trend to higher stacks, however, means that the European default crate at 300 x 400 millimetres once again weighs about 2 kg or even more today. Progressive novations, such as soft touch or lamella grips, were introduced to make the bottle crates easier to handle. The softer carry handles, which were first used in a crate design for Beck, have since added comfort to logisticians and end consumers alike.

The Largest Recycling Market of Europe

Today, it would be hard to imagine the beverage industry without the crate for recyclable bottles. About 350 million plastic crates are used on the European beer market at the moment - 200 million of them in the DACH region, with Germany forming the largest market. Beyond Europe, bottle crates are used very differently: In Latin America, Africa and Asia, the packages are pure transport and storage containers for trade – and usually do not reach the end consumer as secondary packaging. In the USA, the bottle crate generally is a rarity. Bottles are more likely to be found in tray, cartons and film packaging there.

A long-lived packaging solution

Longevity is one of the greatest benefits of plastic solutions. The basic idea for bottle crates already included the company-internal reuse or use in closed cycles between suppliers and retail. The beverage crate still is the only transport packaging that must be returned and is actually delivered to the end customer. Its life cycle goes from bottling in the brewery to any interim stations in wholesale and then to retail. From there, the crate will go to the end consumer. The empty container finally starts its retour journey to the bottling operation, where it is cleaned and refilled. Recyclable crates for beer bottles are used for 15 years on average.

Since more and more consumers also put value on sustainable products and packaging solutions, more and more recyclable plastics are used. For breweries, recyclable containers most of all equals cost savings. When crates are rendered useless or ugly after a long service life, they can be shredded. The material gained from old containers is returned to the box production sizes. While new surface refinement procedures may limit usability of the regenerate, depending on material, most of the crates that are newly put in circulation are made of recycled material today.

Recycling crates as brand ambassadors

Intense competition and the bitter fight for market shares means that beverage producers must position themselves increasingly individually and more strongly to stand out from the mass. Product presentation and, as a result, the primary and secondary packagings, are essential for development and maintenance of the brand. The bottle crate is one of the most important marketing instruments of the beverage industry today for this reason, and essentially contributes to the brand's recognition value at the point of sale and, in the end, its turnover increase. Bottle crate manufacturers must be able to react flexibly to individual customer wishes. Modern manufacturing procedures for plastic bottle crates offer many different design options. Brand-specific designs are ensured by special embossings or generously applied logos. Pre-printed labels are inserted into the injection-moulding tool already for inmould labelling, virtually merging the label into one unit with the beverage crate. Beck was one of the first breweries to recognise the marketing potential of this procedure in 2001. The brand-compatible look was imitated soon, giving birth to a new generation of bottle crates. The diverse designs go from photorealistic prints to 3D-prints today.

The modern plastic packaging is also responsible for presentation of its contents. Half-display and display crates provide a view of the bottles contained, which serves to present the goods at the point of sale, while also being due to a larger product range and changed customer needs. The offer of the breweries today includes all the usual alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions, as well as beer-mix drinks and exotic trend varieties. This offer generates demand and consumers more and more often desire to have several beer specialties in the same crate. The crate displays show at a glance which variety of the brand – whether as single bottles or in a six-pack – is contained.

Increased use of carton packages also requires new concepts for bottle crates. One example is that of Belgian premium brand Leffe. Their packaging has a moving framework insert that is supported on two stainless steel springs that are compressed with individual bottles or carton carriers are placed in the crate. When the last carrier is removed, the framework moves up from the bottom and will stop at half-height of the box. The carrier will now take up the emptied bottles at the adjusted height. With its construction, the 24 x 0.33 l crate fits for many different package types – it can equally be used for packs of 2, 3, 4, 6, 8 or 12.

The bottle crate in demographic change

The trend towards reduced packaging sizes is unbroken in the beverage industry as well. The trend towards smaller households and a larger number of modern consumers in the cities, singles and the elderly, is taken into consideration when breweries increase their offer in more compact and lighter-weight bottle crates.

In addition to the reduced quantities needed by smaller households, the diverse offer on the beverage market plays a role as well. In order to test new varieties of their favourite brands, end consumers prefer the smaller "trial sizes" to a 24 x 0.33 l crate. The plastic packaging for Beck’s "Taste the World" product series is compact, in order to offer the new trendy varieties Pale Ale, Amber Lager, Red Ale and 1873 Pils in a trial-compatible volume. This doesn't harm presentation, however: The logo relief and the refined black of the half display crate dramatically present the bottle design. The all-round label unmistakably connects to the brand.

In addition to smaller containers, manufacturers offer innovative concepts such as split crates as they have been used, e.g., by the Paulaner brewery since 1990. They can be split into two and adjusted to the consumer's demand. Typical 20 x 0.5 l crates can thus be divided into two containers with 10 x 0.5 l each. The manufacturer can fill the assembled crates on a default bottling line, which means that the crate design does not need and costly adjustments of production.

Beverage industry 4.0: The future of bottle crates

The wish for more transparency in empties logistics is still one of the central challenges for bottling operations. The number and circulation speed of crates and the empties quality could be mapped more precisely if we already had "smart" beer crates. At the moment, elaborate manual sorting of bottles is necessary, which costs time and money for the bottling operation. The first pilot projects – e.g. in private brewery Gaffel Becker – are therefore experimenting with "smart" beer crates. They are to provide precise information about their origins and empties content by radio frequency identification (RFID). Every single crate can also be identified uniquely throughout the circulation. This is to ensure cost-efficient return of the proper empties to the correct bottling operation. The documented circulation speeds permit interesting conclusions to demand planning for the required crates. In the medium-term, RFID solutions will gain in importance in the brewing industry. At the moment, however, in particular the high technology costs keep the industry from area-comprehensive implementation.

Tradition and Innovation

No matter what tomorrow's beverage crate is going to look like: Its development must keep reacting to changing requirements of industry, trade, logistics and consumers. The long path from the wood crate to the high-tech package was characterised by practical innovations and fashion trends as well. The Krombacher brewery recently put its new cellar beer on the market in a "Vintage" crate that offers the protection and transport qualities of the latest crate generation. Its looks, however, return to its origins: the in-mould labelling and special surface structure surround a package that – like its rudimentary ancestors – shows an authentically grained wooden look. The crate design of Nuremberg's brewery Tucher follows this new trend towards tradition as well, with its rustic wooden look and a retro font label. In spite of its nostalgic charisma, the 20 x 0.5 l crate is as comfortable to carry and as stackable as modern plastic packages are. In particular breweries proud of their traditions can give a face to their vivid history this way: a history what often began with a simple wood crate.