For reasons that are impossible to comprehend, up until recently Plzeňský Prazdroj was trying to convince consumers to drink Gambrinus Světly from the marketing corpse that is the can. Did they really believe that people would be willing to pay a higher price just for the convenience of not having to return bottles? Did they believe that the best selling beer in the Czech Republic was somehow more special than Braník, Starobrno or its cousins Klasík, Primus and Kozel?
Whatever those reasons were, its now clear that they have, perhaps grudgingly, accepted the reality that Gambáč is just one more among the bunch and they have now decided to make it available in 1.5l PET bottles. The question that remains is what the hell took them so long?
In recent years, plastic bottles have been the only segment that has shown some growth for the three biggest brewing groups (Prazdroj, Heineken, Staropramen). According to the figures of the Czech Beer and Malt Association, in 2008 PET bottles had 0% market share, two years later they had 2.8%. In the same period the market share of draft beer went from almost 51% to almost 47%! All while the production volume of the whole industry shrank by almost 13%, and it was the cheaper macro beers that suffered the most with this. No wonder then that the multinationally-owned brewers have embraced the PET bottles with such gusto. To me, however, all this means a devaluation of Czech beer culture.
Before anyone accuses me of double standards, I know that microbrewers also sell their wares in plastic bottles. I don’t like it, but I understand them. A 0.5l glass bottle can cost more than 30CZK 5CZK a piece and since micros don’t have the infrastructure to receive and reuse empties, they would have to add that to the price. PET bottles, then, are the most sensible alternative they have if they want to get their beers beyond the pubs. Once again, I’m not too thrilled about this reality, but if this is the price I have to pay to be able to enjoy Kocour Catfish Sumeček or Třebonice Macho while I prepare dinner at home, so be it.
Bigger brewers, on the other hand, have never had those problems. They have the necessary infrastructure and their beers have always been available everywhere. With PET bottles they not only they get the same benefits as the micros, lower production and logistics costs, but they might also be making larger profits since, by volume, a beer in plastic will cost you basically the same than in glass.
From this side of the counter, there’s no denying the advantage plastic bottles have: They are lighter and easier to carry, as a standard 0.5l glass bottle weighs 370g, while a 1.5-2l PET one weights less than 50g. On top of that, you don’t have to worry about returning or paying a deposit. So, what’s the problem then?
Remember what I said in my first post, that the only thing that counts is what you have in the glass? Well, here is where things get interesting. Last year I did an experiment, I blind tasted the same beer from all three containers. Glass tasted considerably better. The problem is that PET is a more porous material, which is not good news for the beer.
If you go to a specialized shop or a brewpub you will see that PET bottles are always in a fridge, you don’t see that very often at supermarkets and grocery stores. PET bottles are left exposed to the heat and the light of the retail areas (and more than once I’ve seen them in the sun) and God knows in what conditions they are transported and stocked. So basically, you are paying the same for less.
Of course, all this will fly out of the window the moment you’ll have a garden party and will not want to go through the hassle of buying a keg, but that’s still a couple of months away, at least.
You can read more beer ranting in my own blog Pivní Filosof – Beer Philosopher.