The Extinction Of Returnable Beer Bottles

returnable-carton
You know you’re old and curmudgeonly when you remember fondly returnable beer and soda bottles. They had a heft to them, felt heavier in your hand or carrying them to the car. That’s because they were made to last, to be used over and over again. I hadn’t really thought about it until this morning, but that was real recycling, well before the term had even been coined. But it was just practical to make things that could be re-used. It’s almost a cruel joke that as a society we’re so obsessed lately with recycling when without realizing it we were doing far more of it years ago before almost all packaging, including bottles and cans, became throwaways. If we really cared more about the environment and the world than our own selfish “convenience” then it would be easy to just return to … well, returnables.

Unfortunately, I’d say it would be almost impossible to change our collective habits at this point (yes, I’m a pessimist as well as a curmudgeon) despite the fact that many places around the world never stopped using returnable bottles. Germany is a prime example of this. All the beer bottles sold there are returnables and every brewery has huge stacks of cartons filled with bottles waiting to be cleaned and reused. Obviously, their economy hasn’t suffered and people haven’t decided to stop drinking beer because they might have to return the bottles rather than just throw them away. But I just can’t see that happening here where everything is about being fast and convenient, where it’s all about “instant” gratification. Lest you accuse me of being too self-righteous, I include myself among the lazy multitudes.

I bring this up because the Lehigh Valley [Pennsylvania] Morning Call has an interesting article about their local beer, Straub Brewery, and how Returnable beer bottles to become extinct if Straub doesn’t get back some cases. It’s not surprising that Straub is one of only two breweries who are still using returnable beer bottles — the other being Yuengling — and that both are in Pennsylvania, since the Commonwealth is the lone remaining (as far as I know) case state, meaning almost all beer is sold by the case at what are called “beer distributors.” This may have made sense in 1933, but it’s become an increasingly antiquated system as the years have rolled on.

From the article:

Straub Brewery, a 138-year-old family-owned business about 100 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, is begging customers mostly in Pennsylvania but also some in Ohio, New York and Virginia to return thousands of empty cases.

Without them, Straub says it will do as nearly every brewer has done over the years — eliminate returnable bottles from its inventory. Only one other major brewer and the nation’s oldest , D.G. Yuengling & Sons of Pottsville, still sells beer in returnable bottles. But it plans to phase out the practice by fall.

All major brewers, including Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors, gave up on returnable bottles years ago because their costs multiplied with national distribution. About 12 percent of all U.S. beer was sold in returnable bottles in 1981, but since 2007 the percentage has been negligible, according to the Beer Institute in Washington, D.C. In Pennsylvania, more than a quarter of all beer was sold in returnable bottles in 1981, but that was when state liquor control laws required most beers to be sold by the case through distributors which readily accepted the returns.

So hopefully their customers will heed the call and start returning their bottles so they can be used again. I know it’s a forgone conclusion that returnable bottles will die out at some point, but the nostalgic, romantic in me (a.k.a. old man) still thinks that the returnable is an idea that should be revisited, especially with the recent increased focus on being green. It would be hard to argue that reusing bottles and packaging wouldn’t ultimately be better for the environment than our current recycling efforts. But I think Dick Yuengling summed up the situation best.

“The consumer’s been indoctrinated; we’re a throwaway society,” Yuengling said. “Everybody’s environmentally conscious, but if you put a case of returnable bottles in front of them, they say, ‘What’s that?’”

dodo

Comments

  1. Mr. Nuts says

    I remember getting Piel’s Real Draft in returnables back in Connecticut. They were 16 ounce bottles — and, wow, those things seemed to be as heavy as wine bottles.

    I also remember buying a Falstaff Tapper Key. Held a case of beer and the deposit was something like a dollar. It was pretty cool — although it was a big reason why Falstaff went down the tubes. They spent a fortune on those things — only to have a few of them ever come back.

  2. Adam says

    Pshh. Bayern Brewing in Missoula, Montana is actually trying to start doing this. They have taking six pack carriers back for reuse for $0.10 a piece or $0.20 for in-house purchases (including beer from the tap room–and at $3 a glass w/no sales tax, that can make for some cheap beer!). They are taking back Bayern glass bottles in an attempt to recycle them since Missoula–of all places–doesn’t recycle glass. The whole reusable bottle system that is still going strong in Germany is being looked. Hopefully when I get back in May it will be up and running.

  3. Jim says

    As a home brewer I fondly recall returnable quart bottles of beer I drank only to get the bottles (Shaefer comes to mind as does Piels). Today I recycle the 22′s so many good craft beers come in, and I particularly like those without paper labels! More ink, less paper please! I also notice that in Canada you can get craft beer in litre bottles with the Grolsch-type recappable bottles; I wish more US brewers did that as well.

  4. The Professor says

    Love those returnables.
    Being a homebrewer for 39 years, I still have a pretty good collection of 7, 12, and 16 ounce amber returnable bottles and they are my preference and were de rigueur for so many years . Last time I was able to get any where I live was probably 15 years ago.
    I sure do wish I could obtain a few more cases of them…

  5. Gilmango says

    As a homebrewer I too am with Jim and the Professor. My most prized bottles are about 20 years old and have gone from coast to coast with me. I have a case of 12 32 oz. returnables in a heavy cardboard Fall City case that I love, even brought back a “ballena” (whale) from Mexico to fill out that case after I lost one. I also have a ton of flip tops and tons of 22 oz. bombers that I re-use again and again. I also prefer the screen printed ones as I am too lazy to soak off labels. Love the magnums of Anchor OSA, have carried back the magnum flip top from Nuremburg, and just got a 1 liter one from Canada at City Beer.

  6. says

    You’re absolutely right. Our “recycling” in this country is almost entirely cradle-to-grave processes, with very few exceptions. Most recycled things cannot be remade into the same thing and even if it is delayed by a few decades, the material will ultimately end up in the landfill. In the case of beer, it seems that aluminum cans and returnable bottles would be the way to go.

  7. says

    In high school I worked in a grocery store that sold and accepted beer in returnable bottles, I can tell you that the job I hated least was taking the returnables to the bottle room at the side of the building and organizing the bottles. I could lolligag around and spend less time carrying groceries to customers’ cars.

  8. Erik says

    I still have 2 of the heavy cardboard cases of PBR returnables and 1 for Old Milwaukee. Interestingly enough, the OM was purchased within the past 4 years as I wanted the bottles for homebrewing. I also had a couple cases from The Lion Brewery in the past few years of returnable but the condition of the bottles was so scuffed that I wound up having my dad take them back to the brewery on a trip out east. Viva returnables!

  9. Bear says

    I recently enjoyed a bottle of beer from Lhasa Brewery in Tibet. After finishing it, I noticed how heavy it seemed compared to domestic bottles. Reminded me of my youth and my Father’s cases of beer in the basement, all returnables. And, yes, there were times when I went downstairs and drank what was left in those bottles……and I’m still alive!!!

  10. Peter says

    I spent my my first quarter century in PA, before craft beer. I too have fond memories of the returnable bottles and also the very sturdy cardboard boxes they came in. Those things also were built to last.

    Another fond memory from those PA days was curbside service. Because this was pre-craft beer, there weren’t really many options and you more or less knew what you were going to buy before you got to the store. I can recall a couple distributors that had curbside service: pull up, honk the horn, tell the guy you want a case or three of Rolling Rock or Yuengling, and he’d bring it out and load it in your car.

  11. Lucien says

    Honk and tell ‘em your beer order in PA? Still happens in Pittsburgh, or did a couple of years ago anyway on the South Side.

    As for reusing bottles, the Germans were masters at it, with nearly everything in returnables, save a few cans of crap beer for the train station drunks. I burned many a calorie hauling my empties back to the Getraenkemarkt and the even heavier full cases back home with me! Given the affordable beer prices, the beer firms must have been very cost-efficient at handling returnables.

    But how many Americans would put up with not just the return process, but the scuffy, scratched bottles that you get with returnables? The inside is smooth and clean, but I bet some folk complain about the outside. Seems that we’ve become accustomed not only to disposables but like-new disposables. 42nd century archeologists might wonder why we threw out such a mass of nearly-new stuff. A pity.

  12. Tim says

    It’s all about money. More small company’s are making one way bottles now to supply the breweries with at a cheaper cost. It’s much faster to buy and store up these bottles than to go through the process of recycling the returnables. This glass is still getting recycled and more jobs have been created in the process with bottle manufacturers and recycling companies. Yes, it’s a pain in the butt for the home brewer but we’ll still be able to buy the pop top bottles from brew shops and save bottles from the few breweries who sell their brew in returnables. There’s always the keg……

  13. Tim says

    BTW, we weren’t doing more recycling years ago………are you kidding….go dig up a few landfills and tell me that.

  14. Bringbackreturnables says

    The ‘scratchy’ outside of the ‘thick’, ‘heavy’ bottles being a ‘problem’? Gotta be kiddin me? That all gives the bottles CHARACTER! And let me tell you, Yuengling Premium Returnables simply taste BETTER than throwaways! Dick Yuengling, if you’re reading this, PLEASE bring back Returnables! And not just 12oz but the old 16oz bottles that sadly went out after the mid-’90s. And not just Premium, but Lager, Porter, Black and Tan, Lord Chesterfield and so on. Oldest Brewery in America should FOREVER have returns available! Makes sense. This will not lessen the customer base being that Yuengling drinkers generally are old school in the first place. Most Yuengling drinkers would WELCOME them back with OPEN ARMS!

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