Monday, 22 February 2021

Please rinse and return

I’m on a bit of a Harvey’s roll at the moment and following on from my previous post about the brewery’s excellent Sussex Best Bitter, I want to add a few words about their bottled beers. The first thing to say is that Harvey’s have always kept faith with their bottled beers, even throughout the period towards the end of the last century when this sector of the trade seemed in terminal decline. 

Many of the smaller, family-owned brewers stopped bottling their beers altogether, partly in response to falling demand but also because their expensive to maintain and costly to upgrade bottling lines, were reaching the end of their working lives. The market too around this time, was changing with the arrival of so-called “Premium Bottled Ales” (PBA’s). 

These beers, which tended to be towards the stronger end of the spectrum, were typically packaged in 500ml bottles. They were single-trip items, as opposed to the traditional half-pint (275ml), returnable bottles that had been the backbone of the industry for decades and, as one observer noted, "filled the shelves behind the bar that were below the optics." 

Harvey’s, on the other hand, stood by these bottles and upgraded their bottling line. I recall stocking virtually the entire range of their bottled ales at our off-license, during the early years of the 21st Century. The empties were returnable and, to encourage this, a deposit was charged at time of purchase. Regrettably, not many customers brought them back, preferring perhaps to lose a 5p or 10p deposit instead of bringing them back.

I’m sure the brewery factored this in and, if I’m truthful, charging and returning deposits proved something of a nightmare for our rather rudimentary accounting procedures as well, but I was still in agreement with the principle of returnable bottles.

As we moved towards the second decade of the century, I noticed the introduction, by Harvey’s, of the 500ml bottle, used by the majority of the trade. At first the range of beers packaged in these bottles was restricted, but slowly I began to see other, less well-known beers – such as some of the seasonal offerings appearing in this size of bottles.

Some of this evidence is anecdotal, as we’d sold our off-license business by then, but more recently – and because of the need to obtain my “Harvey’s fix,” I noticed the majority of the brewery’s beers are now available in this sized bottle. What’s more, the empties are still returnable, in fact Harvey’s state this on the label, with the advice, “We will wash and refill this bottle. Please return for deposit refund.”

In the age of throwaway packaging, this move is highly commendable, but whilst it is probably unique amongst UK brewers, returning bottles to the brewery, for re-filling, is standard practice in Germany. Most of the larger supermarkets have a section where customers can return empty bottles by the crate load. I have also witnessed motorists arriving at breweries and swapping over crates of empties for full ones. 

With the honorable exception of Harvey’s, we seem to have moved in the opposite direction, here in the UK, and rather surprisingly it’s an opportunity the “green movement” seem to have missed. Of course, there are other factors to be taken into account. Washing returned bottles uses water as well as detergents. In addition, it is sometimes necessary to use harsher chemicals, such as caustic soda, for tasks such as the removal of old labels, although I’m sure environmentally friendly alternatives – such as biodegradable adhesives are being developed.

The biggest obstacle to overcome is that of getting consumers to return their empties. I accept this is probably harder in the UK, than it is in Germany, where there is still much more of a tradition of locally brewed beers. Cooperation from the retail trade would be essential, if this was to work in Britain, as is the case in Germany and other Central European countries, where supermarkets are geared up to handle the return of empties. Some retailers will insist, understandably, that the bottles are packed into a crate, when dropped off, but this is really just common sense.

Returning to Harvey’s for a moment, the brewery are understandably reluctant to become too closely involved with the large supermarket chains, primary because of the discounts the latter demand. If this is the case, where does the Harvey’s lover buy his or her beers from?

Fortunately, there are two outlets quite close by. In Tonbridge there is my old off license, the Cask & Glass, in Priory Street at the south end of the town, which stocks a small selection of Harvey’s bottles. Slightly further away, in Tunbridge Wells, nO7 in Chapel Place, just up from the towns;’ historic Pantiles area, stocks a wider range of bottles, alongside 5-litre mini kegs of Harvey’s.  For cask lovers, draught Harvey’s is also available to take away by the pint. So, until the pubs reopen that’s where I’ll be heading for my regular Harvey’s fix.


retiredmartin said...

Interesting read, Paul.

Good point about Germany; whenever I've spent more than a day or two in one place I've taken bottles and plastics back to the local supermarket (e.g. Lowe) for an automated credit note.

Never a home drinker, I've been tempted more by cans this year as Mrs RM joined Beer 52. No Harvey's there !

Paul Bailey said...

Hi Martin, those automated machines that you feed the empty bottles into, have always been one of Matthew's favourite things about German supermarkets. I did read some where that they're being trialed over here.

Drinking at home is never the same as imbibing in a pub, but the saving grace, for me at least, is I normally have just a single bottle or can of an evening. I can see a few sore heads coming my way, when the pubs do finally re-open. Three or four pints would probably slaughter me now!

Good luck with Beer 52. Your comment, on the post of the same name, has more than a gran of truth in it - although I did hear that they've upped their game recently.