The technology ‘reimagines’ how to use barley straw. While barley seed is used to make beer, barley straw is a surplus byproduct. The new innovation combines barley straw with recycled wood fibers to create a paper board that is ‘as strong and durable as a regular six-pack, but better for the planet’.
Turning barley straw into paper fiber uses 90% less water in its production than the traditional virgin wood process, along with less energy and fewer harsh chemicals, according to AB InBev. Using leftover barley straw is also more productive than drawing on the equivalent area of woodland, with Corona seeing this as a potential way to eliminate the need for virgin trees and raw material from the supply chain in the future.
Industry shift away from plastic rings
It took AB InBev’s Global Innovation and Technology Center (GITEC) three years to bring the new tech to market.
The key of innovation, according to Keenan Thompson, director of innovation at AB InBev, is to add value or improve on previous options.
“A big part of my job is to understand consumer needs, know the landscape of existing technical solutions, but even more importantly, understand where the current tech falls short,” Thompson told BeverageDaily. “That essentially writes the brief for the technology platforms GITEC needs to build for the future.”
Corona already uses a paperboard container, but the addition of barley straw improves further on this design.
“For any technology to scale it needs to be desirable to the consumer, viable to the business, and feasible from a technical and value chain perspective,” said Thompson. “This new technology can meet all these design constraints, with the added benefits of using 90% less water, less energy, and fewer harsh chemicals than traditional wood pulping processes.
“When compared beside each other, you’ll see the two packs look very different. The new barley straw packaging allows consumers to see the ingredients and the fibers through what we think is a beautiful, perfectly imperfect appeal. The price of Corona beer will not be affected.”
One of the biggest challenges in the process was to extract a strong paper making fiber from straw; without destroying the important properties of the fiber in the process, added Thompson.
Sustainable packaging options
The beer industry has been exploring a range of options to replace plastic rings on multipacks: ranging from paper rings to glue that sticks cans together. So how does the new barley straw innovation compare to other options?
“We launched paper rings in 2018, and the pilot allowed us to test and learn and we realised we had some improvements to make, which helped guide us to this new solution,” said Thompson. “The resulting sustainable solution creates a paper board that is then used to produce this new barley straw packaging, which is as strong and durable as a regular six-pack."
And at the end of the day, what will make one sustainable packaging option stand out from another is whether it can have a large scale impact.
“To really scale something, we need to add value for many stakeholders," said Thompson. "In this case: value for farmers, for the planet, for the business, and for consumers.”
The new packaging will launch today with an initial 10,000 six-packs rolling out as a pilot in Colombia in March, followed by Argentina later in 2021.
“We’ll be monitoring how the packaging performs functionally for consumers and how well they hold up during in-market execution, with our ambition being to scale the technology globally,” said Thompson.