Recently Corona made headlines for being the first global beverage brand to roll-out six-pack cartons made using barley straw. To find out what it took to reimagine a barley ‘leftover' into an industry first, we caught up with Keenan Thompson, global director of innovation for secondary packaging at the AB InBev Global Technology and Innovation Center (GITEC) in Leuven, Belgium.
Let's start with the basics. What is barley straw?
Barley is one of the four main ingredients in beer, along with water, yeast and hops. However, we only use barley grains for brewing, so after barley is harvested there's an abundance of dried stalks, or straw, leftover. It's usually left on the field, tilled over, sold for low value or sometimes even burned, but our GITEC team had a better idea – to upcycle it into renewable, recyclable paper for our packaging instead.
What made you pursue the idea?
As the world's leading brewer with more than 500 brands, AB InBev is committed to circular packaging and reducing waste, not only for our bottles, cans and kegs, but whenever possible, for the packaging that holds our containers together, known as secondary packaging. That's the very first thing that people see and touch when choosing a beverage, and my team is responsible for finding new technologies, materials and solutions that not only perform well, but are sustainable, memorable and something consumers can feel good about. Barley straw had the potential to do all of that.
Was working with barley straw more difficult than you thought?
Barley straw is fragile and you obviously need strong, durable paper to safely and reliably hold a six-pack of beer bottles. For three years we worked alongside our partner, Sustainable Fiber Technologies, to bring to life a new process that turns straw into a fiber that's very usable for making paper.
How do you test the durability of a six-pack carton?
A six-pack goes through a lot in its lifetime, traveling from the brewery to our distributors and retail stores, to being handled by consumers and last, disposal or recycling. We rigorously test a new carton for all those scenarios; it's bent, torn, submerged in water, shaken, pulled, dropped, vibrated, exposed to extreme environmental conditions and more. Barley straw packaging withstood them all.
Was there an ‘a-ha moment' that made you realize you were on to something?
It was really special to finally see the paper rolling off the gigantic industrial paper machines and to be able to touch it and feel it. That's when I think we all knew that we had something really important for the future of the paper industry.
What makes barley straw paper such a big deal?
Compared to traditional pulping processes, this new technology is more sustainable and better for the environment. It uses 90% less water in its production than the traditional virgin wood process, along with less energy and fewer harsh chemicals, and most important, it can be recycled like any other paper. As we look to the future, there are many non-wood materials that may be suitable for pulping, creating an opportunity for farmers to get more value from their fields while removing the pressure on our forests.
Why was Corona the first to try barley straw packaging?
Corona has a long history of protecting nature and championing sustainable packaging, so it just made sense to have the brand be the first to launch. Corona actually first tested replacing plastic six-pack rings with paper rings in 2018. As it is with most innovations, we learned from that pilot, made adjustments, experimented with other solutions before arriving at the six-pack carton.
Where is the new packaging being launched first?
This month 10,000 six-packs of Corona will roll out across Columbia, followed by a pilot launch in Argentina later this year.
Is there potential to use barley straw paper for more than six-packs?
We dream big at GITEC and as the industry moves more from plastics to paper, we hope to see even more AB InBev brands adopt this technology to make a positive environmental impact and hopefully influence the whole beverage industry. It's a very exciting space. I think it's going to be one of those things that 20 years from now, we'll look back and be very happy that we were the first to take the leap, creating a host of opportunities with current and new industry partners.
What will we see next from the Global Innovation and Technology Center?
We're the hub of creating technology platforms to keep AB InBev at the forefront of the beverage industry and set us apart from our competitors, so a lot of it is top secret. What I can tell you is that we're going to continue bringing partners together to try new things that deliver value for farmers, for the planet, our business and consumers. That's what GITEC does and I love it.