Lion Brewery to End 16oz Returnable Production

23 November 2009

I was lucky enough to be invited down this afternoon to witness the end of an era at Lion Brewery. As of the end of today’s production schedule, Lion is ceasing the use of 16oz returnable bottles. It was exciting to see the last batch of bottles going through the soaker, and the last batch of bottles being filled with Stoney’s Beer. It’s always an amazing trip inside the Lion Brewery, but I was lucky enough to see the soaker in action. As Darel put it, the soaker is an amazing Rube Godberg-type machine that cleans bottles, removes old labels and prepares them for filling. This machine is the size of a house and has been in action since 1964 at the Lion. It was incredible to witness the giant gears, shafts and arms as the soaker swallows empty bottles and kicks out sparkling clean bottles.

After today, the Lion will begin bottling in 12oz non-returnable bottles. The soaker will eventually be removed, the line changed and even a building addition will be added to allow Lion to implement a canning line in the future, so stay tuned for details on that.

The photos below show 1) The used bottles being organized to go into the soaker, 2) The bottles being loaded into the soaker chains, 3) the bottles entering the soaker, 4) The clean bottles exiting the soaker, 5) the back of the filling line before the pasteurizer, and 6) the bottling lines running the last of the 16oz returnables-- Stoney’s Beer.

Returnable bottles go way back for the Lion Brewery so it is certainly a historical day for local brewing. Thank you to Darel and the rest of the guys at Lion for inviting me down to witness it for myself.

**As an added bonus…be SURE to tune in tomorrow for some more exciting news from Lion.

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25 comments (click to read or post):

sam k,  23 November, 2009 17:48  

Great post on a historic event, MBB. It really is the end of an era in W-B, but not in the state of Pennsylvania, as Straub is committed to the package for the long term, and is the only brewery to purchase new 16 oz. returnable glass in at least the last decade. In fact, the brewery itself commissioned and owns the only remaining 16 oz. returnable bottle mold in the U.S., and it cost them a pretty penny.

As far as I know, this makes Straub the last brewery in this country to use this package, though Yuengling still does 12 oz. returnables, which means they still have their soaker, too...but for how long? I also wonder when the last new soaker was made in the U.S. Had to be multiple decades ago!

With my Jones background, I'm gratified that Stoney's was part of this last day's effort. I also did not realize that Lionshead was still available in this package! Did they give you any indication as to when a can line might appear? That could have positive and far-reaching implications for them, considering how hot Lionshead and other house beers would be in cans, let alone their ability to can contract craft beers when the market is ready to accept more of them with open arms!

Again, thanks for the report. It was an honor for you to be invited!

mybeerbuzz,  23 November, 2009 17:56  

Thansk Sam...it was a historic day @ Lion. We did discuss briefly the remaining breweries with returnable production and I believe there is one other you didn't mention, although I do not recall the name. It was not in PA. As far as the timing for the canning line there is no firm date. There is quite a bit of change that needs to happen but I do agree it is VERY significant for Lion. Very exciting afternoon....and stay tuned for more.

Darel Matthews,  23 November, 2009 19:38  

Hi guys,
Actually Lionshead was running in normal 12 oz. bottles on the other line today. No LH in 16-oz. returnables. Today we ran Steg, Brubaker, Gibbons, Bartel's and Stoney's in 16-oz. bottles. Yes, we are the masters of quick changeovers.

This is just scuttlebutt, but when I went through the Johnson-Diversey course in Toronto last fall, they made mention of the fact that the Lion and City Brewing in Wisconsin were the last two bottlewashers in the US, though there are still a few left in Canada and Europe. However, if this were true, I do wonder about Straub and Yuengling. Perhaps they were only talking about soakers of a particular size or configuration. I was in Yuengling's bottleshop a few weeks ago and I definitely don't recall seeing anything even remotely approaching the size of our machine.

sam k,  23 November, 2009 19:38  

Looking forward to your Lion news announcement tomorrow, BTW!

mybeerbuzz,  23 November, 2009 21:15  

Thanks Darel...

sam k,  23 November, 2009 21:44  

I'd be surprised if Yuengling didn't have a bigger soaker, seeing how they ran 7, 12, and 16 returnables for years, but I really have no idea, though I know for a fact that they still bottle 12 returns. Saw them at a distributor a few weeks ago. I'd assume they're only run at the old brewery.

The bottle washer at Straub is a smaller unit that they have parts custom-machined for when they need to replace something. Not sure how old it is, either.

Eliminating returnables will surely take away a chunk of volume for Stoney's, too, making their days more numbered than they may have been otherwise.

What the heck is Brubaker, Darel, and who is it brewed for? Never heard of that one!

Lee Botschaner,  24 November, 2009 08:41  

Excited about the news tomorrow but really am disappointed that it is the end of returnables. I have a case of gibbons and bartels at my house and was just sipping them this weekend. I've been drinking returnables my entire life, even as the rest of my generation stopped.

Sam, Brubaker goes to Boston. It's a bit of a cult beer up there among college kids.

Cant stoney's just move production to city or straub?

sam k,  24 November, 2009 11:14  

Lee,

Stoney's is already being brewed in Latrobe (and tastes better than anything that came from Pittsburgh, BTW) but they don't have returnable capability.

Straub doesn't contract brew for anyone, but that would be a possibility down the road if there own production dropped..unlikely though.

Wow...returnables to Boston! Go figure. Bet they didn't get a lot back to W-B!

Lee Botschaner,  24 November, 2009 11:32  

Thanks Sam. Begs the question of was the Stoneys returnables at lion just the same as steg/gibbons/bartels. Wonder if Podlucky did a cost saving measure using the lions beer or had it brewed to her specs?

When I had it tasted better than from PBC, def. like a Lion brew.

Darel Matthews,  24 November, 2009 11:47  

Stoney's is still going to be brewed at the Lion as well, just not packaged in returnables.

Thanks for the clarification on Bru, Lee. I wasn't really all that sure about that one (I'm in no way inviolved with distribution).

Tom Clark,  24 November, 2009 14:48  

Stevens Point Brewery (Stevens Point, Wi) still runs a soaker, but I don't think City Brewery does. Schell's in New Ulm removed theirs last year. Catawissa Bottling still runs returnables as well as Coke in Winona, MN (the last Coke bottler in the states to run this package).

It's all so sad that America has become such a throw away society, but look for the "return of returnables" in Berwick some day.

mybeerbuzz,  24 November, 2009 15:03  

Thanks Tom...good info.

Hopefully we're getting better at recycling glass in general rather than relying on the returnable to find their way back home....but only time will tell which is greener.

Perhaps August Schell will reply with more info too.

I'm Looking forward to bottles coming out of Berwick ;)

Anonymous,  24 November, 2009 15:16  

Glass waste is much less deleterious than plastic, that's the one we really have to look out for.

sam k,  24 November, 2009 15:37  

I know that at least early on, Stoney's was being brewed to its own recipe in W-B, but I don't know if current volume justifies that.

I agree, the W-B brewed Stoney's definitely has that Lion "house flavor," but I like it...always have!

Anonymous,  26 November, 2009 10:31  

Its sad to see the 16 oz returnables go away. Ive bought them since college. I used to by Piels returnables for about $6-7 a case in the late 80s. I always liked to have a case of cheap returnables for after yard work. Later it was Koch;s Golden Anniversary beer. I remember taking a case of Kochs that was in my garage back to the distributors and being told that the returnables hadnt been available for the last year. This year my distributor in Kennett Square told me he could no longer get Stegmaier Gold Medal in returnables although I have seen them in some Lancaster County distributors. I am headed to Litiz this weekend and I;ll be searching for a case of returnable Bartels. It is sad with all the emphasis on the environment and recyling that the most economical and green form of packaging is going away. Sad to see the Stoneys go too. I buy a case of the Stoneys returnables every time I get out to western PA. The 21st century sure hasnt bee kind to PA breweries. The end of an era i suppose.

mybeerbuzz,  26 November, 2009 11:00  

Very sad to see them go and I for one would like to save a few (full & empty) for posterity sake. It is absolutely the end of an era, but all breweries have to stay current and as it becomes more and MORE expensive to maintain 1950's and 1960's equipment, financial decisions do need to be made. It is the end of an era, but perhaps the beginning of a new one and one we will lament about in another 40 years or so. Thanks anon.

Darel Matthews,  26 November, 2009 13:09  

If I may present an opposing viewpoint here...anyone who has ever seen our soaker run would certainly possess a different view of how "green" returnable bottles are...thousands of gallons of caustic...thousands of cubic feet of steam an hour...thousands of kilowatts running over a dozen pumps...hundreds of thousands of gallons of clean city water for rinsing...if you were to do a true analysis of the fuel related to running the soaker, the fuel used shuttling the returnable bottles around, etc., and compare it to a more traditional method of recycling glass into nonreturnable bottles (bearing in mind we did not exclusively run 16 oz. packaging and therefore still needed to order in other forms of glass), you'd probably realize this is a "greener" move than you think. There's more involved in the process than just the glass itself.

mybeerbuzz,  26 November, 2009 13:12  

Thanks Darel. Having seen the soaker I get it for sure. I suspect it's easier to use recycled glass that can be returned/recycled anywhere rather than returning a bottle to a specific brewery also.

sam k,  26 November, 2009 19:52  

I agree 100% with Darel on everything but the cost of "shuttling the returnable bottles around." The NR bottles have to get to the brewery somehow, too, which would seem to equal the cost of getting the returnables back there, as well.

I'm ready to move on!!

mybeerbuzz,  26 November, 2009 20:55  

Tomorrow's a new day...

Anonymous,  29 November, 2009 10:56  

What is going to happen to the bottle washer. Is it being sold? And how about the bottles? Will you just sell the cases of returnables w/o a deposit? Will the Gibbons and Bartels labels go away? thanks

mybeerbuzz,  29 November, 2009 11:07  

Thanks Anon...they are still working out the removal of the washer. I'd love to see it enshrined for future generations to see in action but it's so huge it can't really be transported in one piece or easily disassembled. I assume the bottles will just be recycled as normal glass so be sure to save yourself a few for posterity. No I do not believe the Gibbons or bartels labels are going away.

Darel Matthews,  01 December, 2009 06:30  

Couple answers:
I do not know the fate of Gibbons and Bartels.

Starting today the soaker will be disassembled and cut up for scrap.

As far as the bottles go we simply sent them out and informed distributors they will no longer be "returnable". We didn't hang on to any leftover glass - in the past few weeks we've been running a lot of recycled glass to use up stock.

mybeerbuzz,  01 December, 2009 07:51  

Thanks Darel. Hopefully someone sat a few bottles aside as souveniers or for the taproom shelves.

sam k,  04 December, 2009 23:36  

I'm pretty sure the brewery is obligated to honor the deposit on their returnables for the forseeable future. Not sure if there is any time limit...

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