Microbreweries and specialty beers have come a long way in the last quarter century, riding the small-is-good wave to account for more than 7 percent of the 6.4 billion gallon American beer market, according to some estimates. To transition from brew-pub favorite to mainstream retail sales, San Clemente-CA-based Left Coast Brewing Company Inc. is relying on an amber-colored PET bottle.

With a profile closer to glass than earlier generation PET bottles, California Gold blonde ale should help mainstream beer drinkers make the transition to craft brewing. Source: Left Coast Brewing Co.

"Some folks are asking if plastic cheapens the product; I don't think so," insists Hans Johnson, general manager-operations at Left Coast, a 14,000-barrel brewery that supplies 15 Oggi's Pizza and Brewing locations in southern California. "The beer in these bottles lasts just as long on the shelf as beer in a glass bottle."

Most Oggi's outlets brew on premise, with the two-year-old central brewery supplying specialty items. The plant has won a fistful of awards, including the best small brewery designation in the World Beer Cup competition, but throughput is less than half of capacity. To gain new distribution, the company purchased a three-head filling line last year and commenced bottling in January. The 16-oz. bottles, manufactured by Ball Corp. and distributed by Gamer Packaging in Minneapolis, sport a 28-mm oxygen-absorbing cap that looks more like a glass bottle than the 38 mm caps used by Miller Brewing. High-sided six-pack cartons and the tinted plastic help protect product from ultraviolet light.

Plastic has opened the door to golf courses and sports venues like the San Diego Padres' Petco Park that otherwise give craft brews the cold shoulder, says Johnson. It also won shelf space at six Costco stores. Based on early sales at Costco and Petco, Johnson took delivery of a truckload of 100,000 bottles in April, double the initial order.

The bigger payoff may come from wider awareness of Oggi's, however. The brewery's biggest seller is Hop Juice Double IPA, with an alcohol content of 7.9 percent. "That's a big girl," Johnson acknowledges, with a bitter edge foreign to mainstream beer drinkers. The bottled beer is California Gold, "a flavorful blonde ale that can be a transition beer for mainstream consumers," he says. The alcohol content is 4.5 percent, slightly higher than the major brewers' offerings.

If California Gold brings new traffic into Oggi's brew pubs, the investment will be a good one: a half-barrel of draught beer yields $465 in sales and a profit margin that leaves brewers in St. Louis and Milwaukee crying in their suds.

For more information:
Bill Ferrell, Gamer Packaging, 612-788-4444, bferrell@gamerpackaging.com