What is set to shape the future for the drinks industry? - just-drinks at Drinktec 2017

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Held every four years in Germany and hosting the biggest global names, Drinktec is the Olympics of the drinks industry's trade show calendar. Nothing else has the same insight into beverage innovation, whether from a packaging, flavourings or labelling perspective. But, like the Olympics, Drinktec is massive - a cavernous experience that can defeat even the hardiest of trade show attendees. Luckily, just-drinks' news & insights editor, Andy Morton, travelled to Munich earlier this month to digest the enormity of it all and deliver these nine bite-sized nuggets of learning.

Drinktec is held every four years in Munich, Germany

Drinktec is held every four years in Munich, Germany

  • Stevia in the spotlight amid sugar-reduction struggle

Hopes that stevia - or more accurately stevia extract - would revolutionise soft drinks flavouring have yet to be realised. But, with sugar taxes taking hold in a number of markets, and concern over artificial sweeteners refusing to subside, the need is becoming greater for an alternative that is perceived to be more natural.

Leading stevia producers at this year's Drinktec were keen to showcase new strains they claim will help dodge any potential sugar-tax levy, while keeping consumers onside taste-wise. PureCircle, for example, showed off its new StarLeaf, which squeezes in more of the steviol glycoside content that gives the extract its sugar-like sweetness.

Despite the advances, PureCircle's sales director for EMEA, Olivier Kutz, says that stevia continues to work better when blended with other sweeteners, such as sugar itself. Part of that is down to stevia's complexity, Kutz says: Whereas artificial sweeteners can be relied upon to perform the same way every time, stevia's natural basis makes it less reliable.

There are also regulatory obstacles, with some markets imposing maximum-usage rules on stevia that will block all-stevia drinks.

PureCircle is confident these hurdles will be overcome, and stevia will eventually deliver on its early promise. "Ultimately," Kutz says, "we expect to see a leap forward in taste, regardless of [sugar] reduction levels."

  • Stevia ready to move into alcohol

Soft drinks is the natural home for stevia, but that may be about to change. Health-and-wellness trends are taking hold in alcohol, meaning the sweetener could soon make the jump to beer and spirits. Of course, the laws of nature ensure that it can't replace sugar in the fermentation process but, according to Tate & Lyle's GM for sucralose, James Blunt, stevia extract will likely appear as a sweetener in alcoholic beverages that use added sugar as a sweetener - products such as cocktail-style drinks or liqueurs. In beer, sweetened versions such as radlers and other fruit-flavoured styles are a target for stevia manufacturers. There aren't any in the market yet, but expect them to arrive soon.

  • Sustainability driving innovations in packaging

The buzzwords around Munich were very much centred on sustainability. That's only to be expected - in the four years since Drinktec was last held, consumer demand for eco-friendly packaging has increased, while governments are implementing legislation designed to tighten the rules on areas such as recycling rates and waste. The EU, for example, is working towards circular economy agreements that aim to cut greenhouse gas emissions and save European businesses billions of Euros through efficiency savings.

Label manufacturers are at the forefront of sustainability drives for beverages, mainly because adhesive labels must be completely washed off so that bottles can be 100% recycled; a stated goal of many of the major soft drinks producers. Companies such as CCL and Brigl & Bergmeister claim to have greatly improved wash-off rates for self-adhesive labels, while CCL has also unveiled a biodegradable label called EcoSolve.

  • Paper ready for a molecular revamp

Brigl & Bergmeister wants to take sustainability further. The Austrian company claims to be the only paper mill that makes paper labels, but its R&D department is on a mission to change the very essence of paper itself. Arthur Erdem, Brigl & Bergmeister's ebullient marketing head, tells just-drinks the company is trying to "reinvent paper and the composition of paper" right down to the nano level.

"Maybe in ten years time, you won't have paper labels or even plastic labels," he says, enigmatically. Unfortunately, Erdem says he's not in a position to give further details at this time, offering only the following piece of advice in response to any sign of scepticism: "You have to free your mind."

  • Hopes for a circular economy might be a waste

Erdem has one more slice of wisdom. Beverage companies are pushing for better recycling rates and reduced waste because that is what consumers want. However, the current trend for the privatisation of waste management, especially in Europe, means our trash is being put in the care of large, multinational businesses. Erdun points out that if a company is making money out of trash, then the only way it can make more money is by handling more trash.

This capitalist dichotomy, says Erdun, is what will hamper EU attempts to reach a fully-functioning circular economy - along with beverage sustainability.

  • We are on the verge of a personalisation revolution - if the price fits

Personalisation is another trend that has hit hard in the past four years. Part of that is down to the success of Coca-Cola's Share-a-Coke campaign, which boosted sales for Coke by printing individual names on cans.

At Drinktec, the company responsible for the packaging behind the campaign, Ardagh Group, proudly displayed its next generation of can decoration that it hopes will drive the personalisation of the future; innovations such as thermocratic inks that reveal hidden messages after the beverage has been consumed, or a combined matte and mirror effect that gives a can tactile as well as visual appeal.

The latter is expected to be commercially viable from next year. Indeed, it is the lowering of costs of these technologies that is helping them spread. The Share-a-Coke campaign wasn't especially difficult to pull off, from a manufacturing perspective, Ardagh says. But, because of the high volumes involved, it had to be cost-effective.

As one person on the Ardagh stand said: "We can do everything." It just has to be within budget.  

  • Marketing will start on the factory floor...

Packaging firm Sidel had one of the largest stands at Drinktec, which is apt for a company that builds the massive bottling lines that fuel the beverage industry. 

However, it was one of the smaller machines on show that drew the most interest, especially from those interested in personalisation. The EvoBrand Active allows manufacturers to print directly onto labels on the factory floor, giving them more control over what comes off the bottling line. And, as it is a laser printer, it allows for an infinite number of SKUs. This is useful when producing products for markets with different labelling requirements, but also comes into its own when looking to personalise individual bottles.

It also brings marketing to the manufacturing level, adding another layer to the possibilities of engaging with the consumer. "The link between the producer [manufacturer] and the consumer is smaller, and getting smaller," Sidel says.

  • will augmented reality

The rise of digital technology is bringing packaging manufactures into other new arenas. Demands for augmented reality, which is activated by pointing a smartphone camera at a label or bottle, has seen traditional manufacturers such as Crown Bevcan team up with hip, new consultancies to deliver digital content such as interactive video games and competitions.

The possibilities are endless, according to Crown, which also allows beverage firms to bring in their own digital agencies to work on content. And, if you don't have your own digital content agency yet, then you'd better start looking - augmented reality is already high on the consumer's priority list.

"People are getting used to pointing their iPhones at something and have something happen," a spokesperson for Austrian packaging maker Constantina Flexibles says.

  • Protein beverages are reaching out to new audiences

Protein is the modern-day low-fat, and a trend already firmly-entrenched in beverages. Now, food scientists at Glanbia are expanding protein into even more categories. The nutrition group unveiled a number of protein innovations at Drinktec, including a protein-packed fruit-flavoured water, and Muscle Mocha, a hot coffee drink with both protein and natural caffeine.

Muscle Mocha brings protein to hot beverages for the first time and offers a glimpse of the myriad new ways the nutrient can be marketed. Most protein beverages have up till now been targeted at the fitness market. But, with added-protein now seen as a necessary component of a healthy lifestyle, its potential consumer base is expanding.

As far as I know, no beverage company has concertedly tried to target older consumers but, with innovations such as Muscle Mocha taking protein into the indulgence category, and with the nutrient seen as a good way to maintain bone health, it is surely only a matter of time.

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