When Primitive Beer started selling its spontaneous, barrel-fermented beer out of a small blending facility and taproom in Longmont, Colorado in April, it wasn’t just their chosen style of brews that was unique: The microbrewery packages its uncarbonated lambic-style ales in 1.5-liter bag-in-boxes. Owners Lisa and Brandon Boldt chose the containers to highlight the fact that their beer is served flat, taking a cue from the Belgian breweries Primitive’s offerings are based upon.
Still beer is an obvious match for the atypical packaging, since the lack of carbonation reduces the risk of the bag exploding. The pairing is more common across the pond, particularly in Belgium and England. For example, Jolly Sailor Brewery in northern England has been selling its cask-conditioned real ales in bagged boxes since its founding in 2012. “It works really well,” says office administrator Gemma Bishop, whose stepbrother started the brewery. “It tastes exactly the same as it does from the cask.”
Stateside, boxed beer is unusual but not entirely new. Albany, New York’s Wm. S. Newman Brewing Co., which operated from 1981 to 1987, sold its craft brews in one-gallon and four-liter cardboard boxes. Per All About Beer Magazine, Golden Pacific in California packaged its Bittersweet Ale in a box in the late 1980s—well before canning was the norm. Miller Lite and Coors Lite even experimented with packaging that resembled bar taps a decade ago.
American drinkers are likely more familiar with boxed wine, which is experiencing a surge in popularity. In fact, premium wine in boxes is the fastest growing major segment of wine sales; the category experienced a 15.6% dollar growth over the last year, according to Nielsen. Black Box Wines is trying to capitalize on those numbers with its recently released line of boxed whiskey, tequila and vodka. “Consumers are looking for brands that can fit their active lifestyles,” says vice president of marketing Jaymie Schoenberg. “We have created products that are portable, shatterproof and can travel anywhere.”
That description sounds a lot like the argument for canned over bottled beers. Could boxed be the logical next step? It’s unlikely. Uncarbonated beer retains a very small market share in the United States, and technological advances would be necessary to both make the packaging viable for carbonated brews and create a scalable packaging model.
“It seems to have quite a few limitations,” says Jeremy Rudolf, operations manager at Oskar Blues Brewery. “It’s going to prove very difficult to put what we know to be our standard carbonation of IPAs and lagers in flexible packaging.” Bags in boxes also require more effort to fill. “It is additional labor,” Bishops admits. “It’s another stage to the packaging process.”
For example, after cask-conditioning their beers, Jolly Sailor’s team has to then decant the ales into the bags. Liquor stores would also need to adjust their fridges and shelf arrangements to make space for the new packaging. Concerns over sustainability remain: The cardboard is easily recycled, but not all recycling facilities can handle the specialized bags with taps. However, Black Box Wines & Spirits’ boxes are fully recyclable, and, according to Schoenberg, they “have a significantly smaller carbon footprint than traditional glass bottles, requiring far less energy to produce and transport.”
Like Rudolf, Rockyard Brewing Company’s operations manager Zac Rissmiller sees a lot of impediments to boxed beer, but he’s open-minded about its potential. “If the bags are pressure rated and you can get them upwards of 25 to 35 PSI without them exploding, then I think it’s absolutely viable,” he says. “The packaging is something that could be really fun in the future, but I don’t know if it’s there yet. It works extremely well for Primitive because of who they are.”
Even breweries unlike Primitive would see some benefits from boxed beer. The boxes are easily portable, both for customers and behind the scenes at the brewery. “They’re easy to stack, easy to move about. They’re half the weight,” Bishops says. The beer—at least, uncoarbonated beers—also stay fresh longer. Traditionally, Jolly Sailor’s beers would be served from a cask and pubs would only have about five days to get through the whole nine gallons. The smaller bag in a box lasts about two months, according to Bishop. Black Box’s three-liter wines are advertised as staying fresh for six weeks after opening.
The price difference is yet to be determined. A nine-gallon Jolly Sailor cask runs about 77 pounds. Two bag-in-boxes equate to a similar volume and cost 96 pounds, but the pub owner can get two beer styles and is less likely to throw out—read: waste—unused beer. Black Box Spirits says their 1.75-liter boxes cost consumers about 20 percent less than “comparable bottles spirits.” However, Primitive’s $25 1.5-liter boxes are a significant price increase over a typical six-pack, which contains more beer.
There are clearly more questions than answers at this point. But as brewers prepare to address the forthcoming aluminum and steel tariffs, bags in boxes could become more appealing, driving needed research and experimentation. Most breweries are still unsure of precisely what impact these tariffs will have and say steel is a larger concern, but even minimal price increases can be a huge hit to the bottom line for small and mid-size beer makers. Oskar Blues, which cans all of its packaged beer, was quoted in Spirited magazine saying the tariffs could cost the brewery $400,000 annually. “Every brewery will absorb that price increase differently, but it’s not out of the norm to think that price increase to the brewer will be passed on to the beer drinker,” says Bob Pease, president and CEO of the Brewers Association.
For now, cans’ sustainability, ease of production and customer familiarity are winning the packaging game. But don’t completely count out boxed beer. “I can see lots of ifs, ands or buts with beer in a box. I have a hard time seeing it become what wine in a box or even spirits are,” says Dave Thibodeau, president and co-founder of Ska Brewing in Durango, Colorado. “But nobody really has that crystal ball. The next thing that blows up is something that five years ago you’d never have a clue. I appreciate that somebody’s willing to give it a shot.”