Big Beers in Small Packages

February 19, 2018

By Joshua Bernstein, February 19, 2018

Step inside my Brooklyn apartment—up three floors from the street and some 900 square feet—and your eyeballs will brim with barley wines and imperial stouts. Champagne-corked and 22-ounce bottles are dustily stacked on shelves like unloved library books because I’m rarely keen to consume that much intoxicant, 25 ounces of 12 percent beer a load too heavy for my liver. I’m not alone.

“I have piles of bottles at my house and a lot of them are big format,” says Firestone Walker brewmaster Matt Brynildson. “I’m just staring at them week after week going, ‘When am I going to have some friends over so we can crack into these things and check them out?’”

Everybody in the world was putting out bombers. We wanted to do something different that stood out.”

Your local beer bar has long served supercharged stouts and other bruisers in eight- or ten-ounce glasses. Now, breweries are ditching supersize bottles and packing strong beers in more reasonable formats. Concerning beer, big things are increasingly coming in small packages.

A few years ago, 21st Amendment sold its Lower De Boom barley wine in lipstick-slim 8.4-ounce cans, the sort suited for chugging Red Bull. Stone now sells its Enjoy By imperial IPA in 12-ounce six-packs. Lagunitas Sucks, a revved-up double IPA once offered by the quart, is now only in 12-ounce bottles. Odell Brewing converted its Cellar Series beers from 25-ounce bottles to 12-ouncers.

The larger-size “Cellar Series beer is a lot of fun when company shows up, but those occasions can be hard to come by,” chief sales and marketing officer Eric Smith wrote in a press release. “We’re excited to offer 12-ounce bottles and keep things flexible.”

Revolution Brewing's Deth's Tar

This fall, Revolution Brewing had one of the more higher-profile format changes when it stuck its beloved barrel-aged Deth’s Tar imperial oatmeal stout in 12-ounce cans, a smart move for a 14.8 percent ABV bruiser. “It’s neat for the sampling size,” Josh Deth says, noting Revolution’s taproom sells its higher-ABV offerings by the nine-ounce snifter. The 12-ounce can aligns Revolution’s potent nips with a more sensible serving for a single person, though Deth also sees them as suitable for sharing. “They’re not about mass consumption.”

Moreover, Deth says, the smaller format will hopefully encourage consumers to sip the carefully aged stouts now, instead of socking a bomber away for a distant snowy day. Every day can be an occasion to drink an imperial stout. “We want people to drink the beers now.” This isn’t a one-time move. Revolution has stopped packaging all its beers in bigger bottles, instead opting for an all-can lineup. “We saw the shrinking world of bombers,” he says. “Everybody in the world was putting out bombers. We wanted to do something different that stood out.”

People that can’t drink that much high-alcohol beer really appreciate it and are able to enjoy it.”

Suzanne Schalow, a cofounder of national retail chain Craft Beer Cellar, is ready to write an epithet for large-format beer. “Twenty-twos are dead,” she says of the 22-ounce bottle. Craft Beer Cellar’s Boston-area flagship store carries more than 1,000 beers, with around 45 percent sold in cans. By and large, the only 750-ml bottles Craft Beer Cellar sells are Belgian imports, bottle-conditioned or contain wild yeast.

Cost also factors into the equation. Smaller sizes are more affordable, meaning wallet-conscious customers can try a wide beer range. “What we see and what we hear from customers is that they’re willing to take a chance,” Schalow says. “Ten dollars is a lot different than $20. Trying to convince someone that they need to try a beer in a 750ml bottle that’s more than $20 is not always easy.”

Many large-format bottles contain long-aged liquid, perhaps something that spent serious time inside oak. There’s not always enough to meet demand, especially when doled out in 22-ounce doses. Last year, Firestone Walker downsized its Vintage Reserve series of barrel-aged beers such as Stickee Monkee quad from 22-ounce to 12-ounce bottles, boxed individually. Doing so let Firestone Walker broaden distribution without significantly boosting production. “You’re spreading out the same amount of beer,” Brynildson says, noting that Firestone’s wild-focused Barrelworks beers were already packaged in 375-ml bottles.

Flat 12 Bierwerks' Pinko!

To me, eight ounces is the ideal amount of imperial stout, a number that’s starting to resonate industry-wide. Recently, Brooklyn’s Interboro Spirits & Ales released barrel-aged versions of its Ambassador imperial stout in squat eight-ounce cans, the kind used for mini Cokes, while this winter Queens-based Fifth Hammer put its Iron Lotus imperial porter in the same format.

In 2015, Indianapolis, Indiana’s Flat12 Bierwerks brewed Pinko!, an imperial stout right around 10.5 percent ABV. Instead of big ol’ bottles, Flat12 opted for eight-ounce cans. “I’m 125 pounds and I’m not going to drink those beers very often, especially if they’re in a bomber or larger bottle,” says marketing and events director Valerie Green.

Flat12 offers the imperial stout by the six-pack, the format so popular that the potent beer is released biannually, in July—poolside Pinko!—and around Christmastime. Eight ounces is the sweet spot for such a strong beer, enough to savor nuances and not the spins. “People that can’t drink that much high-alcohol beer really appreciate it and are able to enjoy it,” Green says. “They don’t need to open up a big bottle and feel like they have to drink the whole thing.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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