Since the statute of limitations has long passed, I can reveal my illicit secret: As a grunge-loving teen in suburban Ohio, I bought beer at the local liquor drive-through, mostly Busch Light 30-packs that my miscreant crew later chugged in my backyard before trampolining skyward and turning into lobsters in our hot tub, a twofer that led to less vomit than you might imagine.
Twelve, 24, 36, 48: Like some drunk cheerleader’s chant, we only bought bulk beer, following the lead of our parents and our parents’ parents. I doubt they drank cases of Natural Ice, as I did in college, before graduating and moving to Brooklyn. New city, new me!
There, I began buying beer at my local bodega, or corner store. The clerks cared not if I bought one beer or a dozen, cash and not quantity their king. Curious, I bought single bottles from Stone, Dogfish Head, Victory, and Brooklyn Brewery. I treated beer fridges like a buffet where I could eat each item once, never returning for seconds.
Who needed to? Each passing year brought new beers. I started writing about them, and soon my job was to drink ’em all. I studied beer fridges with the scholarly intensity I once reserved for record shop racks. What’s new? What’s cool? Must I really buy a six-pack? Older generations, they were beer monogamists, wedded at the sip. Me, I was part of a new drinking breed that saw beer aisles as a smorgasbord of one-night stands, a Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA today, Allagash White tomorrow, never to be called on again.
One-night stands are about embracing the unknown, the good rubbing up against the bad. And man, have I drank some awful beers lately, IPAs with hops seemingly old enough to buy their own beer, barley wines burning with a dying sun’s heat. Compounding matters is cost. The going rate for a double IPA four-pack in the Northeast is nearly $20, an extra couple bucks for every extra hop addition. There’s nothing quite like a double dry-hopped credit card bill.
Lately, I’ve begun supplementing new and local beers with known quantities bought in serious quantity. Riffle through my fridge and you’ll often find 12-packs of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Peak Fresh Cut Pils, and Lagunitas 12th of Never. They marry affordability to massive flavor and moderate ABV, beers that accompany conversation instead of steering it into tiresome terrain. I swear, my eyes may spontaneously bleed if I’m forced to feign excitement about another hazy New England IPA. I like dumplings! I once wrote for a third-rate porn company! I drove to Mongolia! Ask me about that. While passing me another dependable can from the fridge.
The trend started with 12-packs, then Founders kicked it into second gear with 2014’s debut of the All Day IPA 15-pack.
“We wanted to do something that would help us stand out with consumers and retailers,” cofounder and CEO Mike Stevens told Draft. “I would call it more of an attractor pack, just to capture some excitement and give the retailers something different to sell.”
Modern brewers have long used unique packaging as a differentiator. In the 1980s, brown glass bottles were visual counterpoints to green-glass imports such as Beck’s and Heineken, and then-déclassé cans. Now 15-packs are the new hotness.
Breweries equipped with expanded capacity and packaging abilities are increasingly trotting out the supersized format, counting New Belgium Dayblazer, 21st Amendment Blood Orange Brew Free! or Die IPA and Southern Tier – it slings a mixed pack of pilsner and IPA. Not to be outdone, Oskar Blues sells 16-packs of its low-alcohol Pinner IPA, and Starr Hill sold a summer 16-pack this year. Heck, Long Trail now sells 18-packs of Trail Hopper IPA, and Modern Times has sold mixed 20-packs.
I don’t crave deep discounts; I need dependability.”
These multiple-buys are as exciting to me as single beers used to be. It’s the power of one multiplied by 15, guaranteed quality – and joy – from first can to the last. Weirdly, it’s my drunken life come full circle. I’ve rekindled my days of bulk purchases when every beer was a winner just because it was, you know, beer. It’s once again business as usual for my buzz, though I’m a bit pickier about jumping on trampolines while blotto.
Is all this bounty good for breweries’ bottom lines? Breaking the cycle of consumer fickleness can exert a “downward pressure on price,” as Boston Beer’s Jim Koch put it during a spring call to investors.
I see his point as a consumer myself. I mean, I don’t look at a 15-pack of canned beer as buying 15 beers; I see it as purchasing 12 beers, with three tossed in for free. Everyone likes free!
Free-falling profits, though, that’s another story. Most breweries will find it impossible to compete with conglomerates’ economies of scale, as well as deeply discounted pricing. But the race to the bottom only gets you one place: the bottom. No brewery wins in an apocalyptic future of $9.99 15-packs.
I don’t crave deep discounts; I need dependability. For me, it’s refreshing to stock my fridge with rock-solid standbys, returning to my roots of buying beer by the case, whatever the case may be.
Watch carefully, and you might just see this picky beer nerd transform into the incredible bulk.
Thanks to Remo Remoquillo for the header illustration.