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The million-dollar cans vs. bottles question: What is the drinking occasion?

"Do I wanna be formal, or am I here to party?"
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Cellar Door cans | Courtesy of Stillwater Artisanal

Cellar Door cans | Courtesy of Stillwater Artisanal

In December or January, many breweries set production schedules that lay out their releases for the upcoming year. They’re a rollercoaster of goodbyes to old favorites, hellos to new beers and, sometimes, a familiar beer debuting in a new package.

Just a smattering of such updates from the past few months: Rogue Ales has begun canning stalwart Dead Guy, though the brewery will continue to produce 12- and 22-ounce bottles of it (this is part of a larger can initiative now that Rogue’s bought its own canning line); Bell’s Brewery will move its barely-year-old Oatsmobile pale ale exclusively to cans; Stillwater Artisanal has introduced superslick cans of Cellar Door sage-spiked farmhouse ale (say that three times fast); and last fall, Avery Brewing Co. began canning Maharaja double IPA and The Reverend quad in addition to bottling them. And, in what feels like a decidedly retro move, Fort George Brewery recently purchased a bottling line in order to release some small-batch, specialty beers from the taproom.

So, do you care? Generally, news of packaging updates gets, at best, a semi-interested “hmmm” from me. Unless it’s a beer I drink with regularity, the news isn’t likely to rock my world to its core. I can still get this beer? Cool beans. Now I can take it hiking because it’s in a can? Even better. The rare times that a beer repackaging actually elicits some passion from me is when a brewery nails (or misses) the million-dollar packaging question: What is this beer’s drinking occasion?

By drinking occasion, I mean: with regard to this beer’s style, ABV and ingredients, when and how are drinkers consuming it? To me, other packaging factors such as environmental responsibility, retail shelf placement, etc., as important as they are, should always be secondary to this overarching question. If a beer’s packaging and its drinking occasion are mismatched, it’s a dud. Examples of this from my own experience include 22-ounce bombers of kölsch, 12-ounce bottle sixpacks of oddly flavored novelty beers I probably only want to try one of, and wax-dipped bombers of IPAs (seriously).

So, the news that Rogue has Dead Guy, Yellow Snow winter IPA and 6 Hops IPA in cans makes sense. Rogue Ales president Brett Joyce says consumers had consistently asked for them, and “There’s a time and place where the utility of the cans goes.” This year, Rogue will also roll out 12-ounce nitro cans of a cold brew IPA; nitro cans of a chocolate stout; and regular cans of a lager called Hot Tub Scholarship.

Stillwater’s Brian Strumke explains the move to can what could be considered nouveau farmhouse beers like Cellar Door even more simply: “Cans go where the fun is!” Exactly.

Another development I’m glad to see: smaller packaging of high-ABV beers. (Here, I’ll save you having to type this in the comments: “Man up, Kate!” OK, cool.) Avery’s director of sales, Dustin LeMoine, says of the move to bring Mahajara and The Reverend to cans: “We also think that at 10% ABV, drinking 12 ounces at a time is a little safer and more enjoyable for the world.” This makes sense to me in terms of drinking occasion: I’m probably going to have one Reverend. If I want another, I can open a new can. If I don’t, I’m not letting half a bomber go stale. If I want to share with a friend, she can pop open her own can. My favorite version of this trend is Pinko!, Flat 12 Bierwerks’ 10.5% Russian Imperial Stout, now available in single-serve, eight-ounce nip cans. Brilliant.

This isn’t to say that every drinking occasion requires a can, however. Fort George, a longtime proponent of cans, is stoked on its new bottling line for packaging its new Sweet Virginia series of small-batch, specialty beers. “We’ve been doing bottles in small runs for a long time and so we just feel like it’s a different package for a different occasion,” says Fort George’s Nathan Lampson. “It’s kind of what we imagined these beers being consumed out of, and how we want to be drinking them. It’s a sharable size, these 16.9-ounce bottles. They can be sharable or single serve over the course of a dinner, or something fancy like that.”

Breweries put a lot of thought, research and number-crunching into their packaging decisions. But to simplify, maybe they could begin by asking: Is this beer going where the fun is, or where the fancy is?

2 Comments

  • Kat says:

    Really great points. I also highly agree with the smaller can size for higher alcohol beers – sometimes I want to enjoy a small amount of that beer on ex. a week night!

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