Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Craft Beer Bottle Sizes (Rant)

A lineup of craft beer bottles of different sizes.
Can craft brewers please stop with the bombers and 750s of strong beers? Why is it that the same brewery will put their pale ale in 12 oz bottles while their barleywine goes into bombers? Why would I want a beer with a higher alcohol content to come in a larger serving size? When I’m bottling I use the big bottles for session beers, while I save my 12 oz bottles for strong beers with just a handful of bigger bottles for sharing. I know that some people like bigger bottles for homebrewing because it means fewer bottles to clean, sanitize, fill, and cap. If breweries passed on the savings they got from using fewer bottles/labels/caps etc… I would have less of a complaint.

Instead of seeing a per ounce savings the large format bottles are often more than twice as expensive as their smaller counterparts. Here are some examples of 12 oz versus 22 oz bottle prices from one of the local beercentric stores: Hop Rod Rye $2.59 ($.22/oz) vs. $5.49 ($.25/oz), Lagunitas Maximus $2.39 ($.20/oz) vs. $5.99 ($.27/oz), and shockingly Rogue Dead Guy is $2.99 ($.25/oz) vs. $7.99 ($.36/oz)... almost a 50% premium on the beer in the bomber! I think some of it is psychological, for some reason I think a $4 bomber is a good deal, even though that works out to a $13 six-pack (and a somewhat pricey $10 bomber is the equivalent of an outrageous sounding $32.72 six-pack).

The weird thing is that this seems to be a craft beer issue that doesn’t happen with the big breweries. For example Kirin also comes in 12 oz and 22 oz bottles, for $1.99 ($.17/oz) vs. $2.99 ($.14/oz). Same goes for Budweiser: 12 oz $1.39 ($.12/oz), 24 oz $2.29 ($.10/oz), 32 oz $2.69 ($.08/oz). That is the way the price structure should work, you should get a discount for buying beer in bigger bottles not a penalty. I understand that this is not necessarily the case when buying special release larger packaging (magnum or larger) since they require more labor, but if they have a bottling line there shouldn’t be any difference.

Even the six-pack is no longer safe, with breweries like Founder’s moving many of their beers to four-packs. Again despite the smaller amount of beer the price seems to have stayed about the same or even gone up from what the six-packs used to sell for.

What does it come down to? Marketing pure and simple. People are willing to pay more for a beer they perceive as special, big bottles call out to us, corked and caged bottles doubly so. Nice labels, waxed tops, bags, boxes, metal tubes, tissue paper, hand signed, you name it a craft brewer has tried it. As craft beer consumers we need to stop rewarding breweries that try to dupe us with this added packaging that boosts the price, but doesn’t make the beer taste any better.

It seems like more and more beers are only being released in larger bottles, especially limited release and collaboration beers. When I am buying a beer I haven’t had before, or one that sounds weird/experimental I’d rather buy as little of it as possible (which is why it is great that some beer bars sell sampler sizes). I’d love to see more breweries putting their weird beer into smaller bottles (7 oz nips would be perfect), but I’d be thrilled just to see more 12 oz bottles.

32 comments:

Anonymous said...

You said it yourself... $4/bomber seems like a deal, even when it isn't. If a brewer can make a premium on a high-end beer, they will. Even though I agree with your reasoning, I probably wouldn't consider 7 oz bottles. They would always seem overpriced regardless of the $/oz.

Also, seeing the price per six pack for all of those $10 bombers I've bought in the past depresses me. One other thing that depresses me - paying bar prices for beer and getting a 12 oz "pint"

dmoore2 said...

Big bottle pricing can be really annoying, but there are a few that really are better in 750's - Allagash comes to mind immediately. I would buy their dubbel or tripel in 750's at a higher per unit cost in a heartbeat over the smaller, contract brewed versions. For the most part, though, it's a total scam - you're completely right.

Also, 375ml pricing is even worse. Granted, these aren't generally available in multiple formats, so you aren't going to be able to do a side-by-side; the prices are still ludicrous. North Coast, Lost Abbey, Mikkeller, even the BdM Abbaye de Saint Bon Chien special editions, which despite being amazing beers, are not worth $23+++ for barely over 12 ounces. Same boat as the 750's though - package it like wine and market it as a premium/luxury product.

Kills me how some of the same people willing to buy the higher priced 750's and bombers - which are largely a marketing ploy - will also rail about the marketing tactics of corporate beer behemoths while they're drinking said beer.

Manic Organik said...

Dude, great rant!

Karl said...

It's called price anchoring (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anchoring).

People are inflexible in adjusting their assessment of value once assigned, so they are unwilling to pay much more for a 12oz (even if it is a much nicer beer than, say, Budweiser).

One way out of anchoring is changing the context, which weakens what the buyer is "anchoring" on. Larger bottles make the buyer feel as though it isn't a bottle of beer, but something special (and comparable to, say, wine).

For example, Starbucks was able to get away with charging vastly more than normal coffee prices by changing the environment/context (i.e. going from a Dunkin Donuts to a "classy joint").

Dan Ariely does a great treatment of the topic:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Predictably_Irrational#The_Fallacy_of_Supply_and_Demand

Matt said...

I agree with all you've said, except maybe for large-format (1.5L and above) bottles, as these cost the brewery more than the equivalent number of smaller bottles. Granted, that still does not justify the 2-3x markup per unit volume that most large-format bottles go for, just think it's worth noting that the price for the glass does not increase linearly with size.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

dmoore2, I wasn't aware that Allagash had any of their beers contract brewed, and a quick search couldn't turn up confirmation. However, I know that is true of some other breweries/beers, and it is a valid point. The half the size and double the price scheme for “special” versions is a bit steep as well, especially for those Bon Chiens that don’t spend any longer in oak as far as I can tell.

Karl, thanks for giving me the name for this phenomenon. Interesting stuff.

Matt, agreed on the mega-sized-bottles (I did have a short mention of them in the post), although the price often reflects the rarity more than the glass price or labor.

Sam said...

I enjoy how further down it mentions that in a blind taste test students prefered beer laced with balsamic vinegar to Budweiser.

Sam said...

My post was in relation to Karl's link

Jeffrey said...

I prefer a barleywine in a 22 ounce bomber. That way I can say I only had one bottle. It's a subtle psychological ploy I use.

But your point is well taken. There should be more beer packaged in bombers, not just the strong ones, and there should be a price savings.

Danny said...

I'm not sure if Flying Dog still makes their Canis Major mixed pack which has 8 x 8 oz bottles of their high octane beers. I thought that it was a great way to give people the opportunity to sample a few high strength beers on a weeknight without fear of a debilitating hangover.

I know that Roque also offers smaller 8 oz bottles of their high strength beers but I think they're typically singles and probably come with the same price gouge.

Anonymous said...

The problem is with the size of the bottles not being able to fit on the line. Even large places (say Stone) has to have each of those larger bottles filled by hand, so it does come down to labor costs. Unless there was a market out there for large bottles (a huge demand) there is no point in buying another bottling line (or keep retooling the old line) that will accompany the monsters and use the economies of scale that the 12oz ers do. Stupid college.

Anonymous said...

One thing you are overlooking when examining the pricing is quantity or volume. It is somewhat unfair to compare the pricing of a 22oz bottle directly to the price of a 12 oz bottle. When you buy a 6 pack you are buying in "bulk" compared to buying one bomber. You are buying 3 times the volume and thus it is cheaper. Just like the cost per ounce goes down when you buy a keg of beer. Bulk discount. I know you can often buy singles from liquor stores but the pricing is set up based on buying a 6 pack.

Anonymous said...

AMEN!
I hate having to buy bombers or other overpriced large bottles (bombers, 750 wine bottles, etc)
Also hate the 4pack cans that Tallgrass, Surly and others are doing when I can buy a six pack of bottled comparable beer for cheaper and more beer. I do not mind the cans, wish more craft beer came in cans. But I do mind the steep price on them and getting jipped out of a beer.

Middle Class Middle Aged White Guy said...

Ok, I'm going to put on my flame-retardant underwear and be the odd man out, here: I like bombers. They're just the right size for the wife and I to split. (Roughly 2/3 - 1/3).

Flame away.

Of course, most of the time, I drink my own swill, anyway..... ;-)

Robby said...

I think you hit an important point towards the end of your post: There may be larger problems at work even when the price is justified as a specialty item.

Plenty of breweries can't make a decent pale ale but expect us to go nuts looking for their 30-dollar-super-double-breakfast-stout-anniversary ale. And all too many buyers seem willing to oblige. At the same time, the breweries that create this market can be heard to lament that they "just can't sell a session-strength ale." It's a feedback loop that marginalizes one of beer's best qualities: accessibility.

What would you rather have: Unlimited access to a beautifully crafted mild ale, or one-bottle-per-month access to a cork & cage saison from some mystery Belgian farmstead. Ideally the answer would be "both," but sometimes it seems like we are moving towards just the latter.

Anonymous said...

Gotta agree with Karl. Small breweries already have enough trouble selling their $7.99 six-packs. They have to step out of the box a tad to create a new product. For the beer geek, a new bottle and label isn't that exciting, but to the uninitiated, it most definitely is.

If that's what it takes to get more craft beer enthusiasts in the door, so be it. I'll continue along enjoying the cheaper, 12oz bottles of the same thing for now. Except of course on those special occasions when I want to share!

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

To answer a question, I was using the price of a single bottle purchase (not just the six-pack divided by six). In this case the markup is about ~20%, so if you were comparing a six-pack to a bomber the premium per ounce is even worse.

Stone fill their 3L bottles (technically growlers) by hand, but they certainly aren’t doing that for their bombers. Here is a shot of their line from five years ago: http://www.flickr.com/photos/autonomatic/203495796/

Velky Al said...

"the breweries that create this market can be heard to lament that they "just can't sell a session-strength ale.""

If I may be cynical, how much of that is because said breweries can't actually make a decent session beer to begin with?

THE MERKIN MAN said...

Good points, but I would change the subtitles from (rant) to something more constructive. Ranting = mindless bitching in my book, but that is not what I see in these posts.

kingwood kid said...

When I buy single bottles, it's because I want to try something I've never had to see if I like it (or to culture the yeast). I don't want to drink 750mL of something I don't like, especially a high alcohol brew, so I don't buy them.

I would rather pay $6 for a 330mL or 12oz than $10 for the bigger bottle. Not many beers are really all that interesting 20 ounces in anyway.

Adam said...

I'm on your side with this. The price is higher but I do know a little something about the work involved. Many breweries are not very well set up to bottle 22oz bottles. I do yeast counting at a local brewery and when they do 22oz bottles they have to hand label every bottle. Then they have to change out star wheels on the bottling line so they feed properly. The bottles won't go through certain points of the bottling line very well so they have to be hand fed. Additionally they rarely do the 22oz bottles. So the price discount they get on an entire truck load of glass is considerable compared to a handful of pallets of bombers. So the cost is realistically higher on the 22oz bottle just for glass. Then the cost of different packaging and the time wasted doing lots of crap by hand. I agree it makes no sense but it is that way.

With that said I wish they made 7-10oz bottles of the higher abv stuff. I like my barleywines every now and then but don't want 22oz of it unless I have friends to share with.

You think it's bad in the beer world? You should see the cigar world with the marketing gimmicks!

Zac said...

I was so ready to argue your rant...then, I read the price-based reasoning and I can't argue with the facts. Overall, the entire conversation has been really fascinating.

That said, there are still good reasons for choosing the bomber over the 12 oz. bottle. For one, it is definitely a luxury to spend that extra nickle-per-oz. in order to buy a smaller amount of beer (compared to a six-pack) for an evening.

Second, beer is always looking for a place at the table alongside or in-place of wine. You and probably everyone in this thread recognize the ridiculousness in this dichotomy, but most consumers don't consider beer a suitable beverage to have with dinner. The bomber, particularly those containing higher ABV beers, convince the consumer he's purchasing beer's equivalent to wine.

Also, I brew and use a combination of bombers and 12 oz. bottles. I find the smaller bottles are great when I just want one beer. The bombers are more for sharing and gifting my beers. I can show up at a party with one of my bombers and several people can get a taste of my HB. Those I give the bombers to can have two beers without carrying two separate bottles in the non-existent two-pack.

Kyle said...

I've always felt like a cheapskate at the liquor store when I see these interesting but overpriced bombers. Glad to know I'm not alone!

Anonymous said...

Here are to opposites that drive me crazy. Two Brothers Heavier Handed IIPA only sold in 3L bottles. Why?

Rogue Old Crustation is sold in 7 oz. nips but still at the $6 price point.

I am with you on this rant but I don't see the trend changing. It is sad when it becomes cheaper to get a beer at a bar than from the liquor store.

Anonymous said...

I actually kind of don't mind premium pricing for beer, for the odd reason that I think it's good for the industry overall.

Wine has snob appeal over beer, partly because of its elevated prices - and there are plenty of examples of $6 wine being 'discovered' and rocketing to $25. Both in the area of recipe experimentation and in pricing, I think we are seeing beer grow up and be accepted as a premium beverage that is worth spending money on.

Clearly, there is demand, or the bottles would be sitting on the shelf; yet Utopias sells out every year, there are parking lot lines on Dark Lord day, and bottle shops have "One Per Customer" labels on Theobroma.

E Rich said...

You could do an entire post alongside this on bars that don't offer tasting sized glasses. I went to a bar last week that was hosting a tap takeover (certain style, not brewery) with 15 beers on tap. I asked if they offered tastings or flights and was shocked and disappointed to hear they didn't. I'm not going to be able to try more than two or three beers when they're $6, $7, or $8 a piece. And when you're talking about 15 different brewers' interpretations of a style, what happens when you're stuck with 15.5 ounces of a beer you don't like? This isn't 2005. I haven't tried everything on the menu before. DC bars take pride in that fact, as they should. But they should also embrace the chance to educate their customer base by encouraging the opportunity to try lots of difference beers.

Anonymous said...

Although, I hate the disparate pricing, I buy and bottle exclusively in bombers when available. My wife and I share beer with meals, and bombers--like bottles of wine--are ideal for this purpose. It's also less glass to recycle. Here in Japan (and it's likely the same in much of Europe), I have to clean out, dry, and walk all the bottles to the neighborhood collection point. Bombers also take up less space in the cellar and refrigerator, and I can just throw a few into the bike basket. I can't fit a six pack in there, and damn was it difficult when I live in Philadelphia, and I had to manage carrying cases on the bike!

I'm not a beer ticker. I find that my perception of a given beer evolves over the course of drinking it. Buying single 12 oz bottles are of little use, and I don't need six at a time--especially if I'm not confident I'll enjoy the beer. I guess I could buy two of everything, but why?

Dave said...

They're having trouble shifting $7.99 six packs? Come to Australia where craft beer starts at ~$20/6 and goes up. We're also seeing the invasion of the 4 pack for similar prices. To be fair, our alcohol excise tax is higher and skewed towards favouring the macro-brewers since you pay the tax before you even sell a drop, and it heavily favours the economy of scale of larger operations.

I don't see a lot of larger bottles on the shelves here, but when I do they certainly don't tend to pass on any scale-derived savings.

All in all, just more reasons to keep drinking my own :)

Nate - BreweryReviewery.com said...

Great rant. I totally agree with you. I don't understand the idea of putting higher alcohol beers in larger volume containers. I also feel that the size of the container should be relative to the alcohol percentage.

Garrick van buren said...

like an earlier commenter, I prefer bombers. Mostly because its an enjoyable way to replenish bottles for my own homebrew. Also - I'll argue that putting the higher ABV in the larger bottles is a way to attract wine buyers to high-end beer.

andrewtheshaw said...

I think that part of the issue in pricing is that 22's are a lot more expensive to buy than 12's. My buddy is looking into opening a commercial brewing operation and 22's are way more expensive to buy than 12's.

archie said...

I know I'm late BUT great rant, how does Stone get away with selling a bomber IPA for $4.50 and the six pack at $9.99. I thought I was the only one who this bothered (although I bought a bomber of Stone IPA today). One thing, Greenflash West Coast IPA taste better in a bomber than a 12 oz, i wonder if they force carb the 12s...

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