Beer

Why Breweries Are Turning to Small-Format Cans

The opportunity to reach new customers is just one factor attracting brewers to the eight-ounce can

Fifth Hammer
Iron Lotus by Fifth Hammer Brewing. Photo by Juren David.

Long before opening Fifth Hammer Brewing in New York’s Long Island City neighborhood, Chris Cuzme daydreamed about packaging beer in eight-ounce cans. He believed that was the perfect size for an imperial stout or porter, styles that typically soar above 10% ABV. “I’ve always wanted those big beers in smaller servings,” says Cuzme, lamenting that they’re regularly packaged in large-format bottles. Drinking 22 ounces of a heavyweight beer rarely fits his lifestyle—or work schedule.

The best thing about owning a brewery is calling the shots. He opened the Queens brewery in fall 2017 and a few months later hired mobile canning company Iron Heart to package Iron Lotus, a 10.5% ABV imperial porter, in squat eight-ounce cans sold at the taproom for $16 per four-pack. Says Cuzme, the can immediately proclaims, “Hey, I’m different.”

Craft beer was predominantly sold in 12-ounce brown glass bottles before 16-ounce cans caught on a half decade ago and fast became a favored vessel. Breweries big and small started packaging IPAs and other strong beers in 16-ounce cans, whose colorful labels and innovative brews differentiated them in the market. Today, these pint cans have swum mainstream, stuffing shelves and coolers.

Now that 16-ounce cans have become omnipresent, breweries have started embracing eight-ounce cans—the kind popularized by soft-drink manufacturers—to cut through the clutter. The format, which Indianapolis brewery Flat 12 Bierwerks first used in 2016 for its Pinko! Russian imperial stout, merges a moderate serving size with massive opportunities to reach new market segments and customers—and increase sales.

Give a Small Can a Shot

When Workhorse Brewing Company in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, about 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia, started distribution last year, sales reps visited potential accounts with eight-ounce sample cans. “The feedback that we got from our partners was almost universally positive,” says Dan Hershberg, the brewery’s cofounder. “They say, ‘Wow, these cans are adorable. What are you doing with them?’”

Workhorse Beer
Photo courtesy of Workhorse Brewing Company.

At the time, nothing—the cans were simply sales tools they used as samples for buyers, but Hershberg started thinking about the unusual size. “There’s not a lot of innovation in packaging,” he says. “If we can find a way to package these eight-ounce cans that makes sense, then let’s do that.” Hershberg and his team’s thoughts turned to the brewery’s taproom, where customers loved buying flights of beer—essentially, a variety of small servings. They thought, “Why don’t we find a way to replicate that experience [in] a portable application?”

On April 15 the brewery launched Flights to Go—mixed six-packs of eight-ounce cans. The selections range from a pale ale to a New England IPA and a pilsner, and the set is priced at around $10 in the taproom, with retail prices ranging between $8 and $10. For consumers unfamiliar with Workhorse, it’s a low-cost introduction to the brewery’s product range. Says Hershberg, “You can try six different beers from a new brewery and see if there’s one you like.”

The six-packs will be sold at the brewery, at retailers, and at bars in Philadelphia, home of the popular Citywide Special—traditionally, a whiskey shot with PBR. Why not a shot and a mini Workhorse IPA? “Making [the special] more craft-focused gives us a brandable application we can bring to our [bar] partners,” says Hershberg. “You don’t have to think. Just bring it in this way, pair it up [with a whiskey shot à la the Citywide], and you’re good.”

Lil Buddy
Lil Buddy beer. Photo by Jack Li.

A Little Something Extra

While breweries such as Interboro Spirits & Ales in Brooklyn, New York, and Brewery Bhavana in Raleigh, North Carolina, pack potent imperial stouts in eight-ounce cans, the purveyors of Hopewell Brewing in Chicago saw the format as a great fit for a crowd-pleasing lager. “Just because you want a little bit of beer,” says Samantha Lee, Hopewell’s cofounder, “doesn’t mean you want a 10% [ABV] imperial stout.”

In January 2019, Hopewell released Lil Buddy, an easy-drinking, 4.7% ABV helles lager sold only in eight-ounce cans around Chicago. The product has found a following with both the shot-and-beer crowd and moms and dads craving a cold one at home—with around 73 percent of sales coming from off-premise. Says Lee, “We get a ton of parents with young kids saying, ‘Oh my god, this is perfect. I haven’t had a full beer in a really long time. This is exactly what I need.’”

Others see the low-alcohol eight-ounce can as an ideal brunch offering. Some Chicago restaurants, for example, partner a Bloody Mary with a Lil Buddy. “It was kind of a no-brainer,” says Scott Stroemer, the head bartender at Pacific Standard Time in downtown Chicago. “We were like, that’s what the Bloody Mary needs.”

Scott Stroemer
Scott Stroemer of Pacific Standard Time. Photo by Brian Willette.

The restaurant sells Lil Buddy during Sunday brunch only as an add-on to its Bloody Mary, charging $2 for the can. Stroemer estimates that the restaurant sells around 50 Bloody Marys per service, and that more than half come with a can. “When a Lil Buddy sits down at the table or walks across the room, people coo like someone just brought a puppy into the bar,” he says, noting that the can is also Instagram catnip. “Before anyone takes a sip, they pull out their phone. As an operator, all you want people to do is take pictures of your stuff, enjoy it, and put it out there in the world.”

Fifth Hammer’s Cuzme is considering future runs of eight-ounce cans, with an eye toward a rich and robust barley wine. To him, eight is enough for his high-ABV beers, helping people keep an eye on intake. “There’s no harm in opening a second eight-ounce can,” says Cuzme, “but we also don’t want people to think they have to finish a 16-ounce can.”

Contributing editor Joshua M. Bernstein is a beer, spirits, food, and travel journalist, as well as an occasional tour guide, event producer, and industry consultant. He writes for the New York Times, Men’s Journal, New York magazine, Wine Enthusiast, and Imbibe, where he’s a contributing editor in charge of beer coverage. Bernstein is also the author of five books: Brewed Awakening, The Complete Beer Course, Complete IPA, Homebrew World, and Drink Better Beer (out September 2019).

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