There was a time, not long ago, when your souped-up imperial stout or similarly proportioned “dank” IPA might have arrived in the once-standard 12-ounce bottle. Today, however, it’s not just the glass that might feel foreign in the average craft beer drinker’s hand, it’s the diminutive serving, too. Bottles have all but disappeared in a sea of aluminum, and even the most adjunct-packed beer, pushing 12 percent ABV, now comes in 16 ounces.
Blame (or thank?) beers like The Alchemist’s Heady Topper. For decades, craft breweries stuck to bottles as a way to buck consumers’ associations between cans and the cheap macro beers they grew up in opposition to. But, as co-founder John Kimmich told a Vermont newspaper, when The Alchemist was bulking up production in 2011, he chose to can his brews in an effort to strike pretension from craft beer. LIke some of the other breweries who were breaking from 12- and 22-ounce bottles at the time, it was also about efficiency and the desire to give craft beer its own look. How it came to dominate craft beer from there is simple: Because sought-after beers appeared in 16-ounce cans, 16-ounce cans became inextricably linked with craft beer in all of its “better than macro lager” glory.
But is that a good thing? Were brewers so focused on differentiating craft beer that they overlooked all the reasons a 12-ounce can is superior? After all, there’s a reason the 12-ouncer had become the ubiquitous vessel pre-craft revolution. It’s a more approachable serving size, making it easier to throw back light beers or indulge in a heavier, stronger beer without instantly feeling full or hungover the next day. It’s wallet-friendlier, considering 12-ounce cans often come in six-packs and 16-ounce cans in four-packs—72 ounces versus 64 ounces. And, crucially, it promises a better drinking experience from first to last sip. “For me, personally, I love that the beer stays alive for the drinking experience,” says Doug Reiser, co-founder and COO of North Carolina’s Burial Beer Co. “Often a 16-ounce just takes too long to drink and it warms, depletes carbonation and loses balance.”
Still, Burial cans mostly in 16 ounces, counting factors like better costs for breweries, the opportunity to get beers into entertainment and sports venues (which usually don’t want smaller cans) and that bigger cans mean bigger canvases for the brewery’s label art. But its core lagers and IPA come in 12-ounce cans, which, Reiser says, diversifies their “fit on shelves” and reaches “a wider array of customers.”
For the average beer drinker, the pros of the 12-ounce can often make the choice seem exasperatingly simple. But for breweries, it’s more complicated. “[Sixteen-ounce] four-packs provide a better margin to brewers and thus more flexibility on recipe cost since you need 8 less ounces, two less cans, and get to sell six units to a case,” explains Doug Veliky, chief marketing officer at Chicago’s Revolution Brewing, who blogs about beer business at Beer Crunchers. And while 12-ounce cans are capable of attracting more mainstream drinkers, Reiser points out that craft consumers are accustomed to the higher price tags on four-packs of 16-ouncers.
But what about style logic? Many beer drinkers want lower-ABV, easy-drinking lagers in taller cans, and heavier, higher-ABV IPAs and stouts in smaller cans. Lawson’s Finest Liquids in Vermont weighs ABV and style here. Two of its beers, clocking in at 10 percent ABV, go in 12-ounce cans “to moderate alcohol consumption,” says Chase Mohrman, the brewery’s digital marketing specialist. The sub-5 percent ABV Scrag Mountain Pils, however, comes in both 12 ounces and 16, “because traditionally, a light pilsner is packaged in 12-ounce cans so you can drink more than one at a time more easily.”
Indeed, the way Big Beer instilled the idea that crushable lagers go in crushable 12-ounce cans complicates the “little ABV, big can; big ABV, little can” approach. Like Lawson’s, many breweries are responding to the ingrained appeal of light beers in 12-ounce cans. As Veliky writes on Beer Crunchers, amid the craft beer industry’s current crush of competition, high supply costs and changing consumer preferences, many breweries are looking to get a value option on shelves. A current swell of nostalgia, reminiscent of PBR’s hipsterfication a decade ago, makes this an ideal time to attract drinkers with branding and packaging (like 15-packs) inspired by regional lagers of generations past.
Other formats even smaller than 12 ounces have begun to spring up sporadically, from the practicality of Evil Twin’s boozy barrel-aged stouts in 8-ounce cans to Hopewell Brewing’s popular Lil Buddy, a 4.2 percent lager canned as an 8-ouncer that co-founder Jonathan Fritz says is perfect for everything from Bloody Mary sidecars or as a “walking the dog” beer. A confluence of factors—from creativity to marketing to economics—means we’ll probably never see a tidy organization of “the stronger the beer, the smaller the can,” nor a 12-ounce takeover. The four-pack’s cost benefits for breweries, aluminum can shortages (making it tough for breweries to order different sizes) and the fact that not every brewery has the ability to flex sizes on their canning lines will continue to ensure that 16 ounces is the norm. But that’s a shame, because the humble 12-ounce can is the true platonic ideal for a beer serving size—a way to enjoy more beers, in more styles, without a warm blech of the last few sips.