Where Did the Tiny Beer Come From?

Known as the "pony," the seven-ounce bottle usually filled with commercial-grade beer has been appearing lately at bars both high and low. Megan Krigbaum on the origins, and wide-reaching appeal, of the tiny beer.

“When I first moved to New York” stories are sacred to any transplant. And most have more than one, told as if they were forgotten Aesop’s fables, whenever an opening in conversation allows. I have my stock, but after nearly 13 years in New York, I’ve realized that they a., aren’t all that funny, and b., don’t actually reveal any useful life truths—aside from one. And that one is about the Coronita.

When I first moved to New York, I lived with my friend Annie on Gates Avenue in the Ridgewood neighborhood of Queens, at a time when none of our friends had heard of that area. Our apartment building was really, truly fascinating for several reasons; the fact that it was across the street from a big grocery store was not one of them. We went there solely for basics—paper towels, pasta, Pop Tarts—until, one day, Annie came home after a crappy day with a lime and a six-pack of mini Coronas, aka “Coronitas.”

For the rest of our year there, we had what we needed. If we were happy: Coronita. When we were broke: Coronita. Having friends over: Coronita. Hot day: Coronita. Heart broken: Coronita. For us, there was ridiculous amount of joy found in a seven-ounce bottle of golden, average beer. Herein lies the truth: No one, not even the snobbiest of beer drinkers, can turn down a cute bottle of beer. It is the great equalizer.

I am not the only one to be swayed by the darlingness of these diminutive beers, which seem to be having something of a renaissance, both by way of the dive bar and kitsch-appreciating cocktail bars and restaurants. The numbers back it up: In 2015 alone, Constellation sold 520 million Coronitas (up from 14 million in 2005), which makes up about 12 percent of the volume of the Corona brand.

But from whence did the tiny beer come?

The progenitor of the first “pony” bottle isn’t known, but the long history that Miller has with the size points to it as the first large-scale producer, while Rolling Rock seems to have been one of the first brands to use the term “pony” for its seven-ounce bottles.

While Miller’s initial small-bottle release came in the 1950s via mini Champagne bottles—a tribute to High Life’s nickname as the “Champagne of Beers”—the widely recognized, squat shape (often called a “stubby”) that’s still available today was first sold regionally in 1972 and then launched nationally in 1975. It was conceived of as a marketing move meant to boost sales, and it proved incredibly successful. George Weissman, CEO of Philip Morris, which owned the beer company at the time, told Forbes in 1976, “The seven-ounce size acted as a catalyst for us. Because of its uniqueness, we got a whole new group of people to try Miller High Life for the first time.”

Today, the format is made in a couple different styles: the rotund Miller High Life “stubby”; the tall, skinny Coronita, which had its start in Mexico but was first introduced in the U.S. in 1985 (four years after Corona was initially imported); the historically beloved long-necked Rolling Rock Ponies that were first released in the ’30s; and Bud Light’s eight-ounce slim cans, which just launched a few years ago.

While big brands dominate the pony game, there is one notable smaller player, Hudepohl-Schoenling in Cincinnati, which has sold its iconic “Little Kings” since 1958. In fact, it’s the only size in which its signature cream ale has even been sold. The Little Kings went out of production in 2001, but just this spring, Greg Hardman, a longtime beer distributor in Ohio, resuscitated the wee green bottles, much to the delight of its decades of fans.

Despite the popularity of ponies, craft brewers have largely stayed out of fray. While Flying Dog, Rogue, Kuhnhenn and Flat12 Bierwerks have toyed around with smaller bottles and cans, San Francisco’s 21st Amendment—which puts its Lower De Boom barleywine in some excellent gilded 8.4 oz cans—is the only craft brewery I could find that was regularly bottling or canning in the smaller format. This size (most often referred to as “nips”) has long been used for barleywines because of the strength of the beer. When Anchor Brewing bottled its Old Foghorn barleywine in 1976, it was sold in 6.3-ounce green bottles, which in 1995 were switched to seven-ounce amber ones. But ever since 2005, the beer has been sold in standard 12-ouncers, undoubtedly for ease in production—and for the retail shelf.

Ponies tend to travel in teams, often sold as “buckets of ponies,” but they’ve also been appropriated into bars both high- and low-brow as a chaser or sidecar. Dirty Franks in Philadelphia has a following for its Tuesday special, where you can get five High Life or Rolling Rock ponies for five bucks. (Not to mention the daily Dirty Frank’s Special, a pony and a kamikaze shot for $2.50.) And on football Sundays at Canal Bar in Brooklyn, they’ll fly through 15 or 20 $12 High Life buckets. On the cocktail bar side of things, Natasha David of Nitecap in New York devised her notorious shot-and-a-beer/bucket hybrid of four Little Kings accompanied by a bottle of amontillado sherry, proving there’s nothing that won’t go with a pony. Also in NYC, at Booker & Dax (a place much better known for liquid nitrogen and theatrics than lowbrow beer), Dave Arnold has long served ponies as cocktail sidecars.

A few years ago, I went hunting for Coronitas for nostalgia’s sake. My search was fruitless; the fancy grocery stores in my Brooklyn neighborhood don’t stock them. But we had a happy reunion recently when my husband ordered something called a Coronita Margarita on the deck of a boat-in bar on the shores of Great Lake Sacandaga in the Adirondacks. The frozen drink came in an enormous fishbowl glass with a special blue plastic beer holder clipped to the side. The server told Michael to start drinking through his straw, then tipped a Coronita upside down into the Margarita, which overflowed and splashed through the table grating and onto our feet. Sandals: Coronita.