In Support of Small
Bigger bottles are not always better
That you can buy a six-liter Methuselah of St. Bernardus Abt. 12 more readily than a 7-ounce nip of Anchor Old Foghorn (because it’s been discontinued) says something about how beer drinkers like things just as supersized as fast food diners. So how can we craft beer enthusiasts proclaim they’re in favor of quality not quantity when portions are increasing? Sure Stone Brewing recently introduced the Quingenti Millilitre (500 milliliters) series, which means a nominally less liquid than the standard bomber at 650 milliliters (ml), but even some bottles in the series are far more limited than Stone’s three-liter Jeroboams of Double Bastard.
It’s easy to consume a bomber (or more) of Arrogant Bastard by yourself in one sitting. When you do, you’re ingesting 400 calories a pop. Perhaps too much of a good thing—in this case: beer—is part of the reason many of us look in the mirror and see a Fat Bastard instead of a Mini Me.
But great beer being highly caloric is not news. Nor is it the only reason breweries should bring back the nip. It would result in responsible portions—and reasonable prices—for a beverage that is as sophisticated as wine and spirits but consumed like, well, beer.
The mentality among myriad beer aficionados is, “I only had three or four pints.” It used to be that a 12-ounce (355 ml) can of beer at 4 percent ABV contained as much alcohol as a 5-ounce glass of wine or a 1.5-ounce shot of liquor However, today’s craft beers are frequently more than 6 percent and not uncommonly over 10 percent. That boozes you up as if you had two bottles of wine (or a mickey of scotch) to yourself, and sets you back financially. More breweries need to be responsible and considerate to the consumer by offering nips or other smaller packages such as 375 ml half-bottles (or even third-bottles).
Everybody Wants Some
Iconic British beer journalist Michael Jackson said that barleywines traditionally came in “small nip bottles as though to protect the drinker from excess.” Starting in the 1950s, the British brewing industry adopted bottles that held one-third of a “proper,” imperial pint, meaning 189 ml or roughly 7 fluid ounces. Fairly soon, it wasn’t just Bass No. 1 Ale (some 80 years after it debuted as the first commercial Barley Wine) and the like that had beer drinkers taking sips from nips.
Hudepohl-Schoenling’s Little Kings Cream Ale was the first American beer in 7-ounce “ponies,” according to brewery owner, Greg Hardman.Pony bottles became so popular among large American brewers in that era, that Coors introduced 7-ounce cans in 1959. They revisited this concept in 2005 with a limited rollout of Coors Light in 8-ounce cans.
Anchor, which holds a litany of “firsts” to its credits, brewed the first American craft barleywine—Old Foghorn—in 1975 and introduced it in nips the following year. Though Anchor no longer bottles seven ounces at a time, the errant craft beer found its way to market in them. Dixie unveiled “pocket torpedoes” of White Moose—a white chocolate flavored beer—in 1992. Rogue introduced their XS Series of beers such as Old Crustacean Barleywine in nips before moving to ceramic 750 ml bottles, then replacing them with nips once again. But if you want to score some, act fast, because Rogue president Brett Joyce says that these X-tra S-mall servings wound to a halt.
The kicker is that in this era when the pantheon of breweries that unveil celebrity beers—Three Floyds Dark Lord, The Bruery Black Tuesday and New England Imperial Stout Trooper among them—rather than have these sexy stouts walk the red carpet in slinky little numbers, these bad boys lumber out 650 or 750 ml equivalents of hazmat suits. Not that everyone is entitled to a bottle but the gap between those who want and those who get isn’t even close. Wouldn’t revealing Hoppin’ Frog DORIS or Foothills Sexual Chocolate one or two nips at a time be celebrated by those whose demand isn’t met by the supply?
Portsmouth’s head brewer Todd Mott already reached this conclusion. This year, instead of his illustrious creation, Kate the Great, returning in her usual bombers, she’s flirting with more of her admirers by stepping out in 330 ml double-shouldered “steinies” just like Duvel comes in. “There’s always such a brouhaha about how we should make more (Kate),” says Mott. “People dig the beer, but we can’t produce enough of it because we’re such a tiny brewery.” He explains that of the 12 barrels Portsmouth brews, 10 see their way to retail sales, split between draft and bottles. In the past, consumers bought up to 15 tickets in order to be a lucky recipient, which meant only one in 11 actually landed any beer. Now chance go up to one in 5.5 since double the amount of bottles will be released. The secondary upside to this, Mott points out, is that, “No one has the sense to age that beer and it needs four to five years to become the beautiful beer that it is.” Score a pair of steinies and drink one now, one later.
Beer bars have long promoted this philosophy when tapping rare and/or high-gravity beers. It’s why most the Happy Gnome in St. Paul pours pints of most beers, but metes out Surly Darkness (10 percent ABV) in 10-ounce glasses. It gives those who don’t wait in line a fighting chance to savor some.
Everybody wants some Lost Abbey Duck Duck Gooze. I want some, too. If you’re looking to land a bottle, now your chances of trying it are, theoretically, twice as great, or at least half as poor, thanks to the introduction of the 375 ml bottle. California breweries Lost Abbey, North Coast, and Russian River collectively went in on enough pallets of these wee half-bottles so that some of their rarer brands that were initially in wine bottles can be had by twice as many fans (at half the price).
Back in 2004, Russian River used champagne half-bottles but, says brewer/owner Vinnie Cilurzo, “It got too expensive to import from France.” Obtaining a 750 ml of the dark Belgian Consecration was fantastic for those lucky few, but since bottling his Belgian-style ales in the new half bottles in 2010, Cilurzo says, “The little bottle really brought sales up.” increaseing over 30 percent.
In my beer cellar, I have what must be one of the last remaining nips of Drake’s Bourbon Barrel Aged Barley Wine from 2006. Even then it cost $6.99 (the price tag hasn’t faded). Among enthusiasts, surely no one would pass on procuring my bottle on the basis that it only contains six ounces.These smaller bottles hadn’t been popularized and the San Francisco Bay Area brewery only had a dozen barrels filled that yielded a total of five such beers. Rodger Davis, then Drake’s brewmaster, had to hand-fill the bottles. But if he used bombers, hardly anyone would’ve had the opportunity to buy some. Because hand bottling is so laborious, Drake’s current brewmaster, Brian Thorson, recalls that Davis discontinued the line of nips. “Personally,” adds Thorson, “I’ve always wanted to do a couple more runs of it.”
When other breweries are going bigger, one is going smaller. Astoundingly smaller. Shmaltz Brewing launched its Coney Island Lagers line in 2008, but went further by opening an actual Coney Island Brewery last year. Its claim to fame: world’s smallest commercial brewery. The miniscule brewhouse concocts one-gallon batches. Naturally, even the in-store draft offerings vanish quickly. The first bottling runs in standard 12-ounce bottles produce about 16 vessels. But owner Jeremy Cowan states that this year, “We’ll be doing seven ounces as soon as we finalize the supplier.” This way, a whopping 20 nips of, say, their Korndog Kolsch can hit their very tiny shelves. Sometimes maybe seven ounces is sufficient.
You Get What You Don’t Pay For
If Dark Lord only came in 9-liter Salamanazars, devotees would still buy it. No one would camp out overnight for it to walk away empty handed (two hands, folks!). But the reverse is true, too, as evidenced with Lost Abbey Brandy-barrel-aged Angel’s Share. This divine beer used to only sell in 750 ml bottles for the devilish price of over $30. I love buying the newer 375s when I can find it. Say halo to my little friend, which “only” cost $17. Same great beer; half the price.
When the trio of California breweries went small with half bottles, they easily could have set higher profit margins. Cilurzo knows this, yet when the 375s come out, they still retail for about $13. “We didn’t want to gouge,” he says, adding that charging even an extra buck or two doesn’t make sense in this economic climate.
Only by buying in bulk do these three breweries get to keep the costs for the half portions half priced. Availability factors into this particular package. While Cilurzo wouldn’t mind if more craft breweries bottled this way, he’s not in a position to move it forward. “I’m in beer brewing business, not the glass buying business.” He notes that they buy by the container. Other small breweries are likely looking to source them, but perhaps only one or two pallets at a clip. With some 22 pallets per container, that equals 44,000 bottles. Neither the glass manufacturers, nor the breweries especially, have that kind of storage.
“If I owned a glass company I’d be thinking about small runs,” says Cilurzo, who figures it’s only a matter of time. Shelves will become flooded “when some glass company eventually decides to spend the money on the mold.”
Artisanal breweries across Europe bottle in all manner of smaller packages: 250 ml, 275s, 300s, and third-liters which, on American labeling, appears in ounces with various puzzling tenths. The celebrated line of J.W. Lees Harvest Ales sell for roughly a ten-spot per 9.3-ounce bottle. The Middleton-based brewery has released this English Barley Wine (sometimes aged in Irish whiskey, Spanish sherry, or French calvados casks) for over 25 years so the small bottle clearly doesn’t inhibit sales. In fact, were these beers to come in bombers, the price tag would likely reach $23 (or 15 quid), pricing them out for some collectors.
Even quotidian beers benefit from minaturization. A 375 ml bottle of Saison Dupont costs about $5 but a full 750 usually runs $12. That’s my kind of math.
Italy has great glassmakers. In 2010, Baladin Brewery added 250 ml offerings to their lineup of 750 ml wine bottles. Head brewer Paolo Fontana says they are experimenting only with Isaac and Super domestically, and Nora exclusively for US export, “just to give the chance to someone that doesn’t know our beers.” It’s why I finally broke down and tried their tasty spiced ale. I wasn’t willing to commit to $25 for a dusty bottle. But for $7.49, I’m happy I gave it a shot, as was my wife who got an attractive bud vase out of the deal.
As mentioned, Rogue bottled a half dozen or so beers in nips, and that candle burned out. “The bottles we’ve been using,” explains president Brett Joyce, “I purchased from Flying Dog,” the Maryland brewery. He took their entire inventory.
The reason Flying Dog had them to sell is that they briefly offered a sampler package (“Canis Major Mixed Pack”), which included four pairs of different high-gravity beers such as their Double Dog Double Pale Ale at 11.5 percent ABV.
Indeed, Flying Dog experimented with a frugal sampler pack of nips, essentially offering customers to quaff a flight of beers at home. After only a year, they discontinued the sampler citing poor demand.
Perhaps not incidentally, Flying Dog once owned the Hudepohl-Schoenling brands, brewing and bottling Little Kings Cream Ale until 2002.
In Rogue’s hands, the bottles sold quite well. This stands to reason since some people complained that the previous 750s were in the $20 range, but the nips ran $4.50 on average, meaning if you drank three and a half nips of XS Imperial Red Ale, instead of spending $20, you’d only have spent $16, with half a nip left over.
Joyce says he’s open to the idea of bringing back the nips If he can find a reasonably priced source of bottles. In an online forum on BeerAdvocate.com, many dismissed nips as a “novelty.” Others realized their widespread potential. Imagine the option of buying The Bruery Chocolate Rain as a six-pack of nips. It might end up costing $45, but show me six beer geeks who wouldn’t happily go in sixth-sies (three times cheaper than halvesies) on a pack.
As people wake up to the fact that great beer comes at a higher price, most people still have a price ceiling. By halving the size of the bottlesbreweries double the audience able to afford it.
Does This Beer Make My Butt Look Big?
For both beer and food, we tend to consume everything that’s put in front of us even if we feel full. Not every spare tire is necessarily a beer gut. To lose weight, some heffers order sliders instead of half-pound burgers. Virtually every cupcake bakery offers mini cupcakes for those trying to lose their muffin tops.
A spokesman for Little Kings Cream Ale’s remarked, “5.5 percent alcohol in a 7-ounce bottle means all the buzz with half the pee.” Not to get technical, but it only yields 7/12ths as much, and same for the calories compared to a normal bottle or can. Lord knows that a case of 6- or 7-ounce cuartitos of Pacifico or Corona isn’t split among 24 spring breakers down in Mexico. The lure of Coronitas, the diminutive name and bottle, is that this already sessionable beer stays ice-cold before the sun warms it up and you wouldn’t want to finish it. In the Netherlands, Grolsch comes in 250- ml flesjes—Dutch for little bottles—in concern for portion control and to curb drunk driving. Someone at Grolsch’s importer, MillerCoors, joked that flesjes are “what they serve in elementary schools in Holland.”
Prudently, craft breweries aren’t in the habit of advertising how caloric their beers are. Dogfish Head’s website used to, but maybe it’s best for someone who polishes off a 12-ounce bottle of 120 Minute IPA doesn’t realize he’s drinking an estimated 540 calories. up to 0
Consider this: were 120 Minute bottled in nips, not only could you drink a bottle and pack on merely 315 calories, but lightweights such as myself (in terms of ABV not BMI) could keep from getting sauced off just one bottle.
The stronger argument here isn’t calorie counts. Yes, consumers are more calorie conscious—what with 100-calorie packs of Oreo cookie bites and 64-, er, 55-calorie beer—but as consumers of finely crafted eats and drinks instead of commoditized foodstuffs, we don’t generally skimp on items that are flavorless replicas of more substantial originals.
Know When To Say When
In the vein of eating past the point of filling up, sometimes we continue to drink even though we’re drunk. While there’s no set law dictating how alcoholic a session beer can be, it’s generally accepted for American craft ales and lagers to be 5 percent ABV or less. The primary argument against such low-gravity beers is that by skimping on booziness, they skimp on flavor. The nip bridges the gap between these two camps. Your favorite 9 percent double IPA conveys some 500 calories from a 22-ounce bomber to your love handles. If it came packaged seven ounces at a time, you’d be able to enjoy 100 percent of the taste you desire in a guilt-free, roughly 150-calorie portion. Extreme beers at sessionable portions.
One professional proponent of reasonable portions is Erik Lars Myers, who launched the brand new Mystery Brewing in Hillsborough, NC, outside of Durham, who orders half pints when he goes out for beers. “I’m not going to drink seven full beers… I’d love to try eleven beers; I don’t want to do that sixteen ounces at a time.”
Maybe ordering by the half pint costs a dollar more per volume, but for the consumer who wants to get through as many favorite or unique options on the draft board, not getting sick at the end of the night is worth the price. Myers believes this same concept I translates into packaging very well.
Speaking from his home, he says, “I can see 150 special bottles of beer that I never open because I don’t want to sit down and drink twenty-two ounces of 10 percent alcohol… If my wife helped me each time, she’d be trashed constantly.” As such, though he plans to introduce his bottled offerings in traditional bombers, he vows to do nips as well. “Craft prices keep going up and up, so five or six bucks for a four-pack of seven-ouncers? I think people will do that.”
Having said that, that breweries aren’t rushing to smaller packages is understandable. They’re not hearing demand. Sometimes it’s there as in Russian River’s case when Cilurzo discusses the oft played out scenario in California wine country where, “The girlfriend orders a glass of wine but the boyfriend wants a beer. A 750 is too much.” I know that if my wife ordered a $15 glass of wine, I’d feel A-okay ordering a half-bottle of Temptation at the same price; the cork laying on the table would serve as proof that I’m just as refined as the rest of the wine-loving patrons.
But that’s rarely the case. If Coors Light can find its way inside 8-ounce cans, how about Oskar Blues Gubna, a 10 percent ABV Imperial IPA? The brewery’s head of logistics, Jeremy Rudolpf, says they are experimenting with cans beyond the 12-ouncers, and have even served at festivals in unlidded 8-ounce cans (the squat kind, not the taller slim-line ones), but their new canning line is going bigger (pints), not smaller half pints. Rudolpf says that because $15 four-packs are “a lot to bite off,” these new single-serving pint cans enable Oskar Blues customers to pony up one can at a time. He’s certainly aware that beers like Ten Fidy—their 10.5 percent Imperial Stout—often are served in 10-ounce goblets at bars, but when it comes to their chosen packaging, he repeats that, “people are used to a 12-ounce size. There hasn’t been much of an outcry” for anything more demure. Then again—he hasn’t tested it.
One brewer willing to test it is Uncommon Brewers in Santa Cruz, CA, Founder Alec Stefansky introduced his beers in pint cans, and is the first craft brewer to package in 8-ounce stubby cans for high gravity beers like American Special Bitter (14.5 percent ABV), which Stefansky calls a West Coast Strong Ale hopped like a double Black IPA aged on Redwood. “I do still need to get the canning line retooled. They’ll be true stubbies, just half the height. It means that I get to offer a reasonable single serving.”
Meanwhile, when asked about the idea of selling a stubby-can of Ten Fidy, Rudolph jokes, “We can call it our chick beer. Sell it on April 1st.”
Ah yes, the old drawback. Nips and any smaller portions must equate to girly beer. What’s so girly about a bachelor cooking for one (or nuking some leftover take-out) and craving a nip of Thwaites’ Old Dan, a Fuggles-infused old ale to go along with it? And if some dude procures some Nøgne-Ø Dark Horizon, what’s so wrong with letting the guy enjoy his Norwegian imperial stout right then and there instead of waiting to organize a bottle-sharing party. At 13 bucks for a power-packed 250 ml, about the price of a similarly sized bottle of precious truffle oil, who says he has to offer up half or more? Finally, what of the tyro in the world of extreme beers who gets over zealous in a bottle shop on a trip far from home? It could take ages to get through a beer haul, not to mention not everyone has a spacious cellar in which to store it.
Most highly sought after beers come in 22-ounce bombers or 750 ml wine or champagne bottles. Magnums and Jeroboams are fun and impressive. Hands down one of the best things you can do with such beers is share them with friends, but sometimes you just don’t want to wait for just the right occasion. You want to try the beer now. Instead of gluttonously polishing off a large bottle alone, tiny-sized beers mean instant gratification by allowing you to share… with yourself.