Craft Beer’s Larger Aspirations Cause a Stir
(New York) – Time was, beer came in one size: whether bottle or can, the stuff inside measured a reliable 12 ounces. But walk into a craft-beer store these days and you’ll see shelf after shelf taken over by giants: 22-ounce “bombers,” 750-milliliter wine bottles, even three-liter jeroboams.
Several new, high-profile breweries are putting their product only in so-called large-format bottles. Dogfish Head Brewery, one of the bigger, better-known craft breweries in the country, will soon dedicate one of its two bottle-filling lines just to the 750-milliliter format.
The trend toward large bottles is part of what is being called the “wine-ification” of beer, the push by many brewers to make their product as respectable to pair with braised short ribs as is a nice Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and at a price to match. Bottles sell for as much as $30 in stores and much more on restaurant menus.
But they are getting a chilly reception from many drinkers. Internet message boards dedicated to craft beer are replete with complaints that large bottles are too expensive and, thanks to their typically higher alcohol content, a challenge to finish in one sitting. Unlike wine, a beer is nearly impossible to recork.
The backlash is particularly troublesome for merchants and restaurateurs, who say it can be hard to persuade customers to commit to these big, boozy beers. “They’ll say, ‘I wish that came in a smaller bottle, because that would just ruin the night for me,’ ” said Ben Granger, the owner of Bierkraft, a craft-beer store in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
Last year, only about 3.5 percent of craft beer was sold in 22-ounce bottles, the most common large-format size, according to the market research firm SymphonyIRI. But craft-beer sales in general are booming (at about 12 percent a year, while the overall beer market remains flat), and many brewers are enthusiastic about big bottles.
“We do believe in the future of this format,” said Sam Calagione, the founder and chief executive of Dogfish Head, in Milton, Del.
Brewers have many reasons to go big. Prestige, for one: high-end craft beer is being made with ever more exotic ingredients, like cacao nibs and imported honey, and it is often aged in whiskey or wine barrels. After all that, why hide it in an anonymous six-pack-size bottle?
That pride is part of a bigger shift, an attempt to move beyond beer’s workaday roots, to redefine it as something on the same level as wine or fine spirits and to attract people who usually prefer sidling up to an Italian red rather than an imperial stout.
“It comes down to the whole experience we want people to have when drinking our beers,” said Ben Weiss, the director of marketing for the Bruery in Placentia, Calif., which uses only 750-milliliter bottles. “We want you to share it with a friend, pour it into a glass and actually experience the beer rather than just grab it and start drinking.”
Cost is also an issue. Cacao nibs and imported honey are expensive, and brewers say there is a ceiling for what consumers will pay for a 12-ounce bottle, one that doesn’t seem to exist for larger bottles, especially when they’re aimed at wine drinkers.
“A wine consumer in general accepts pricing stratification for 750 milliliters,” Calagione said. “They understand that an amazing bottle of merlot can cost three times as much as a bad bottle of merlot.”
But while large bottles do have their partisans, many craft-beer drinkers bristle at the format, which they see as the alcoholic equivalent of neighborhood gentrification. Although the traditional 12-ounce bottle is hardly becoming extinct, these fans lament that all the interesting, innovative new releases seem to go into bottles that cost as much as a good bottle of wine.
“Priced per ounce, a 750-milliliter bottle can be twice as expensive as a six pack,” said Michael Tonsmeire, an economist and home brewer in Washington.
Moreover, many beer drinkers are uncomfortable with the notion of drinking beer like wine, to be split among several people and pondered. And the idea of drinking a 750-milliliter bottle alone can be daunting.
“It’s like having one entire wine bottle,” Tonsmeire said. “I’m a decently sized male, and if I really wanted to, I could drink one. But that’s not a great Tuesday night.”
Large-format bottles aren’t catching on with restaurant patrons as fast as many brewers would like, either. While fine beer may be cheaper than fine wine, diners are still used to beer as an inexpensive, by-the-glass proposition; even big spenders can suffer sticker shock.
“It’s a matter of perceived value,” said Jon Langley, until recently the beer sommelier at DBGB Kitchen and Bar in Manhattan. (He left in January to open Torst, a bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.) “Any format above a 12-ounce can be problematic to sell to people.”
Ultimately, traditionalists say that what irks them the most about the big bottles is that they send the signal that beer is trying to be something that it’s not: that it needs to be more like wine or scotch to win over elite consumers.
“As soon as you say you want to be more like wine, the battle is lost,” said Granger of Bierkraft. “I don’t think beer and beer culture need to be more like wine. I think they need to keep being themselves.”
SOURCE: New York Times