Browse the beer coolers at any liquor store and you’ll notice the traditional six-pack is being downsized. Craft brewers increasingly are opting to sell their products in four-packs of 16-ounce cans.
It’s the latest evolution of a trend that started about five years ago when more craft beer drinkers started reaching for aluminum cans instead of glass bottles.
“Even if it’s a good, quality beer, it won’t sell if it’s sitting on the shelf in the six-pack format instead of the 16-ounce four-packs,” said Rob Vandenabeele, cofounder of local craft beer website Mass. Beer Bros.
Brewers started to adopt the four-pack after a few influential beers popularized the packaging, said Bart Watson, chief economist of the Brewers Association, a Colorado-based trade group. Some trace the four-pack’s rise to 2013, when craft beer fanatics were lining up outside Vermont brewery The Alchemist to buy its Heady Topper IPA, one of the first beers sold in 16-ounce four-packs, he said.
“People point to The Alchemist and Heady Topper as almost setting the standard among consumers of this expectation that juicy, hazy New England IPAs belong in 16-ounce four-packs,” said Michael Oxton, cofounder of Everett-based Night Shift Brewing. “It became this really sought-after gold standard format.”
Small brewers are also seeking to differentiate themselves from mainstream competitors’ traditionally popular six-packs, Watson said. Think Budweiser or Coors.
It’s also a way to stand out visually. A 16-ounce-size can offers “a bigger canvas for artwork and brand design,” he said, helping to attract consumers’ attention.
Four-packs are on the shelves of stores across the country, but they are most popular in New England, Oxton said. Night Shift’s distribution arm, which operates out of Chelsea, partners with out-of-state breweries to sell their beer in Massachusetts. When brewers from other regions try to enter the market with traditional six-packs, the company recommends they adopt the four-pack format to match the local competition, he said.
Some may worry larger containers could lead consumers to drink too much, but they can actually decrease consumption — a single pint often satisfies people who would otherwise open a second 12-ounce can, Watson said.
Overall, the ongoing shift from bottles to cans — 16- or 12-ounce — shows no sign of easing up. Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers in Framingham bottled all of its beer during the company’s first four years in operation, and only began canning in 2016, cofounder Sam Hendler said. But by the end of 2017, all of its beer was being put in cans, except for some low-volume limited releases.
“Cans are pulling faster off the shelves,” said Hendler, who sits on the board of the Massachusetts Brewers Guild. “Consumers want cans and brewers want to put their product in a package that’s going to see the highest rates of sale.”
In the past two years alone, sales of canned craft beer have grown by 33 percent, while bottle sales have declined 12 percent, according to Nielsen Holdings, a New York information and data company.
Last summer, the rising demand for cans caused delayed shipments of aluminum to area breweries, Hendler said.
The Can Manufacturers Institute, a Washington, D.C. trade association, reported a 3 percent increase in sales for aluminum containers — including non-alcoholic beverages — during the first quarter of 2019.
“The aluminum beverage can, due to its functionality and sustainability attributes, is becoming the package of choice for beer and soft drink fillers across the country,” said Robert Budway, the organization’s president.
The increased popularity of cans has made the price of production lines more affordable, Night Shift’s Oxton said. Brewers can also hire mobile canning trucks if they don’t want to invest in an in-house system.
Cans also offer logistical advantages for brewers. Jack’s Abby, for instance, says a truckload of beer-filled cans contains four times the amount of liquid as a truck loaded with bottled beer. Using fewer trucks helps the company save on packaging and labor, and creates less carbon emissions, Hendler said.
Another environmental factor that favors cans: They tend to get reused more frequently than glass. The Environmental Protection Agency has reported that only about a quarter of recycled glass is repurposed, but more than half of all aluminum cans are eventually reused.
Canning also helps protect the quality of the product from its two enemies, light and oxygen, he said. A can shields the liquid from light more efficiently than glass, he explained, and air can leak into a bottle through the cap.
Oh, and today’s canned beer tastes a lot better than it used to. “The technology has changed substantially,” Vandenabeele said. “A lot of the metallic taste people may have noticed back in the day is pretty much gone.”