Why Joe Six-Pack Pays $11 a Beer Bottle

BOULDER, Colo. (MainStreet) -- Craft-beer lovers may get their Coors-(Stock Quote: TAP) or Bud (Stock Quote: BUD)-swilling friends to try a Samuel Adams (Stock Quote: SAM) every so often, but luring them from 30 packs for $10 to 22-ounce bottles for $9 may be another story.

Craft-beer fans are all too familiar with the 22-ounce, 650-mililiter brown bottles commonly known as "bombers." Just slightly smaller than the 750-milliliter bottles used for wine and certain Belgian beers, the bomber is often seen by brewers, distributors and sellers as a low-volume, low-cost gateway to customers unfamiliar with the brewery or beer style. Much as draft cans and bottles draw in Guinness drinkers and stubby-necked bottles have been used to rekindle interest in Red Hook beers, the bomber prods craft-beer drinkers or newcomers to take a sip.

"It seems that a 22-ounce as a matter of trial is less of a commitment to a new beer or brewery for the drinker than, say, a six-pack of 12-ounce bottles or cans," says Paul Gatza, director of the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association craft-beer trade group. "I have been at many social occasions where several different 22-ounce bottles are served of various styles from craft brewers to accompany various phases of the evening or meal."

Joseph Tucker, editor of beer-ranking site RateBeer, says the bomber was born out of necessity during a time a brewery couldn't put out a $7 sixer unless it was producing about 30,000 barrels a year. That's a mark even now-mainstay craft brewers such as Stone, Lagunitas and Dogfish Head were struggling to meet as recently as 2005. That made it tough for small brewers to compete when selling six-packs against more established breweries.

"So younger brands like Stone took to the less crowded space of the bomber format -- a place mostly occupied by import brands in comparable metric sizes," Tucker says. "This allowed them to sell at price points that would tide them over until they could compete in the six-pack format."

Chico, Calif.-based Sierra Nevada has been going with big bottles for the past eight years, using 24-ounce and 750-milliliter bottles instead of the bombers. Even as one of the largest craft brewers in the U.S., with 786,000 barrels of production last year, Sierra Nevada uses its big bottles to expand its presence on the shelves and in markets including New York, where Sierra Nevada spokesman Bill Manley says buyers have shown a preference for the big bottles.

"The bigger bottles were initially intended to get placements in different outlets that didn't have the space nor the inclination to carry higher-end six-pack packages," Manley says, referring to such venues as convenience stores and smaller shops. "Since the release, however, we've found that many stores simply prefer the variety -- we often get requests from grocery outlets and chains to stock both our six-pack product and our 24-ounce bottles."