Death of the Bomber

We all saw IT coming. In actuality, that is both a truism and a total lie. More a matter of proportion. Many brewers saw it coming, like a ship on the horizon that appears minuscule and slow-moving, so they looked away until they almost crashed into its massive vertical bow. Some breweries are still in denial, like a herd with a shrinking patch of pasture as they grew closer and closer together, stepping on each other’s hooves. The big regional and national/global/galactic/universal breweries have been perhaps the slowest to react, still not getting much “traction” at “ground-level” despite having thousands of “boots on the ground.” Please excuse my facetious quotes.

The aforementioned IT was the death of the 22-ounce bottle, or "bomber" as it was often called. Bombers were, for two decades or more, the package of choice for what is now called Craft Beer. At a time when 12-ounce bottles were cumbersome and time-consuming for a brewery to fill, and growlers (fill on-premise jugs) wouldn’t get you into grocery stores, bombers were the way. The national breweries had created such an expectation of inexpensive beer after prohibition that, by the time Microbreweries started appearing in the '80s, price-point was a huge hindrance. Nobody with even a healthy, solvent startup could get the price breaks or marketing advantages of the big three.

What came in the wake of IT was perhaps an even bigger surprise to many brewers: the market was taken over by CANS! Perhaps more disturbingly, the market was taken over by four-packs of 16-ounce cans, not even the Ozzie and Harriet six-packs of 12-ounce cans our parents and grandparents had known. Cans didn’t taste like, well, cans anymore. Gone was the metallic familiarity of Dad’s tin can light (insert regional brand here) lager. The beer tasted as good, if not better, than out of a bottle; it was more like draft beer freshness.

Minds were blown. Business plans were blown. Investments were blown. The top was chopped clean off of the marketplace forest, and many vibrant first- and second- year breweries found their way to the forest canopy and into sunlight upon pallets and pallets of cans. Cans that could be broken off of four-packs to trade (yes, this is another article – stay tuned), picnic, hike, ship … cans that could be shared.

When I was working on a business plan for a brewery with my partner Doc Jones in 2013, canning was barely a blip on the radar. Last week, we canned 200 cases of 24 16-ounce cans, and we plan on canning 200 more cases in two weeks. Almost none of that will even be distributed wholesale outside of the building, as there is enormous demand in our tasting room for cans to go. We are not a large brewery. As the philosopher Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth.” The industry got punched in the mouth. The game changed, and the new rules are still being written.

When I speak to friends in the industry, they are ALL moving forward with cans, if they are moving forward at all. Markets vary — former New Hampshire resident and current brewmaster at New Realm in Atlanta, Georgia, Mitch Steele tells me his market is all about six-packs of 12-ounce cans. We happen to live in a region where The Alchemist’s Heady Topper and soon thereafter Lawson’s Sip Of Sunshine emerged from cult fandom to national notice as they began to explore an East Coast style of IPA in tall cans. The clock and the compass spun, and Treehouse and Trillium in Massachusetts stole some thunder from Northern New England with their breakaway hazy/juicy beers, which eventually came to define the New England style IPA, although Shawn Hill from Vermont technically wrote the book on the subject.

Folks often ask me, as a brewery owner or as a podcaster or as someone who just doesn’t shut up, “What makes a New England IPA?” I see this question as intimately tied to the rise in popularity of cans, as it was IN cans that these beers ultimately reached the world, and most likely WHY they reached the world, as cans are easy to share. There are white papers and blog posts and drunken cell phone videos on the interwebs that discuss the style, but it ultimately comes down to three elements: pronounced aromatics, softer mouthfeel and hazy appearance. All of this really means approachability. Will a random person be able to appreciate it, to like it.

If you don’t consider yourself a beer nerd, and most people do not, this is all new information. If you do consider yourself a beer nerd, you are likely yawning right now, and have probably heard my rants before. One of the coolest parts of my existence is getting to geek out on nuances of the brewing world, and canning is one of them. Perhaps the most interesting businesses emerging from this chaos is the mobile canning industry. In both New England and on the left coast, engineering people have taken tried-and-true stationary canning lines and mobilized them, employing not only custom empty-can feeder units and can-bottom printers (for date codes and customization) but label-wrappers and shrink-wrappers. These companies will show up at your brewery at 0-dark-30 with a trailer, unload a clown car worth of gear, hook up to a tank, produce prodigious packages, clean up, pack up and leave. All before noon. They test the carbonation, the dissolved oxygen (the scourge of brewers), they even buy some cans to take home. Sometimes.

So the IT was aluminum, but IT hit hard for a lightweight. Some breweries were prepared. Some rallied. Some will regroup. Such is the way of the free market. Giant schools of bait fish appear from the depths, as do giant sharks. Awareness and responsiveness are always key, especially when one is small. Preparedness can often buy time. Most breweries are small these days, thankfully. This is one of the reasons we try to watch out for each other. We do what we can.

Remember, this is just my first draft — MHP.

Michael Hauptly-Pierce is the co-founder of Lithermans Limited in Concord, NH and co-host of "The Tap Handle Show".

Categories: First Draft