When it comes to buying craft beer, picking a few of the 22-ounce “bomber” bottles used to be the best way to try out new brews. But consumer demand is shifting away from the large-format bottles, and the six pack is an important tool for brewers looking to capture more of the casual beer drinker market.
“Putting your everyday beers in bombers is no longer something the market will support,” says El Segundo Brewing co-owner Thomas Kelley. Last month, the IPA-slinging brewery launched two of its core brews, Mayberry IPA and Citra Pale Ale, in six packs. It’s something the brewery’s fans have long demanded, but the opportunity to get El Segundo beer on the shelves at big chain retailers was a key consideration when weighing the cost of the added capability.
Bomber sales are slowing. Data from IRI — a market research company that tracks sales of consumer goods — shows a dip in sales of about 1% for 22-ounce craft beer bottles in 2016. Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Assn., says that even a small decline in sales stands out in an industry that’s used to constant growth. “You don’t see many places within the craft beer industry that are down,” he says. Beachwood Brewing founder Gabriel Gordon says he noticed last year that the sales of large format bottles were declining, but the trend accelerated faster than anticipated. “It’s like the bottom dropped out of the market [for bombers],” he says.
But sales of craft beer six packs are on the rise. According to IRI data, sales of six-packs of craft beer have gone to 8.3 million from 5.1 million since 2015. Watson points to a more savvy consumer base as one reason for the shift.
Rafael Hurtado, craft brand manager at the beer distributor Mission Beverage Co., agrees with Watson: “In 2017, craft consumers are more willing to commit to a six pack — especially if they are doing the math in their heads.” He says the better value of the six pack is also pushing bombers out of retailers, especially at the large chain stores. These supermarkets and convenience stores are a key battleground as craft brewers chip away at the market share of the biggest brands. “Getting a placement at a chain retailer is big, especially for a growth-focused brewery,” he says. These stores sell more beer to a wider range of customers, and when a craft brand is picked up by these retailers, it can mean steady sales — a rarity in an industry dominated by rotating draft lists and a constant thirst for the next new thing.
Inglewood’s Three Weavers Brewing Co. is one brewery that’s grown aggressively, and offering beer at major retailers is key to its plans. The brewery introduced bottled six packs of its Expatriate IPA and the excellent Seafarer Kolsch at the beginning of the year, and both brands are now also available in six packs of 12-ounce cans. Founder Lynne Weaver says, “Six packs allow you to get your foot into the door to chain retail accounts, who may have limited 22-ounce shelf space.”
Local favorite Beachwood Brewing began packaging six packs of its flagship IPA Amalgamator and its Foam Top cream ale at its Huntington Beach production brewery in early 2017 after purchasing an Italian-built bottling line, but the finicky system never met the brewer’s expectations. The brewery replaced the bottling equipment with an American-made line, and this fall, cans of Amalgamator and Foam Top, alongside Citraholic IPA and LBC IPA, will hit the market. Only Foam Top and LBC IPA (to be exclusively distributed to the brewery’s core market in and around Long Beach) will be in six packs; the other IPAs will be sold in four packs of 16-ounce cans.
It was only a few years ago that L.A.’s breweries began bottling beer regularly (Eagle Rock Brewery first released its core line-up in bottles in 2012, while Beachwood, El Segundo and many others followed in 2013); today, whole sections of craft beer retailers are dedicated to the brews from local operations. If all goes to the brewers’ plans, you’ll soon see more local L.A. beer popping up on shelves at supermarkets and convenience stores as well. Look for six packs of Smog City’s Little Bo Pils and Smog City IPA by next year, while Three Weavers will also add Stateside session IPA and the Knotty double IPA to its six-pack offerings.