Traditional IPAs continue to grow in US retail sales and volume, but a crowded category means having to appeal to a wider consumer base.
Several notable craft beer brands are repackaging their top-selling IPAs in smaller and more approachable can formats. This makes them more cost-effective, easier to share and attractive to new customers.
From cans to bottles to cans
For years, the 16oz cans in four-packs have been the go-to packaging style for US craft beer. It's been an indicator of quality, even though 12oz sizes are the nationwide market leader in total beer.
Bottles also consistently outsell cans, but cans have grown rapidly and are projected to soon be the majority packaging type. Rob Burns of Night Shift Brewing thinks it’s an interesting shift for craft beer, which he estimates has been using cans for only about seven years.
Cans were always viewed as cheaper quality, and a bad look for craft brews. Burns founded Night Shift in 2012, and their beer menu, pack formats and customer approach have all changed drastically since then, he told BeverageDaily.
Originally their beers were bottled in 750ml cork-and-cage bottles that had to be poured in a glass and shared. But they have gone through different looks, and now prioritize customers being able to share many individual beers on-the-go with friends.
The once popular 16oz four-pack doesn’t go too far in sharing, social situations, and the Night Shift team found that some customers thought 16oz is too much for an IPA in retail.
“We don’t know if that has to do with the general focus on health and wellness, or with having your cake and eating it too--you get to enjoy a beverage with more calories and alcohol, but you’re not over imbibing because it’s a smaller portion size,” Burns said.
Don't cross the line on quality
Night Shift’s light lager Nite Lite is sold in 12oz 12-packs, and it quickly became popular with people used to buying mass-produced domestic beer in 12-pack and 24-pack cases. The brewery now offers more of its brews in larger multipacks, like the American IPA Santilli.
Night Shift covers trendy consumer bases beyond accessible packaging, however, as it taps into the trend of slightly healthier drinking habits. Nite Lite is low-carb and has an ABV of 4.3%, with 120 calories per 12oz.
The Whirlpool New England pale ale is 140 calories, and the Hoot hard selter has 90 calories with 0g of sugar.
In 2019, Burns’ fastest growing beer was the Nite Lite: a beer that was originally developed because the brewery thought the consumer needed a better version of a light lager that wasn’t overpowered with flavor and hops.
“I think if you asked us eight years ago if we would be making a light lager, I would have thought you were crazy,” he said.
But Burns insists that there is a line when it comes to 'healthy' craft beer, and said he would never sacrifice the quality of an IPA to make it low-calorie. Because beer is evolving so quickly, it’s hard for craft brewers to stay on top of trends and not take them too far.
“How are we staying current and satisfying that customer need?” Burns asks, and noting that sometimes “What worked yesterday doesn’t seem to be working today.”
Night Shift used to brew a lot of barrel aged and sour beers, and Belgian style pale ales, but found people simply don’t want those varieties anymore. They also did not make an IPA in their first year of business, because at the time they believed there were already too many IPAs on the market.
But now there are hundreds more IPA options than there were in 2012, and IPAs are Night Shift’s top sellers. In general, there’s been a ‘great diversification’ of IPAs in the last few years, according to Burns.
“From hazy New England style IPAs, and IPAs with fruit, to the crazier milkshake IPAs, and brut IPAs with inspiration from champagne, people are still trying to push the boundaries of what an IPA could be,” he said.
Other craft US brewers are also embracing IPA pack and formula trends. Recently Allagash Brewing Company introduced 12oz, 12-pack can packaging for its White beer, while River Trip, Sixteen Counties and White are available in 16oz cans. They estimated that their 2019 sales volume surpassed the 100,000-barrel mark due to the can packaging.
Fat Head’s Brewery’s popular Head Hunter IPA is abandoning bottles completely this month in favor of cans. It’s a dry-hopped ale with a 7.5% ABV, featuring notes of pine, grapefruit, citrus and pineapple.