As American craft breweries began expanding their operations from humble brewpubs to large production facilities, packaging lines were an essential part of the transition. Many have chosen to leave traditional bottling lines in the past, opting instead for canning lines. In turn, any large-scale brewer must make a crucial decision: Should the beer go into a 12-oz. or 16-oz. can?
When we put this question to a handful of brewing-industry professionals, their answers varied widely. What seems like a straightforward decision is in fact informed by a handful of science, a dash of misguided advice, and more personal opinions than when you brought up politics at Thanksgiving. Let’s get into it.
Craft beer drinkers can be stubborn creatures of habit, preaching “objective” facts to anyone who will listen. Some will argue that the size of a beer can directly impacts the taste. Can this be true? Does the self-proclaimed beer expert know something that us decade-long professionals aren’t privy to? Do beers in 12-oz. cans actually taste different than those in 16-oz. cans?
Tim Faith, technical brewing manager at White Claw, has science to back up this argument.
“The cans themselves could have different liners,” he said. “Also, the metals and ions in solution can and will react with the aluminum if there are any defects in the liner application.” He also explained that if a brewery fails to properly convert their packing line to/from 12-oz. to 16-oz. cans, it could lead to a difference in dissolved oxygen and CO2, thus altering the taste of the beer.
Keith Lemke, a brewing education consultant, agreed with the science behind a potential flavor difference. He explained that a 12-oz. can would be more likely to show oxygen-related stale flavors sooner than a 16-oz. can would. This is because “the smaller can has a higher proportion of air in it,” said Lemke.
He added that a well-run packaging department will test samples of cans for packaged O2. Even if this process determines the packing line to be flawless, should breweries be concerned that a larger can will impact a beer’s flavor?
“In this case, I think you’d be splitting hairs,” said Lemke.
Sometimes the decision to package beer in one type of can versus another is as straightforward as the canning line itself. The age and capability of the canning equipment plays a factor, as some older canning lines didn’t offer the luxury of packaging both 12-oz. and 16-oz. sizes.
Jerry Gnagy, brewmaster and owner of Against the Grain, said that canning lines were expensive and hard to come by when ATG started canning.
“A 12-oz. to 16-oz. switchover wasn’t really a thing, so you had to pick one size and go with it,” he said. “The cost of machinery isn’t really any different when it comes to can sizes either.”
So, price and scarcity of canning equipment weren’t factors in ATG’s decision to go with 16-oz. cans. “The main reason we went with 16-oz. cans was that our distributor led us to believe that’s what sold the best,” said Gnagy.
To Gnagy’s point, sales play a big factor in deciding which size cans to push your brand with. A grocery and/or liquor store chain placement can mean big bucks for breweries, so they’re inclined to do what they can to be stocked on those shelves.
“Our chain placement wanted 12-oz. six-packs of our core beers,” said Jacob Sembrano, head brewer at Cruz Blanca. “This allows us to compete with macro beer in the store. We found ourselves moving a lot more volume with 12-oz. cans.”
Consumer habits in retail stores also drive the 12-oz. versus 16-oz. debate. Macro and corporate craft breweries tend to lean toward 12-oz. packaging due to the shareability of that product. The belief on the macro side is that you’re less likely to share a four-pack of 16-oz. beers at a gathering, and that economical craft beer doesn’t come in 16-oz. cans.
While some brewers are blissful in tallboy territory, others are eyeing a move to the 12-oz. side due to its financial breakdown.
“If you dissect the cost, a $12.99 four-pack is $0.20/oz, while a $12.99 6-pack is $0.18/oz,” says Nick Baron, owner & brewmaster of Albright Grove Brewing. “If you charged the same price per ounce, that six-pack would have to be $14.40.”
“It eventually makes sense to roll to [12-oz six-packs], I think, but once you’re hitting real scale,” Baron added. “But in scope of that kind of scale, that’s just another product mix to add on the shelf. Look at Sierra Nevada Pale Ale—there 12-oz. six-packs, 22-oz. bombers, now 19.2-oz. cans, and 16-oz. four-packs too. All the same product, but several ways to push it to further saturate the market.”
Conclusion: the more formats, the better, provided your operation has the scale to pull that off.
For brewers scaling up their operation, success sometimes sits in the middle of the Venn diagram of a well-executed plan, reaction to the market, and just plain good luck. Or bad luck, like a global pandemic. Can sizes are adjusted accordingly.
“Our year-round and seasonal offerings have always been available in 12-oz. cans,” said Bailey Spaulding, owner of Jackalope Brewing. “In 2020 the pandemic forced us to get creative, and we produced 27 limited-release beers in nine months. We packaged them in 16-oz. cans for brand visibility and with off-premise consumption in mind.” It turned out that shifting gears to respond to changes in consumer behavior was the right move.
“People love pouring a whole pint into a glass at home, and that was our primary focus during the pandemic,” said Spaulding.
Getting brewing folks to answer questions about business decisions is like asking them to wear tuxedos while brewing. But when asked about their own drinking habits, it was like they were transported back into their jorts and tank tops, beer in hand. So, 12-oz. can or 16-oz. can? Here’s what each of them had to say.
- “It’s easier to drink a couple 12-oz. beers. They don’t get warm as fast and they’re easier to pack in your cooler.” –Lisa Peterson, Jackalope Brewing
- “I’m a drunkard, so I like full 16-oz. hogs.” –Sam Cruz, Against the Grain
- “I really enjoy drinking beer, and a 12-oz. is sometimes over before you want it to be. Opening a whole new can might be too much when that extra 4 oz. is all you really need.” –Nick Baron, Albright Grove Brewing
- “Don’t get me wrong, there are times when a 19.2-oz. can is just what I want, and sometimes I want a 16-oz. refreshment. But if we’re going to go all highlander on this debate, I’d take the 12-oz. None of this slim can BS.” –Todd White, Devil’s Backbone
- “I think that 12 oz. is the right amount of beer before it gets warm at the bottom. Call me old school, but our ancestors at AB and Coors had it right with 12-oz. six-packs being the proper amount for a person per day.” –Jerry Gnagy, Against the Grain
- “If I’m really really getting at it and hammering, 16 oz. is fine. Day-to-day, 12 oz. is more my speed.” Jacob Sembrano, Cruz Blanca
Ultimately, there seems to be no real no across-the-board formula that breweries use to decide between a 12-oz. and 16-oz. can. It simply comes down to various factors being weighed against their needs, and since no two breweries are the same, there’s no “right” answer. Except maybe “none of this slim can BS.”