Cost of Living

Here's why tall cans dominate the craft beer market

The tall can — also known as the tallboy, king can or pounder — has become an increasingly popular size for beers of all kinds, but particularly for craft beer. Brewers say it's about marketing, brand awareness and craft beer trends that go back at least a decade.

The tall can — a.k.a. tallboy or pounder — projects both trendiness and blue-collar appeal, experts say

Beer, including Ontario craft beers, are shown at a grocery store in Ottawa in this August 2018 photo. Tall cans make up 80 per cent of craft beer sales in the province, according to the LCBO. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Anyone walking through the beer aisles of their local liquor shop will be familiar with the scene: rows and rows of local craft beer, swathed in distinctive and often colourful logos and art — all in tall, 473-ml (or 16-oz.) cans.

The tall can — also known as the tallboy, king can or pounder — isn't new. Milwaukee-based Schlitz Brewing Company started selling them in the 1950s.

But it's become an increasingly popular size for craft beer, a category that has mostly eschewed the smaller 355-ml cans and glass bottles in recent years.

According to beer brewers, the tall can's popularity is more than just the appeal of having more to drink per can.

Haydon Dewes, co-founder of Cabin Brewing Company in Calgary, says the cost of a tall can versus a short can is "negligible," at least in terms of the additional aluminum required to produce it.

The real reasons are more about marketing, brand awareness and craft beer trends that go back at least a decade.

Haydon Dewes described the vibe of the art on Cabin's Super Saturation New England Pale Ale as 'modern nostalgia' with its stark lines and groovy font. Tall cans provide brewers with more space to explain their product to consumers. (Cabin Brewing Company)

Tall cans help distinguish craft product: brewer

"It's us saying: we are craft beer, we're not a macro beer. We don't put our beer into short cans and put it into a box of 36. This is a premium product that comes in a four-pack," Dewes told Cost of Living.

Cabin's website sells their four flagship beers for $4.50 for a single can, and in four-packs for about $17 to $18.

Dewes says the four-pack for tall cans has become a craft beer standard, because of long-held expectations on how much packs of beer costs. 

"A four pack is about the same volume as a six pack … and the cost works out roughly the same as well," he said.

It also helps distinguish it from non-craft brands that sell smaller cans in higher volume.

"There's something, for better or worse, quite exclusive about a four-pack. It's like if you see a four pack of tall cans, you know that that's a craft beer. If you see a box of 12 short cans, your brain is telling you: 'That's a budget beer. That's got to be cheaper, surely.' "

Tall cans make up 80 per cent of craft beer sales in Ontario, according to an email from the LCBO. Short cans, meanwhile, only make about five per cent of craft beer sales. 

Tall cans are also popular among many non-craft beer brands, the LCBO noted, accounting for 60 per cent of sales in that category. 

Having a larger can means more real estate to cover with distinctive art and logos that make an instant impression and tell customers exactly what they're getting.

"We also have to tell people what's the name of that beer, what kind of beer it is, and also our brand, all sort of on one space on the side of the cans," said Pete Nguyen, a partner and chief creative officer at Edmonton's Sea Change Brewing Co.

Pete Nguyen is a partner and chief creative officer at Edmonton's Sea Change Brewing Co. (Sea Change Brewing Co.)

The 'one and done' and sample appeal

Benj Steinman, writer and president of the U.S.-based trade magazine Beer Marketer's Insights, says that in the U.S., at least, craft beers have faced difficulty reaching consumers in recent years.

The outlier of that is tall cans, which sell very well in convenience stores. He said they also allow people to have just one beer and feel satisfied. 

"I think it's kind of an attractive price point, and it's kind of a one-and-done," Steinman said.

Craft beer people are kind of like bird watchers; they just want it all. They want to be able to tick off as many as they possibly can. ​​- Haydon Dewes, co-founder of Cabin Brewing Company

According to Dewes, selling in singles also allows beer connoisseurs to sample several varieties in one go.

"Instead of walking away with a box of 12 of the same beer, you can walk away with 12 different beers," he said.

"Craft beer people are kind of like bird watchers; they just want it all. They want to be able to tick off as many as they possibly can." 

Thank the Alchemist

Dewes and Steinman both pointed to Vermont-based Alchemist Beer, a Vermont-based brewer, for sparking the popularity of tall cans for craft beer with its Heady Topper double IPA in 2011.

Whereas most smaller scale beers were released in bottles at the time, Heady Topper came in a distinctive can with high-contrast black and silver art, and the instructions "Drink from the can!" written along the top rim.

According to Steinman, it sparked "a tremendous amount of buzz" among "craft geek cognoscenti" consumers.

The Alchemist's Heady Topper double IPA is widely credited for popularizing the modern trend of craft beer being served in tall cans. (The Alchemist/Facebook)

Alchemist co-founder John Kimmich is quick to note his was not the first craft beer to come in tall cans, pointing to examples like California-based Sierra Nevada's Torpedo IPA. But he certainly agrees with the assessment that Heady Topper vaulted the practice into widespread popularity. 

Many factors went into the decision, Kimmich explained, including the fact that aluminum cans mean lighter transport costs versus glass bottles and broken bottles are potentially more dangerous than a crushed can.

But he said going with tall cans also helped Alchemist make a major statement about their brand. 

"We always wanted to be able to provide our customers with an absolute world class beer at a very reasonable and fair price, and to present it in the ultimate blue collar, simple container, which is a pounder."

From tall to small

While the tall-can approach has helped craft beer grow in popularity, it might have distanced it from the classic beer consumer: someone looking for a large box of small cans that are easy to drink — responsibly — in multiples.

In recent weeks, Sea Change began to release their Blond Ale in short, 355ml cans in an effort to reach those customers. This addition to their usual tall can pipeline made for a more expensive process, according to Nguyen.

Sea Change Brewing Co., recently released their Classic Blonde Ale in a short 335ml can in an effort to reach a different segment of the beer-drinking market. (Sea Change Brewing Co.)

"Our packaging costs are a lot higher up for it, but we assume that it's going to give us access to a market … that could see us side by side with say, like a 15 or 24 pack of a Budweiser or Molson product."

Nguyen, who is one of the main designers for all of Sea Change's labelling, said it was also more work to adapt the art to smaller cans.

"You can't just shrink it. So [we] sort of had to rejig some of the proportions in order for it to feel like it was taking up the right amount of space on a small can." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jonathan Ore

Journalist

Jonathan Ore is a writer and editor for CBC Radio Digital in Toronto. He regularly covers the video games industry for CBC Radio programs across the country and has also covered arts & entertainment, technology and the games industry for CBC News.

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