Six-Packs vs. Four-Packs: Is There Cause for Debate?
In the world of beer iconography the six-pack has been the bellwether—the packaging exemplar which all but declares, “This beer drinker has got it together.” The six-pack says you like your occasional beer because it complements your life. It pairs well with your Pall Mall or your $9.00 Maduro. And what’s left of that sixer sitting in your fridge…the remaining beers still bound together by that now infamous dull-white series of plastic rings…the ones destined to float into the Pacific Ocean and straightjacket some wayward gull…? That half-package says, “I drink casually. Because I want to, and because I can.”
There’s something graceful about walking out of the store with six, twelve-ounce containers in hand. Unlike a full or half case—which pulls on your shoulder, sending you outside with a labored shuffle—the six pack allows for balanced steps and a well-timed gait. Unlike the bottle of bourbon in the brown paper bag—which shoots off flares of shame no matter how casually you wield it—the six-pack evokes a sort of pride. And unlike the keg—which screams “reckless party” even if you’re planning to nurse it along for two months—the six pack espouses control. Sure, some six-packers plan on slamming the first two for that quick buzz, but most beer drinkers are savvier than that. Even a generation ago, when the classiest pack read “Ultra” somewhere on the can, the average six-packer was thinking with her palate.
I still remember the first time I saw a pint of beer in a can. Watching a local band rock it out at the Rathskeller, the ornate, crisscrossing lines artistically weaving around Nikki’s can of cream ale struck me as a great amount of work to put into a shell destined for the a landfill. Still the novelty worked. It got my attention, but why put a pint in a can? Pints come from the tap, and they sit before you in the bar. The head dissipates, and the residual suds cling to the side of glass, creating that delicious white ooze smeared along the cylinder like fraying threads of silk. Drinking a pint is akin to going to Fieldhouse to watch the Pacers. A choice to be communal rather than private. Therefore, pints are a commitment, a decision that the beer will either be the centerpiece of the evening, or at least the apple in the pig’s mouth. You’re there to drink the beer, and the life that happens around it makes the brew all the better.
But knocking down a twelve-ounce twist-off from a six-pack? That’s more like watching the Pacers at home. At home the beer hides, open to the world only by way of a nickel-sized hole which at best casts a shade of deep gray. Down there, somewhere, you can hear the carbonation popping, but like that bowl of Rice Crispies you ate when you were a kid, it’s mostly imagined magic. The home is the twelve-ounce arena, where the beer sits by your Lazy-Boy…to nip on, when you remind yourself to touch it. It’s at home, where the spectacle is the ball game on the tube or the dog coming in from the rain, that the smaller increment suits the pace of life.
The craft beer industry rattled that happy dichotomy when they rolled out those 16-ounce four-packs. I don’t remember when and where I first saw my first one, but I do remember the squint in my expression and the jolt through my system as the gravity of what I was seeing hit me. Like a script overplayed time and again in American culture, a sacred delineation was being sheared before me. The pint was being yanked from its natural environment on the bar top so it could be crammed into the refrigerator.
And of course, there was the cost. Quickly I ran the math: 16 ounces…times four…equals 64 ounces of beer. I ran the next set of numbers: 12 ounces…times six…equals 72 ounces. I compared the prices. Virtually all the four-packs cost the same. Some were marked higher. Over the next couple of years I would talk to my friends in the brewing industry. Yes, the decision to go with the four-pack was the brewery’s call, not the canners’. Yes, they saved money, too. One employee said they saved 70 cents a pack; another put it closer to a dollar. Meanwhile I was paying my usual 72-ounce price and walking to my car a full two-thirds of beer short. What was line from that movie…? “Every time a register bell rings a customer loses a dollar?”
Only here, in a land where we voluntarily pay for water because someone put it in a bottle, do we convince ourselves that paying more for less is a bargain because we’re getting pint-cans in the deal. So I stand at the cooler weighing my options. The three brands of IPA I absolutely love sit at the bottom dressed as four-packs. The brands I like sit at eye level, in a standard carton of six. Sometimes I choose the four (they are, after all, really good IPA’s). But more than half the time, I settle for the sixes and walk out of the store quoting Juliet: “Parting is such sweet sorrow…”
Lately, however, I’ve noticed a trend. That pint of cream ale I saw all those years ago, recently appeared on my grocery shelf in the form of six, twelve-ounce cans. A market decision? A trend? A hope for a better future? Time will answer those questions. Maybe…just maybe, those missing eight ounces will be no more.