When it comes to high-ABV beers, bombers aren't just a small-volume selling gimmick but a big help to brewers trying to move a big beer. Unlike standard, lower-alcohol beers, high-potency brews require lots of ingredients and lots of time. Southern Tier's Pumpking imperial pumpkin ale, for example, has 8.6% alcohol by volume and takes 16 to 18 days to ferment. While production of the beer has grown between 50% and 80% each year since its introduction in 2007, it's still brewed in a relatively small batch of 4,000 barrels.
Southern Tier puts 19 imperial-style beers in 22-ounce bottles and shelves its 10 remaining beers in six packs. Given the $8 to $9 cost of Pumpking and imperial flavors such as Java, Chokolat and Creme Brulee, those beers would average out to $26 to $29 per six-pack at the price Southern Tier fetches per fluid ounce.
"If we were trying to do those all in six packs, we'd be looking at a really expensive six pack," Arnone says. "Also, the shelf space of the 22-ounce bottle means you can get three brands in the same space as a six pack."
At Shipyard Brewing in Portland, Maine, which began brewing 9% ABV Smashed Pumpkin imperial pumpkin ale and releasing it in 22-ounce bottles last year, founder and brew master Alan Pugsley plans an entire Pugsley Signature Series line of big beers that even includes a barley wine.
The not-so-hidden secret about high-alcohol bomber beers such as Smashed Pumpkin, which Pugsley likens to a port, is that they're looking to compete less with the Schlitz in the six-pack cooler and more with the sherry in the wine section.
"That's really meant to be shared at the dinner table or wherever as opposed to a bottle of wine," Pugsley says of the high-ABV 22-ouncers, "and you see a lot of people sharing a bottle of fairly high-alcohol beer and replacing the wine."
An $11, 750-milliliter bottle of Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head collaboration beer Life and Limb may seem exorbitant compared with a $9 six-pack of either brewery's IPA, but put the 10.2% ABV maple-flavored brew up against an $18, 750-milliliter bottle of wine such as Lagrima Vinho do Porto and the booze-soaked after-dinner playing field looks a bit more favorable.
"Boutique brands, like Hill Farmstead, Evil Twin and Stillwater Artisanal, and bigger breweries like Sierra are coming in now and pricing at $7 to $30 at the bomber or similar size -- like 750 milliliter -- and getting what they're asking," RateBeer's Tucker says. "The converted wine enthusiast is still getting happy about these prices -- these world-class luxuries are quite affordable."
-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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