Two years ago the New York-based beverage writer Joshua Bernstein wrote a good article in SevenFiftyDaily on a seeming trend in craft beer: the eight-ounce can. The logic makes perfect sense, which I needn’t elaborate on as it’s well-explained in the article, and evident I think to anyone familiar with the craft scene.
After decades of infatuation with the glass bottle finally craft brewing embraced the can, and the 16-oz format became almost standard. Yet in many ways, the old mass market 12-oz format* suited better India Pale Ale and the other impactful styles in efflorescence. This was due to their strength, especially the stronger stouts, and/or their distinctive flavours.
Many like myself might like to try a sour style, say, but don’t wish to power through 16 ounces. Yes, and as I’ve argued before, you can just put the can in the fridge and drink the rest later. Many don’t like to do this though, and the beer is always affected to a degree.
In my view, the 16-oz. can is best suited to medium- or low-strength beer. The format in this context is not a new idea. Rusty Cans’ history timeline has Schlitz issuing one in 1954. The ubiquitous shaker glass, or U.S. 16-oz. pint, seems to have grown in use over the same period.
Well before the craft beer era again, marketers were also thinking in the opposite direction: to sell beer in smaller than twelve ounces. This occurred both in America and in Britain, where the self-explanatory “nip” was long-used for strong beer including imperial stout.
Marketers perceived some people did not want more than seven or eight ounces of beer. Likely in their sights were women, increasingly a focus of beer advertising after World War II. I cited an instance recently via the consulting work of the Vienna-trained psychologist Dr. Ernest Dichter.
Below we see Rolling Rock in Latrobe, Pennsylvania advertising its pony bottle in 1952 (Washington, D.C. Evening Star), note the didactic tone:
A similar bottle had appeared in the 1930s for Michigan’s Albert Brewing as a former eBay listing shows. The term pony had emerged yet earlier to describe a measure for beer, in 1877, as shown by a lawyer’s argument for the State of Pennsylvania in a murder case.
Evincing some surprise which suggests the practice was new, the counsel explained that a wholesale liquor merchant opened a pint bottle of porter and served four “pony” measures. As he dealt in spirits, plausibly once again the idea was borrowed from cocktails usage.
Pony as a serving measure for beer was known in Victorian Britain. See in Notes & Queries, 1896 (“pony of bitter”). Australian beer culture was long known for its 5-oz pony glass, in some cities that is.
An Australian beer glass template states further details. It is tempting to think in a time before air conditioning a five-ounce beer glass was popular as keeping the beer colder, yet this appears not so judging by the table and other evidence I’ve seen.
Many Australian cities used larger formats, in other words, up to the pint – 20 oz. in the British Anglosphere. This works against the idea the pony was meant to keep the beer cold until consumed.
Possibly local legislation affected this, or any of a hundred other factors not immediately obvious, or perhaps not knowable at all. As to why we don’t see more small cans and bottles in Ontario, I am not sure either.
The situation is is complicated by listing requirements of our monopoly liquor distribution system, controlled by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, a Crown corporation. Apart that matrix, there is some flexibility, e.g. bottle shops of breweries can sell beer in non-standard containers.
But investing in new or modified apparatus to can or bottle beer in small measures can be problematic, especially in straitened times as currently with Covid-19.
Returning to the Rolling Rock example, the pony format continued in the mass beer market. A 1976 industry report in a Utica, NY newspaper claimed until Miller High Life was marketed in the pony bottle starting in 1972, the format had not been successful, i.e., in the hands of regional brewers.
Rolling Rock, of Latrobe, PA was such an independent, then. Today, Coronita, the small bottle of Corona (7 oz.), is well-known internationally, ideal for the “bucket” presentation. In the market too for some years in Canada is Molson Canadian Cold Shot, in 7.5 oz. bottles.
Note the latter is 6%, against the standard 5% abv for regular Molson Canadian, so Molson-Coors is selling a stronger brew partly on the basis the consumer will down a smaller measure.
All of Nothing Brewery in Oakville, Ontario issued a 10-ounce “mini” can some years ago. LeftField Brewery in Toronto tends to focus on the 12-oz can (355 ml.), see its line here, a positive sign in itself. Other local breweries do similar now, e.g. Godspeed Brewery, also Indie Ale House.
There are other examples of can “downsizing”, but widespread adoption of an eight- or seven-ounce format would boost the industry further.**
*I use Imperial measure in this post but the metric equivalent is known by most or easily calculated.
**See additional notes in Comments.