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The Beer Thinker: Size Matters

I spent two recent Saturday mornings shopping for beer at Binny's on Marcey Street. It's not that I can only stand to be in that overstuffed section of Lincoln Park at 9 a.m. on a weekend before most of the stores are open - well, okay, that is part of the reason. I went there to collect my first two returns on a recent investment.

Buying beer at 9 a.m. made me feel a bit scandalous until I caught a glimpse of the four or five bums that had gathered at the edge of the Binny's parking lot, two of them with freshly cracked 20-oz. beers in hand.

I can't fault them for their choice of packaging. What I had come to collect was a beer about that size - actually a 22 oz. bomber bottle from Pipeworks Brewing Co.

I was one of the "investors" that chipped in $100 via Kickstarter to give a leg up to Pipeworks, one of the newest craft breweries on the Chicago scene.

Like buying stock in the Green Bay Packers, putting $100 into Pipeworks did not give me an ownership stake in anything, but it did allow me to get guaranteed access to new Pipeworks releases (being held at Binny's until the Pipeworks folks get their own brewery shop up and running).

Having guaranteed access to a new craft release is no small thing these days, when any new release or limited edition from any craft brewery, let alone a brand new one, flies off the shelves at an alarming rate. Part of Pipeworks' plans is to do frequent limited releases rather than large runs of a particular brew, and I was told by more than one liquor store manager that the first Pipeworks release, the double IPA Ninja vs. Unicorn, had already sold out a couple days before I picked up my own 22 oz. bomber at Binny's.

The bomber (also called "tallboy" by craft drinkers) and its cousin, the 750 ml. bottle (that's a little more than 25 oz.), are perhaps the iconic containers of the craft beer market. Back in the 1990s, you would see them occasionally, and probably wondered what level of alcoholic you had to be to buy that much beer in single-serving container. Since then, they have gone from being the particular packaging choice of a handful of craft breweries to being widely used throughout the market.

Depending on your point of view, the bigger bottles are either environmentally-friendly (if breweries bottle in large sizes, they are probably using less glass and paper) and the perfect size for a thorough tasting of a beer you've never tried, or else a pox upon the market, both a tool in pricing scams and a gateway to drunkenness.

Bombers have their fans. One of the guys I saw down at Binny's picking up his Ninja vs. Unicorn, as well as a bomber of Goose Island Sofie, had two young kids in tow. I think another name for the bomber could be "Daddy's little helper," as it's the perfect size for a craft beer-astute dad who otherwise doesn't get to spend a lot money on beer, or a lot of time drinking it, except for the occasional Saturday when the kids are busy playing video games and the wife has him doing chores, but isn't watching too closely. When she walks out of the room, he can crack open a bomber and put a ballgame on. By the time she comes back, it's too late - he's got himself an hour's worth of beer to drink. What else can he do - the bent bottle cap can't be put back on now.

I like big bottles, I cannot lie. They give you some time to think about what you're drinking, to really taste and contemplate it in a way you just don't with a 12-ounce bottle or can. Sometimes the first 12-ouncer ends up being more for refreshment than for flavor, and you actually have to make a decision about whether you want to open another. A bigger bottle takes that decision out of your hands and gives you enough of a sample to decide if you really like something or could do without ever having it again. I know I've bought some six-packs over the years that, when I disliked the beer or didn't like it enough, left me stashing the remaining four bottles at the back of the fridge for weeks waiting for the less discriminating Brother Mike (not a monk, just my brother) to take them off my hands.

The bomber to me is also the perfect dinner beer, meaning it's the right size to drink while you're lingering over dinner, even on a weeknight. It will give you just enough of a buzz to relax after a long day and enjoy the rest of the evening, and unless you have two or three more bombers in the fridge, you're pretty likely to call it a night after 22 ounces.

To some people, however, the bomber may appear as a sign of a lot of what is wrong with craft beer as a business. My 22 oz. Ninja vs. Unicorn cost me $8.99, while the second Pipeworks 22, a milk stout called End of Days that's infused with chilies and a bunch of other ingredients, was $7.99. The latter price, the same price as Goose Island's familiar Belgian 22s (Matilda, Sofie, etc), is probably about the average for 22s. Often, you can find macro-craft (think Sam Adams or New Belgium) 22 oz bottles for $4.99, $3.99 or even lower. On the other hand, you sometimes see 22s priced at $9.99 or much higher. And 750s (maybe we should just call them 25s?) can go for $15.99 or higher in the Chicago area.

A growing general perception of excessive pricing has the craft beer universe frequently up in arms, and the higher-priced big bottles contribute to the outrage. Some of the pricing strategy probably has to do with limited supply, though liquor store mark-up and even brewery marketing strategy and capacity management must play a role.

Beyond pricing, others lament why it's often the strongest ABV beers that are housed in big bottles. To them, it's a bender waiting to happen, one that can make a beer drinker lose touch with an appreciation of flavor if they feel like they have to suck down the whole thing in one sitting.

All of these points are likely just a few of the pros and cons of bigger bottles. I understand the complaints, and I think I good general rule is not to spend more than you're comfortable spending just to be one of the cool kids. Occasionally, you might see a beer you want to try that's only bottled as a bomber, but if you're religiously opposed to the format, wait to try it on tap somewhere.

For the record, the best local bomber value I've found recently is Finch's Secret Stache Stout, which I got for $5.99 at Fischman's Liquors in Jefferson Park. A lower-than-average price, but definitely a better-than-average stout with some understated vanilla flavor to go along with the roasty, chocolatey stout vibe.

So, how were the Pipeworks 22s? (If you really wanted to know, this column must seem like one big digression.) Ninja vs. Unicorn, billed as a double IPA, turned out to be extremely drinkable and smooth, yet hoppy enough to satisfy someone like me who likes hops. Assertively hoppy, but not cartoonishly hoppy - how's that?

Ninja vs. Unicorn has for the most part been getting much better reviews than Pipeworks' second effort, but for my money, End of Days gets a light edge by somehow making a mild stout that isn't overwhelmed by its grocery list of ingredients, including not only chilies, but also cacao nibs and cinnamon sticks. I know a lot of people will be turned off by the mere mention of cinnamon and beer in the same sentence, but in both of their first two beers, the Pipeworks boys seem to have a gift for balance.

But, I guess you shouldn't listen to me, since I am a stockholder.


Some recent craft beer headlines:

* reports on Gene Simmons' craft beer adventure. Yes, that Gene Simmons.

* Josh Noel wrote about Lagunitas' 22s in the Tribune not long ago.

* Chicagoist has the rundown on Goose Island Stout Fest, at which End of Days made an appearance.

* The Daily Herald highlights the new Good Times Historic Bar Tour of Chicago by Chicago Detours.

* NBC Chicago's Inc.Well talks to Three Floyd's about the marketing brilliance of Dark Lord Day.

* notes that the craft beer retail sales jumped 15 percent last year.

* Revolution Brewing Co.'s brewpub restaurant is hosting the Midwest Rescue of Illinois Barking for Brews Benefit on April 22.

* A.V. Club Chicago reports that Sixpoint and Vivant are planning a Second City invasion.

And, finally . . . Rick Santorum recently enjoyed a craft beer in Wisconsin. Well, this changes everything - wait, no it doesn't.


Previously in The Beer Thinker:
* Tapping Lincoln Square


Dan O'Shea was thinking about craft beer way too much for someone who wasn't writing about it. Now, he's writing about it. He welcomes your comments.


Posted on April 3, 2012

MUSIC - Chief Keef Changed The Industry.
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SPORTS - More McCaskey Malpractice.

BOOKS - All About Poop.


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