The Washington Post

The trouble with keeping the ponies in line

Good things come in small packages. Except beer. (Rolling Rock)

Those little seven- and eight-ounce containers were most popular back in the 1960s and 1970s. The term “pony” might have sprung from the fact that Rolling Rock (whose corporate symbol was a horse) was one of the first breweries to exploit the package. Or it might simply be analogous to “pony keg” (one-quarter barrel) or “pony glass” (a five-ounce glass that track aficionados could down quickly between races).

Either way, the joke was that a mouse could hardly get a buzz from an eight-pack.

Paradoxically, the biggest beers today seem to come in the biggest containers: 22-ounce “bombers” and 750-ml cork-and-cage wine bottles. Wouldn’t seven ounces be a more appropriate serving size for the barley wines, double IPAs and imperial styles that craft breweries enjoy dabbling in?

Rogue Ales in Newport, Ore., was, until recently, just about the only craft brewery to bottle in ponies. Its XS series consisted of six higher-alcohol beers (including its Old Crustacean barley wine and McRogue Scotch Ale) sold singly in seven-ounce brown bottles. But that series has been discontinued, says Rogue president Brett Joyce. “You can’t source the bottles; they don’t make them any more!” he complains. For the last two to three years, Rogue was using bottles that it bought from Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick.

Jim Caruso, Flying Dog’s general partner and CEO, acknowledges selling bottles to Rogue, although he can’t remember exactly how many. The seven-ouncers were made specially for the brewery for a sampler pack produced between late 2007 and mid-2009. “I don’t know if there is a nonproprietary seven-ounce bottle being made,” says Caruso. “You need to contract out for a lot of glass.”

The Flying Dog sampler contained two bottles each of four Canis Major high-octane beers ranging between 9.2 and 12 percent alcohol by volume: Gonzo Imperial Porter, Double Dog Double Pale Ale, Kerberos Tripel and Horn Dog Barley Wine.

But the smaller-size bottles caused major headaches on the bottling line. “You can’t put a seven-ounce bottle into a groove fit for a bigger bottle; there’s too much wiggle room,” explains Caruso.

As a result, the brewery had to disassemble and reassemble the bottling line every time it switched from 12 ouncers to pony bottles, and vice versa. That was no simple task. “These machines are really complex,” says Caruso. “It was like taking apart the engine of your car and putting it back together so your car runs perfectly.”

Caruso is a still big fan of the seven-ouncer, calling it a “perfect single serving,” and he hopes some day to afford a new brewery with a separate packaging line for smaller bottles. In the meantime, though, you’ll have to buy Gonzo, Double Dog and Horn Dog (Kerberos has been dropped) in four-packs of 12-ounce bottles.

What about mini-cans?

Calgary-based Cask Brewing Systems, which supplies small canning lines to about 150 breweries in North America, lists cans in 5.5-, 6.3-, 8- and 8.4-ounce sizes on its Web site. But according to Jamie Gordon, sales manager for western North America, the company has only one client for these little containers: Belize Brewing Co. in Central America, which makes a light lager called Belikin. The eight-ounce cans, he elaborates, have an advantage in a tropical climate because they’re easy to down before they warm up.

“We’ve talked to brewers about putting their barley wines and stronger ales in small cans,” says Gordon, but so far he’s gotten no takers. Part of the problem, he notes, is that only one plant in North America manufactures the little cans, and breweries have to buy them in minimum orders of 300,000 (compared to under 100,000 for standard 12- and 16-ouncers). Secondly, if a brewery wanted to fill both 8-ounce and 12-ounce containers, it would need to invest an extra $10,000 or so for alternate filling heads, rinsers, etc., to accommodate the smaller package.

So what’s an asocial bachelor to do with his bomber bottle of barley wine: Drain the whole thing at peril to his liver or stow a half-finished bottle back in the refrigerator where it will quickly go flat?

Brett Joyce has a solution. The Rogue XS beers, he says, will return in January in 750-ml black ceramic swing-top bottles. They’ll sell for a higher price — the Rogue Morimoto Imperial Pils retails for $20.99 for a similarly sized bottle at Chevy Chase Wine and Spirits (although the store’s Web site lists it as being out of stock). But the swing-top stoppers can be refastened tightly to keep the bubbles in the beer until your next tipple.


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