Size Matters, Too

Ain’t it fine and ain’t life grand

When you don’t need nothing

But some beer and a bushel

Down in Mary’s land

 

Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter’s idyllic paean to the good life in St. Mary’s County, Southern Maryland, should ring true to anyone who has visited this serrated peninsula of tidewater that extends like a giant tongue into the Chesapeake Bay. Home to aging watermen and dilapidated tobacco barns, rural, insular St. Mary’s has always stood apart from its neighbors. A Catholic sanctuary for early colonists encircled by sometimes hostile Protestants and a Free State hotbed of slavery and Confederate sentiment during the Civil War, its populace has even earned its own pejorative geo-ethnic acronym: SMIBs. Small wonder that they drink beer differently down in Mary’s Land: from 10-ounce cans.

The origins of this downsized drinking culture date back to the early 1950s when Budweiser was the King of Beers in name only and Anheuser Busch lagged behind Schlitz in national sales. Southern Maryland was an especially tough market for A-B. Its distributor, Foley Drury, was moving only 10 cases a week in St. Mary’s County, where a can of Budweiser cost a nickel more than more popular Baltimore brands like National Bohemian, American, and Arrow. To compete, A-B came up with a 10-ounce can of Bud that would sell for the same price as its 12- ounce competitors. The brewer introduced the new package size with great fanfare at the St. Mary’s County Fair in Leonardtown in 1956, including an appearance by the famed Clydesdales. Locals have been drinking their Budweiser (and now Bud Light) from 10-ounce cans ever since—even though you can often buy 12 ounces of Bud in a can for the same price.

Many say the 10-ounce “Baby Buds” stay cooler than 12-ounce cans. Some appreciate how snugly the can fits in the hand, allowing it to be “palmed,” or concealed more easily from passers-by or police. But mostly, I think, it’s a way of proclaiming “I’m from St. Mary’s County and proud of it.”

The 10-ounce cans are filled at A-B’s Houston brewery and are also popular in the Eastern Shore counties of Dorchester, Talbot, and Cambridge; along the Gulf Coast; and in Puerto Rico. But nowhere do they dominate sales like they do in St. Mary’s County.

Indeed, smaller is often better when it comes to beer. As a sophomore in high school, I remember beer-savvy upperclassmen drinking Colt 45 malt liquor from squat 8-ounce cans. With an alcohol content of 5.9%, each can contained the same amount of alcohol as the cheap beer (4.0%) I was drinking from a 12-ounce can.

Today, though, the cool kids are drinking from 19.3-ounce British imperial pint–sized cans—or “stovepipes.” Since their introduction this summer, tall, thin cans of Founders All Day IPA (4.7%) have become the brewery’s leading-selling single-unit package. Each 19.3-ounce can delivers the same payload—0.9 ounces of pure alcohol—as a 12-ounce can or bottle of a strong 7.5% IPA such as Cigar City’s Jai Alai or Bear Republic’s Racer 5. Twenty-one percent larger than an American pint, this size works great for lawn mowing (fewer trips to the fridge). A major plus for me.

The imperial pint has also been adopted by canned-beer pioneer Oskar Blues for its bourbon barrel–aged editions of Ten FIDY Russian imperial stout (12.9%). While two American pints (32 ounces) of uber-strong beer are probably too much for most evenings, one 19.3-ounce serving often hits the sweet spot. And after shelling out $13.99 per can, drinkers can more easily rationalize the cost by getting a few extra ounces of this black beauty.

For most of the past 30 years, factory brewers have led the way with packaging innovations, like the 18-can “suitcase” and the 30-can party pack, but more recently it is craft brewers who are pushing the envelope. Founders, Southern Tier, and 21st Amendment, among others, have enjoyed much success in the past year with a 15-can “executive suitcase.” Midway between a traditional 12-pack and a suitcase, this format combines volume discounts with convenience and has recently replaced the 18-can package for MillerCoors’ bargain brand, Keystone.

Perhaps the most successful innovation of the past few years is the four-pack of 16-ounce cans. You’ll rarely receive a 16-ounce pour of strong beer in a taphouse or pub. So it’s not surprising that imperial-strength beers and double IPAs have done well in this format. I’m a wimp, sure, but after one pint, say, of Tröeg’s Nimble Giant (9.0%), my options for the evening are limited.

Maybe, I should retire to Mary’s Land where I can drink my beer ten ounces at a time.

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