The biggest idea in the history of Founders Brewing Company might have come from a half-joke.
“It was just a conversation around a table, when [Founders analyst] Bob Kaiser kind of said, ‘Maybe we should do 15-packs,’” recalls co-founder Mike Stevens. “20 minutes later, we were like, ‘Screw it, let’s do 15-packs.’”
What started as an imaginative callback to Stroh Brewing Company’s attempt to make 15-packs a thing 30 years ago created a business-changing strategy for the modern Michigan brewery. Three years after All Day IPA arrived the same way so many brands do—in 12oz bottles and in six-packs—15-packs of the 4.7%, hop-forward "Session Ale" would roll out to distributors, replacing 12-packs of 12oz cans (but remaining at the same suggested retail price).
“We got to a point where we were too big to be a regional and too small to be a national,” says Stevens, whose brewery made 193,000 barrels of beer in 2014. “I remember thinking that we had to go for it. The window of opportunity was open to be a national brand, but it was shutting quickly as everything was starting to get regionalized. We could see what was happening and part of going for it was looking at pricing models and pack sizes.”
In announcing the change on the company blog, Stevens noted that 15-packs were able to be sold at the same price as 12-packs “due to production efficiencies from packaging cost savings,” and that it was an effort to “pass the savings on to our customers as a way of saying thank you for their reception of All Day IPA.”
The thanks have gone both ways ever since. All Day makes up about two-thirds of Founders’ production, and has grown its packaged sales seven times over from 2014–2018 in IRI-tracked grocery, convenience, and other stores. In those chains, the beer is selling more than entire portfolios for Firestone Walker Brewing Company, Bell's Brewery, SweetWater Brewing Company, and pretty much most other breweries in the country.
In 2018, Founders brewed an estimated 350,000 barrels of All Day IPA—enough to make it the 11th biggest "craft" brewery by Brewers Association standards, if it still allowed Founders in its self-defined club. (Founders lost its BA "craft" status in 2014 when it sold a minority stake to Mahou San Miguel.) This runaway success even forced Founders to outsource some of its production of All Day IPA to Colorado’s Avery Brewing Company, a brewery with split ownership between Mahou, Founders, and original investors.
The driving force behind all of this movement has been those 15-packs. In the past five years, the packaging has represented 80–90% of All Day’s volume sold in IRI stores.
“We wanted to do something that would help us stand out with consumers and retailers,” Stevens told DRAFT Magazine in 2017. “I would call it more of an attractor pack, just to capture some excitement and give the retailers something different to sell.”
Since the packaging expansion of All Day IPA, Founders has gone all in with this larger format size. The company has grown nearly 200% in total production volume since its first 15-pack rolled onto shelves in 2014, and has shifted other core beers, including Centennial IPA and Solid Gold Premium Lager, as well as seasonal releases, into 15-packs. Solid Gold also sells in 24-packs in Founders’ home state of Michigan.
“We in craft definitely enjoyed 20–30 years of being in this kind of ‘elitist,’ high-margin place, and we’re still a high-margin industry, but we have to start developing brands outward of the beer-geek nucleus,” Stevens tells GBH. “It’s important to appeal to a broader audience while still being craft beer all the way through.”
As a percentage of Founders' total IRI sales,15-packs comprise about 70% of the brewery's total sales. Adding in those Solid Gold 24-packs bumps it up a couple percentage points.
Founders’ success has inspired a number of imitations, prompting breweries like Southern Tier (15-packs), 21st Amendment (15-packs), New Belgium (15-packs), Oskar Blues (16-packs), Long Trail (18-packs), Modern Times (20-packs), and more to match the can count—or even up the ante.
In 2017, Chicago's Revolution Brewing launched 18-packs of its Cross of Gold Golden Ale, shifting it from 22-ounce bombers at a price point that ranged between $4–$5 into the larger format, which carried a suggested retail price of $17.99–$18.99. But Doug Veliky, CFO and head of communication for the brewery, noticed a downside to the move.
"Given that it was typically situated in coolers next to 15-packs, consumers weren't always giving it credit for the three extra cans, even if price per ounce was equal or better," he says. "They were buying based on price alone. When it would go on sale and be competitive with the 15-packs, it would fly off the shelves."
With that in mind, and amid feedback from distributors that a 15-pack would prove successful, the brewery also launched its Every Day-Hero Session IPA in the format. The 15-pack version debuted in February, and through June 9, sold about 300 barrels’ worth of beer, primarily in Chicago and in the city's neighboring markets.
Spurred by consumer interest, these larger package sizes are clearly big hits, but this play for volume, efficiency, and consumer-friendly price points has created mixed results for others. In part two of this series, we’ll look at how Founders’ success has influenced other breweries, and what it means for the craft arm of the world’s largest beer business.