When customers of Dawson’s Liquor in Severna Park, Maryland, return spent kegs, there’s usually some beer left in the half-barrels of mainstream domestic brews. But the one-sixth barrels, or “sixtels,” of craft beer always come back bone dry. “With increased demand for craft beer, we’re selling more sixtels these days,” says Dawson’s beer manager Henry Stahl.
Dawson’s isn’t alone. Retail outlets around the country are discovering a new opportunity with sixtels, which are usually used in on-premise venues. Liquor Outlet Wine Cellars in Boonton, New Jersey, stocks as many as 100 different beers in sixtels, generally priced from $79.99 to $140 for containers that hold roughly five gallons. Prices can reach as high as $204.99 for a mini-keg of Brasserie Dupont Saison farmhouse ale from Belgium. “More customers are requesting them,” says beer supervisor Kevin Bodnar. “There appears to be increased awareness.” Sixtels have become so popular at Liquor Outlet that the store added a cooler room three years ago in order to stock the kegs. These days, the retailer sells around 25 to 30 sixtels a week, with top-sellers including Yards Brawler mild ale ($79.99) and Ballast Point Sculpin IPA ($105.99). To promote the offerings, Liquor Outlet advertises in regional beer newspapers, such as Ale Street News, and sends out weekly email blasts to some 4,500 customers.
At Dawson’s, a rack designed to hold 20 sixtels helps keep the barrels chilled and out of the way in the cooler. The store offers more than 60 year-round beers in sixtels, plus seasonal and limited releases, generally priced from $70 for Goose Island IPA to $200 for Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA, plus a $30 deposit. “A lot of people will just roll over the deposit when they return the keg and pick up another one,” Stahl says. Dawson’s typically sells 10 to 20 sixtels a week.
“The sixtel’s size allows customers to enjoy draft beer without committing to a half-barrel,” notes Chris Cook, beer manager at Merchant’s Fine Wine in Dearborn, Michigan. The store offers between 60 and 70 different brews in the container size, priced from $43 for Killian’s Red ale to $230 for Brasserie Dupont Saison. “They allow consumers to change up their purchases more frequently,” Cook says.
Cook, Stahl and Bodnar say the growing popularity of kegerators for at-home draft beer consumption is helping to drive increased demand for sixtels. “Kegerators and sixtels allow consumers to enjoy draft beer without having to worry about driving,” Cook explains. In fact, some of his sixtel customers own kegerators that hold more than one sixtel at a time, resulting in multiple mini-keg purchases in a single visit.
The retailers describe most sixtel buyers as craft beer lovers. In addition to at-home consumption via kegerators, sixtels are typically purchased for small gatherings, such as tailgating and other special events. “Our sixtel customers are very knowledgeable,” Bodnar explains. “They know what they want—usually whatever is new or the latest seasonal beer.”
Sixtels do come with challenges. Draft beer goes bad faster than packaged beer, making product rotation critical. “If we still have a keg that’s 2 or 3 weeks old, we’ll ask the distributor to come pick it up,” says Stahl, pointing to a recommended 30-day freshness period for most sixtels. Bodnar adds that stocking the right mix of offerings is also tricky. “It can be challenging to get the variety that your customers want,” he explains. “It’s important to find the right balance.”
Retailers have no doubts that beer sixtels will continue to grow in popularity and their stores will reap the benefits. “Sixtels are convenient,” says Liquor Outlet’s Bodnar. “Beer lovers can stay home and have the same quality experience as at a bar.”