In a beer landscape dominated by 4-packs, growlers, bombers and coveted single-bottle exclusives, the craft beer drinker can often be compelled to turn a blind eye to one of the beer world’s most generous offerings: the variety pack or beer sampler.
But why do breweries opt to make these mixed bags of suds? Are these the extras that didn’t fit in regular packaging? Are sales of one beer hurting so breweries need to surround it by others to get it out of their warehouses? Or does the contemporary craft beer drinking long to go back to their days of macro when they were able to pick up a hefty case of brew to bring to a party?
Although the exact answers may not be known, there are a handful of elite craft breweries that are elevating the variety pack into something to be sought after. With the recent expansion of New Belgium Brewing Company and the accompanying release of its 25th anniversary Fat Tire & Friends CollaBEERation Pack, the beer drinking masses seem to, for once, have eyes locked on the variety pack.
Before the Fat Tire & Friends road is wandered down, a look at the overall variety pack scene is in order.
Odds are decent, if you can name a craft brewery that packages its beer, there has been an instance when that brewery has thrown together a variety pack for its thirsty fans. In what capacity and for what reason, is widely varied. For starters, take the Boston Beer Company’s armada of variety packs into consideration. At the moment, every grocery store and WalMart is going to have the Samuel Adams Beers of Summer sampler out on the floor. In the past, the pack offered beers like Porch Rocker and Blueberry Hills Lager along with the flagship Boston Lager and flagship summer seasonal Summer Ale. This year’s offering, however, is a slight deviation, as Jim Koch and the gang opted to riff on the top trends in craft at the moment, producing Got to Gose, Belgian Session, Whitewater IPA and Heaven or Helles, along with the flagships.
So what does it mean?
Well, it hits all the craft beer buzzwords the casual beer drinker will be looking for while browsing their grocer’s beer aisle, before hopping over to the deli counter for some cold cuts. IPA, bing. Belgium, bing. Crafty words like “gose” and “helles”, bing and bing. While that may be enough for the casual beer drinker, the pack also could turn the head of the advanced beer consumer by offering fairly deep takes on each of these styles. Got to Gose, for example, is a German gose-style beer brewed with salt, coriander, cucumber and pepper. Say what you want about Sam Adams but that is an interesting brew. Bing — beer snob on the line, too.
What it boils down to is Sam Adams getting you to explore its inventory beyond the traditional offerings. The casual beer drinker would be hard-pressed to leap from his or her comfort zone of Boston Lager to grab a sixer of Got to Gose whereas the high-end beer buff would probably look past Sam Adams all together unless compelled otherwise. A quick, convenient and fairly cheap opportunity to try some different styles is a pretty good way to get said buff to pick up a case of Sams.
But some breweries offer to employ a different use for variety packs. Instead of having the pack be a means of encouraging deeper exploration, breweries like Abita and Great Lakes Brewing Company (GLBC) use the variety pack to introduce new consumers to its lineup or give the established fan a box of greatest hits. GLBC for, example, sports a year-round variety pack containing its Elliot Ness amber lager, Dortmunder Gold lager, Burning River Pale Ale and Edmund Fitzgerald porter. These beers are by no means the breweries deepest and most complex offerings, but with classic styles and established names, this is a pack that beer drinkers up and down the spectrum can pick up and enjoy.
The same can be said for Abita and its Party Pack. Like GLBC, Abita offers the consumer a greatest hits pack by offering one case containing two bottles of its six most popular offerings, including: Purple Haze, Andygator and Big Easy IPA.
Before coming back around to Fat Tire & Friends, it would be unwise to not mention the efforts of Sierra Nevada and Oskar Blues. Both are craft beer juggernauts in their own right, and both have taken to offering variety packs, as well.
Sierra Nevada has cashed in big on the variety pack market with its twice-released Beer Camp Across America 12 pack, while Oskar Blues spoils its fans by offering the CANundrum sampler. Oskar Blues is able to satisfy its CAN-starved masses by offering a sampler containing four top sellers: Old Chub Ale, Mama’s Little Yella Pills, Dale’s Pale Ale and its newer IPA. Sierra Nevada takes the concept a step forward, by making the brews in its pack rare collaborations, having on both release occasions brought together craft brewers from all over the U.S. to brew one-time offerings.
From Sierra Nevada, the jump back to Fat Tire & Friends is easy. Much like Beer Camp, New Belgium’s highly-sought after variety pack is something created and offered to celebrate craft beer and reward its drinkers for their loyalty and support. Also a collaboration effort from various American craft breweries, New Belgium brewers teamed up with friends at Allagash Brewing Company, Avery Brewing, Firestone Walker, Hopworks Urban Brewery and Rhinegeist Brewery to create fresh and different takes on the brewery’s flagship Fat Tire amber ale.
The anticipation mounted for months ahead of both Fat Tire & Friends and Beer Camp hitting shelves this year. Each brewery also scheduled a series of events spread out around the nation in conjunction with their rare releases. Fortunately, if you haven’t yet had the chance to get your hands on either pack yet, you still may be able to find them at your local bottle shop or specialty grocer. Good luck!
At no point in my beer drinking career have I ever shied away from scooping up a variety pack, especially if it is from a brewery I haven’t had much from in the past. So over the years, there have been a few that have really stuck out to me as elite offerings from this strata of the beer-niverse.
Brew Studs wants to know what variety packs have gotten you excited this year, so far. Poll expires August 7th at Midnight, Eastern.
Which of these packs from 2016's availability that you tried was your favorite?
Total Voters: 581