Craft beer’s mix-and-match mania

May 17, 2011

Chocoholics have their Whitman’s Samplers; beer connoisseurs have their variety packs.

These beer assortments tend to travel in multiples of six, with 12-packs most prevalent. They’re a bane to brewery workers, who have to pull already-filled cartons off the assembly line and re-sort the bottles by hand. “They’re quite labor-intensive,” says Bill Manley, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s director of communications, explaining why the Chico, Calif., beermaker waited more than 30 years to release its first variety pack.

But consumers love them. The mix-and-match approach entices neophytes who might be reluctant to buy a single brand in large quantities. By mixing in an experimental or seasonal beer that’s not otherwise available, breweries can appeal to the beer geek who’s always on the prowl for something new or unusual.

Rather than simply toss together a lager, a pale ale, a wheat beer and a porter or stout, breweries are becoming increasingly creative.

The Samuel Adams Latitude 48 IPA Deconstructed pack is a Hops 101 course all by itself. Latitude 48 is an India pale ale seasoned with five types of American, English and German hops and named after the “hop belt” of the Northern Hemisphere, where temperate weather and long summer days yield the most abundant crops.


Sierra Nevada’s the Best of Beer Camp Variety Pack. (Courtesy of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.)

The Deconstructed 12-pack contains two bottles of Latitude 48 plus two bottles each of five limited-release varietal beers. Each is hopped solely with one of the five strains in Latitude 48: Hallertau Mittelfruh, East Kent Goldings, Ahtanum, Simcoe and Zeus.

If the Hallertau Mittelfruh IPA resembles a Samuel Adams Boston Lager on steroids, it’s because it’s packed with the same floral, spicy Bavarian hop that Boston Beer uses in its flagship beer. East Kent Goldings is a classic English variety, imparting an earthy, floral, lightly fruity character. (One Web site describes it as a blend of “apricots and violets.”) The other three are aggressive American varieties, full of citrus and pine sap.

Boston Beer isn’t the first brewery to market a series of beers identical in recipe except for the hops. Denmark’s Mikkeller brewery as of this writing has released 18 beers in its Single Hop series. But the Mikeller brews are peddled by the bottle and can be difficult to track down, while the Samuel Adams hop collection is neatly packed in a single carton.

If Latitude 48 Deconstructed is a whirlwind intro to the hop, then Flying Dog Brewery’s Alpha Collection is a primer on the evolution of the pale ale style. The 12-pack contains three bottles each of the Frederick brewery’s Doggie Style Pale Ale; Snake Dog IPA; Raging Bitch Belgian-Style India Pale Ale; and a never-before-bottled Imperial IPA, hopped with the grapefruity Simcoe.

The name “Alpha” refers to both alpha dog (in keeping with the brewery’s canine theme) and alpha acids, the primary bittering compounds in hops. The mixed pack is unusual in that it contains beers of widely varying alcohol content and hoppiness, ranging from 5.5 percent by volume and 35 international bitterness units for the pale ale to a punishing 10 percent and 70 IBUs for the Imperial IPA. The stronger, hoppier beers generally have longer shelf lives.

That creates a dilemma for the brewery: How do you assign the package an expiration date? Flying Dog probably errs on the side of caution with a 140-day window. “Hop character tends to diminish as a beer ages, so our goal is for them to stay as lip-smacking hoppy as possible,” says public relations manager Erin Biles.

Diversity is also a hallmark of Sierra Nevada’s the Best of Beer Camp Variety Pack, which comes in 12- and 24-bottle cartons. Once a month or more, Sierra Nevada invites a group of retailers, distributors, guest brewers or other beer professionals to formulate and brew their own special beer in the company’s 10-barrel pilot brewery. Since 2008, these happy campers have turned out 54 beers. “We picked the four that had the best feedback,” says Manley.

Cartons will include equal numbers of California Common (a warm-fermented lager similar to Anchor Steam); Weizenbock, a pumped-up version of a German-style wheat beer; Juniper Black Ale, flavored with juniper berries; and Double IPA, an imperial India pale ale originally named Ghidorah after the three-headed monster of Japanese horror movie fame.

Sierra Nevada, adds Manley, will release a limited number of kegs containing the Beer Camp brews. Washingtonians will get a chance to sip all four June 1, when Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman visits Rustico in Arlington as part of the festivities leading to the Savor beer festival June 3-4.

Sierra Nevada is also staging a contest that will allow a few lucky amateurs to attend Beer Camp and perhaps formulate a brew good enough for a future sampler pack. (The brewery, says Manley, intends to repeat the Beer Camp Variety Pack annually, with four new beers in each edition.) Contestants must submit a video explaining their worthiness; details are at SierraBeerCamp.com.

By tapping into the creativity of its customers, Sierra Nevada hopes to prevent the variety pack, a fresh concept, from growing stale.

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