The Changing Face of the Sampler

For years, brewery samplers seemed to appease those who had difficulty making decisions - or those who appreciated a bit of variety in their beer selection at a slightly more affordable price - while simultaneously getting some of their lesser purchased beers out into the world. Six-pack samplers featured one each of five standbys and one seasonal, while twelve-pack samplers doubled the number or, as I always preferred, gave you three each of four beers.

Right. Too much math for a beer article. But that’s what the sampler came down to, ultimately - buy several six-packs, or save and get a little of everything in one twelve-pack? Get lots of what you really like, or a random selection of things you might not otherwise buy.

Beer samplers have an added benefit - they are an easy entrance point for a new brewery. When we began getting Tallgrass Brewing, I started with their 8-pack sampler. When I’m out of town and see a new out-of-state brewery, I get a sampler. When I can’t make a decision, I get a sampler. Over the past few months, samplers from both Kona Brewing and New Glarus Brewing introduced me to their offerings.

(Kona was refreshing, sure, but nothing amazing. New Glarus, obviously, was something VERY amazing.)

Still, where does a brewery go once their samplers have all been sampled? Where does a place like Boulevard go when their customers are less likely to get a sampler with three unloved beers like Bully Porter when they can just get six of something they love? How do you keep sales of a sampler going when the public has already made their decision?

The answer lies with something that Samuel Adams has been doing for years: sampler-only beers. The 2011 Winter sampler pack from Sam Adams included both a coffee stout and a chocolate bock - two beers I’ve never seen on shelves again. They were the carrot that sold the sampler, luring the curious and the completists to purchasing a sampler despite the fact that everyone knows exactly what a Boston Lager tastes like.

Odell Brewing finally got into the sampler game behind this concept, stocking their Montage variety pack with two of their best beers (Odell IPA, 90 Shilling) along side the season’s sampler (St. Lupulin) and a sampler-only selection, the crisp and hoppy Loose Leaf IPA, a session beer that pales next to its hoppy sampler-mates but is the closest Odell has ever gotten to a lawnmower beer. The next Montage pack will include a dry-hopped saison called Wellspring and my favorite winter warmer, Isolation Ale.

Meanwhile, New Belgium used their Folly Pack samplers to reintroduce older recipes and fan favorites from the back catalog - the first being Springboard, which was a little too fruity and weird for my taste but for which thousands had apparently been clamoring.

Recently, Boulevard jumped into the game, substituting their less-than-average Pale Ale and other random year-round selections for a more modern sampler mix: old stand-by Boulevard Wheat, new stand-by 80 Acre, and two “Tasting Room” beers previously only available in Kansas City at the tap room. These are the beers that, if perfected, become tomorrow’s Double Wide IPA or Tank 6. Today, they’re just another beer in a fresh sampler, waiting for your vote.

(Now, people, let’s get Great Divide to South Dakota - I’d buy their Big Show sampler once a week if I had the chance.)

The next step, of course, is to go away from standards altogether. Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp series does just this, substituting beers you’d never find in a six-pack for their standard line. You get the Beer Camp box not because you want to know more about Sierra Nevada, but because you want to try a bunch of one-off beers for the first - and, probably, the last - time.

Regardless of which brewery you choose, the sampler process has followed craft beer’s rise. No longer are breweries focusing only on beers that will become regulars, instead experimenting with gusto. Those branded boxes are starting to reap the benefits, providing a balance of new, old and weird for any occasion.

- Corey Vilhauer