In the gift guide a few columns back, I recommended variety packs as an ideal present, a gateway to craft brew exploration, a great deal, and a way to avoid mix-a-six anxiety. "It's not a sample pack, it's a tasting experience," as the folks at Great Lakes Brewing Co. say (grab a few boxes from that stellar Cleveland brand when you pass through New York or Jersey). Well, I took my own advice and have worked through some delightful dozens as a gift to myself in the last two months. Here are five boxes that will please novices and veterans alike.
VICTORY'S TASTE VICTORY | The exemplary brewery in Downington, PA, proffers one of the best bridge beers for the macro-to-micro leap: Prima Pils, a savory German Pilsener which brings the hops that the mass-produced beers merely hint at, but with a smooth, well-balanced finish that won't alienate any palate. Also in the mix: the superb HopDevil, a true standard-bearer for the American IPA style, and Golden Monkey, a respectable take on a Belgian tripel. It's the most expensive of the boxes on this page ($19.49), but rewards the investment. (And look for their Storm King Stout, an astoundingly good Russian Imperial.)
IPSWICH'S YACHT CLUB MIX | Sean Larkin enthused about the beers from the Ipswich, MA, brewery in the gateway roundtable two weeks ago, and this box backs him up. There are four bottles of Original Ale (an English Pale Ale) and IPA, and two each of Oatmeal Stout and Dark Ale (an American Brown). The stylistic range isn't very diverse, but the quality is exceptional. As is the value: you can find these boxes for $15.
WIDMER BROTHERS' BROTHERS' BEST VARIETY PACK | Like their fellow big-sellers in the craft beer world, Samuel Adams and Sierra Nevada, the Widmers (est. 1984 in Portland, OR) sometimes get taken for granted. But their beers are top-notch and very satisfying. The 12-pack is anchored by their signature Hefeweizen and Drifter Pale Ale, plus an IPA from the Rotator series and a seasonal selection.
HEAVY SEAS' SUNKEN SAMPLER | There are 10 beers that rotate in the box from the Baltimore brewery. My dozen contained the super-hoppy and super-tasty Loose Cannon IPA (a solid go-to on tap 'round here); Peg Leg Imperial Stout, a sweet brew that leans to the lighter end of the style; plus Gold and Pale ales (American Blonde and English, respectively), both under 5% ABV and loaded with subtle flavors, which will gently lead to more craft goodness.
SMUTTYNOSE VARIETY SAMPLER | Smutty- nose's current box has its exalted Finest-kind IPA , Old Brown Dog Ale, Star Island Single (Belgian Pale Ale), and Shoals Pale Ale, a quartet of beers which should always be in your rotation (and a bargain at $16ish).
It's no secret that I'm rather fond of the offerings from Brooklyn's Sixpoint Craft Ales (I have a few towers of empty four-pack packages in the basement to prove it). Their four core beers, available in stately 16-ounce cans — the Crisp (German Pilsener), Righteous Ale (rye beer), Bengali Tiger (American IPA), and Sweet Action (cream ale) — are sublime, and their seasonal releases, Autumnation (pumpkin ale) and Diesel (stout) were also must-haves. (And that's just the tip of the Sixpoint iceberg, as at least 69 other draft styles — including Groundskeeper Silly, a Scotch Ale, and Berserker Bock — have been spawned by the brewery's Mad Scientists.)