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The Touchy Subject of Free Beer Samples

PORTLAND, Ore. ( TheStreet) -- On Monday, a package came to my front door containing a copper-coated, brew-kettle-shaped bottle of a beer known as Utopias.

It is a beer that Boston Beer Company's (SAM - Get Report) Samuel Adams brand has produced since 2003 and used to make biennially until 2011, when it began releasing it on a yearly basis. It is a flat, dark, strong ale made with the brewery's Kosmic Motherfunk yeast. It is aged in Pappy Van Winkle bourbon barrels and again in port wine barrels. It is only made in a small, 100-barrel batch and comes out at 28% alcohol by volume -- stronger than most wines, just shy of a weak tequila and potent enough to be legally restricted in my home state of Oregon. It sells for $199 a bottle.

It's going back.

If tasted in its suggested serving size of 2 ounces, there's an outside chance that its value might fall under the "sample" standard. The size of the Utopias bottle, however, indicates that's not the case. The people at Boston Beer were kind enough to take it back and explained that there was a production error with the sample bottles that forced them to send out full-size versions, but we'll still have to decline.

It made me think, however, that perhaps you folks are owed a bit of an explanation about what goes on behind the scenes for some of us who cover the beer industry. In some cases, when your name falls onto a brewer's public relations mailing list, samples tend to follow. In some cases, a brewery will flat-out ask if you want samples. It is a means of getting their beer into a writer or reviewer's hand and raising awareness of their product.

It is also, in many cases, a luxury. I receive samples from several different breweries at a rate of roughly one per quarter. If a new seasonal style has been introduced or new packaging is being experimented with -- cans are increasingly popular sample items -- breweries will send along either a press release, a can or bottle of the beer itself or a combination of both. Bottles are usually sent in pairs or as single representatives of a variety pack.

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