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) 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.

With very few exceptions, these samples come from breweries that rank among the Top 50 in the country. They are breweries that produce 100,000 barrels of beer or more per year, are growing exponentially and have wide distribution and name recognition. They have either in-house marketing, public relations and media staffing or have contracted out those services - or both. They're savvy and adept at building relationships with people who can provide them coverage. They can throw in little toys and trinkets with their samples -- one brewer included a prop picnic set with media samples this summer just to promote a canned version of a well-established product. They're in a position that their smaller colleagues in the industry just aren't.

If you're going to cover the consumer end of beer with an even hand, it helps to remember that and to use your own wallet to make up the difference. Being in someone's address book is just fine. Being in their pocket isn't. This means that when you go to events like festivals, you pay admission and hit the tables and taps like any other attendee. When you go to a brewer's brewpub, you pay for whatever you eat or drink. The only things you take are quotes and maybe some pictures and video.

This all sounds pretty obvious, right? You'd think so.

From the outside, I can see how this looks like a ploy to get free beer. On the inside, free beer just complicates matters for everyone. For breweries, it's giving away the product and tightening the margins on the off chance that someone will promote your business. For writers, it's creating an ethical conflict that at best leaves you with a bunch of beer, packaging and promotional items you don't want -- that's why they're samples... there are a bunch you'll just never want more of -- and, at worst, makes you look like the unofficial spokesperson for a brewery you owe countless favors to.

Besides, it's a terrible way to explore and enjoy beer. One of the best aspects of the beer industry as it is now is the ability to go into a great beer bar, bottle shop or store beer section, look around and try things you haven't tried before. One of the best ways to explore this country as a beer lover is to find the local breweries at each stop and see what they have to offer.

There are times when you'll miss a variety or two and, in some cases, that's where the occasional brewery sample may just come in handy. However, the only way to inform your view of this industry and beer itself is to get out and poke around a bit. Make beer-loving friends in other corners of the country. Swap bottles whenever possible and see what all the fuss about certain varieties is about. If you're curious as to whether or not a brewery has a certain style, look it up or pick up a phone.

There are more than 2,500 breweries in the U.S. Each of them want their beer in your hand and will do whatever they can to get it there. For increasingly media-aware brewers, this means sending frustrated package delivery people out every couple of months to deliver bottles that may just end up undrunk and recycled. For us, it means realizing that every one of them is a business contributing to a greater, growing U.S. industry. It also means sending back the occasional big-ticket freebie and settling up our tabs to make sure their stories get told as well.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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