The Brilliance of the Holiday Beer Sampler

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- This is a wonderful time of the year for beers, but it's also just about the best time to try some holiday beer you're unfamiliar with and not spend a whole lot doing so.

One of the beer industry's finest holiday traditions, especially among its established smaller brewers, is offering a cost-effective 12 pack of seasonal varieties just as shoppers are stocking up for their holiday parties. Boston Beer's Samuel Adams brand does this to great effect each year, trotting out its Old Fezziwig winter warmer in a pack with Boston Lager and four other varieties. It's not only a way to get folks familiar with the flagship Boston Lager to try new varieties, but to get loyalists familiar with the product to transition from familiar brands such as Holiday Porter and Chocolate Bock to new offerings such as Juniper IPA and Cherry Chocolate Bock.

It creates a nice holiday shelf display and some added interest for breweries during what is typically their low season, and it offers buyers some options for guests who might be lukewarm on a whole lot of any one particular beer. As a gateway to a company's beer, however, it's also fairly cheap.

The Beer Institute, a beer industry organization based in Washington, put the price of an average six-pack at $5.05. Domestics fetch a little less at $4.95 and imports charge far more at $6.88, but those prices will vary depending on the taxes in each state. When Samuel Adams lets its "Winter Classics" 12-pack go for $14 -- the going price at national wine and beer chain Total Wine -- it's still dabbling in the high end at $7 per six-pack, but it's creating one of the least expensive avenues for enjoying a holiday beer in the current marketplace.

According to market research firm Symphony IRI, craft beer usually fetches an average $33 a case. That trumps the $29 brought in by imports and the $20 a case for premium domestic beers such as Anheuser-Busch InBev's Budweiser and MolsonCoors' Coors Light.

At the equivalent of $28 a case, Sam Adams' 12-pack is still a 40% premium over a case of Bud, but comes in under the price a consumer would have to pay for more costly trial sizes. If Old Fezziwig were available on tap at your local pub for $5 a pint, you'd be paying the equivalent of $48 per 12-pack. Boston Beer makes 22-ounce "bomber" bottles of a gingerbread-flavored winter seasonal called Merry Maker that, if you somehow picked it up for $6, costs the equivalent of $40 per 12-pack.

The variety pack is a relative steal by comparison, and the whole industry knows it. It's why Saranac, Magic Hat, Harpoon, Summit, Pyramid, Blue Point, New Belgium and the Craft Brew Alliance -- with holiday beers from its Widmer Brothers, Redhook and Kona brands -- and a whole bunch of other breweries are offering them for between $14 and $20 this year. It's also why big brewers that want a piece of small brewers' holiday fun have begun brewing up 12-packs of their own.

Blue Moon and Leinenkugel, which are both owned by SABMiller and MolsonCoors joint venture MillerCoors and its 10th and Blake Subsidiary, have each produced a 12-pack of winter seasonal beers this year. Blue Moon is throwing in an Abbey Ale and Gingerbread Spiced Ale to join its standard Belgian White, while Leinenkugel throws a Vanilla Porter in with its Orange Shandy and Big Eddy Imperial Stout.

It's tough to blame them. According to Symphony, sales of seasonal beers have risen between 15% and 25% in recent years, with much of that growth coming from craft brewers. According to the Brewers Association craft beer industry group, there are more than 2,500 breweries in the United States today, with more on the way. The Brewers Association gives those small brewers credit for increasing sales of "craft" beer 15% by volume and 15% in dollars last year. That gave those small brewers 6.5% of all beer sales volume and 10.2% of its income last year.

By comparison, MillerCoors' production dropped 1.1% and has fallen steadily since the last recession. Blue Moon has been one of the company's few bright spots during the last few years, but even its growth has slowed from 26% in 2010 to 10.7% last year. Still, it produced 1.9 million barrels last year -- which would make it the second-largest craft brewer in the U.S. if it was considered such -- and outpaced the 10.1% growth of Boston Beer and 10.6% growth of booming regional brewer and holiday 12-pack maker D.G. Yuengling & Sons during the same period.

To top it off, Blue Moon and Leinenkugel each also have some craft credibility, with the former praised as a good example of the witbier style and used as a gateway beer for other craft brands and the latter leaning on a whole lot of Wisconsin small-brewing tradition and history despite being owned by Miller for nearly the past 30 years.

But that's the beauty of the holiday variety pack: It just keeps giving. About five years ago, no one would have expected giant brewers to mark the holiday with anything other than red-and-green packaging that could be stacked in a gaudy display at the end of the beer aisle. Now they have to not only shift focus onto their more marginal brands, but to produce different styles to fill out a 12-pack. They have to use better ingredients to compete with the smaller brewers who set that premium price by using superior product to begin with. In short, they have to try -- and the result of their efforts has to be something of quality.

When even the production brewers are making better beer, that's a gift every beer drinker can enjoy.

-- 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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