As a budget-minded consumer, most of the beer I buy for home consumption comes from 12-packs picked up at the supermarket. In recent years, breweries have increasingly packaged their products as sample packs containing three or four different styles of beer in each half-case. This provides a good variety of flavors at a fraction of the cost one would pay for the same variety and volume of beer at a brewpub. The ability to accommodate a wide range of palates also makes sample 12-packs a good choice for summer barbeques and parties.
For this safari of New England–brewed boxed sets, I shopped at Shaw’s and Hannaford supermarkets in Portland and South Portland, as well as Friendly Discount Beverage, on outer Forest Avenue. I can’t guarantee that the prices cited here will be same price you pay (many were on sale), and availability seems to ebb and flow (e.g., Hannaford appears to be phasing out bottles in favor of cans). Which reminds me of my other caveat: I only reviewed 12-packs of bottles (see my April column, “In Praise of Bottles,” for more on that).
Long Trail Survival Pack ($15.99 at Hannaford)
Vermont brewer Long Trail covers all the bases here. They feature their flagship Long Trail Ale and include a seasonal (Summer Ale) and an underrated upstart (Long Trail Lager). They also offer a new brew that’s exclusive to this year’s Survival Pack, their IPA Batch #3. I’m not a huge IPA fan, but this one hits the mark without going overboard in the hops department. All four selections are excellent — a strong outing for Long Trail this season.
Harpoon Summer Vacation ($14.99 at Shaw’s)
Three quarters of Harpoon’s Summer Vacation 12-pack are seasonal beers. Their flagship IPA has been a go-to standard in New England since before the IPA craze, and it still satisfies. As I noted in last month’s column (“Sports beers”), I also like their Rec. League, a hazy pale ale with a perfect grapefruit tone achieved through a magical combination of hops. One Hazy Summer, Harpoon’s summer pale ale, is OK, but one is indeed enough. And then there’s Camp Wannamango, an experimental pale ale brewed with the tropical fruit. I like mango, but please keep it out of my beer.
Sam Adams Summer Variety Pack ($14.99 at Shaw’s and Hannaford)
Sam Adams’ Summer Variety Pack is technically only 50 percent summer. The famed Boston brewery is pushing their newly formulated Summer Ale, a wheat beer with a hint of lemon peel. I’m not a big fan of wheat beers, either, and this one didn’t convert me to the style. Boston Lager is a classic, but Sam ’76, which blends lager and ale yeasts in an experimental “tag-team fermentation” process, leaves me wondering, Why bother? While ’76 is unlikely to offend, neither is it likely to really please beer drinkers in either camp. The surprise guest here is Porch Rocker, a refreshing Radler-style beer that to me defines the idea of summer in a beer.
Switchback Stubbies Combo Pack ($17.99 at Friendly Discount Beverage)
If you want to show up at the party with the cutest bottles, grab a pack of stubbies. The worker-owned Vermont brewery Switchback produces Cold Season and Warm Season versions of its combo 12-packs. Both contain six squat bottles of their signature ale, an unfiltered amber with a fine flavor. This being spring in Maine, last month the Cold Season combo was still on the shelf; it contains three bottles of malty Dooley’s Belated Porter, also a solid selection. (The Warm Season combos replace this with Switchback’s Extra Pale Ale.) The pleasant surprise was their Citra-Pils Keller Bier, a pilsener lager with a hit of Citra hops that gives this mouthwatering beer a cannabis aroma.
Geary’s Classics Variety Pack ($13.99 at Hannaford)
There’s a reason some brewers like the variety-pack concept: it provides a way to move product that may not sell very well on its own. I suspect that’s the case in Geary’s Classics Variety Pack, where the truly classic Geary’s Pale Ale is packaged with the less popular, though also old-school, London Porter, and the brewery’s new Brown Ale. All three are safe, reliable options to bring to the lake house, but the pack itself is nothing to write home about.
Shed Mountain Mixer ($16.49 at Friendly Discount Beverage)
The Shed Brewery, from Vermont, packs this beer box with its year-round Mountain Ale and Mountain IPA, both of which are hearty, manly brews, just as you’d expect from a beer named Mountain. By comparison, the year-round Tiny Mountain Larger seems half-hearted, and the seasonal Windswept Wheat seem a bit out of their wheelhouse, a wayward attempt to follow a trend.
Shipyard IPA Variety Pack ($14.99 at Shaw’s)
Though it sounds like an oxymoron, Shipyard’s IPA Variety Pack does vary … in quality. My favorite of the bunch was Steady, an American Pale Ale with a sweet, floral, “hoppy” bouquet. The Island Time Session IPA was average, and the Monkey Fist IPA was foul and, like its name, hard to swallow.