Not long ago, the idea of a variety pack was simple: a collection of core beers paired together in one box of unique opportunity. Or, as Samuel Adams later set a tone for peers: a rotating, curated seasonal lineup of several once-a-year favorites.
But more recently, the proposition has changed. As the number of brands has grown steadily (about 8,100 to 12,200 from 2014 to 2017) and shoppers’ abilities to get any kind of beer at any time of year became common practice, the "variety" part of variety packs sort of stalled in excitement. As a tracked category in grocery, convenience, and other stores, IRI sales data shows variety pack volume has remained flat over the last several years. Some of the most-distributed examples from Sam Adams, Blue Moon, Sierra Nevada, and Leinenkugel's have all stalled or fallen in sales since 2013.
Instead, breweries see opportunity through specialty themes and style-focused collections meant to connect to moments in time and popular tastes.
“One of the things distributors and retailers told us starting a couple years back is that seasonality has lost its distinction,” says Mark Stutrud, founder and president of Minnesota’s Summit Brewing Co. “Connecting a beer directly to a specific time of the year pretty well defines your window, and when distributors are confronted with growing inventories, they get pretty sensitive to the issue. We’re not the only brewery around that has moved away from saying, ‘OK, here’s our summer sampler, here’s our fall.'”
Summit made a name change last year to reflect this, forgoing seasonal identifiers for quarterly variety packs which now focus on style (January's IPA Collection) and theme (Boundary Waters Box in May, Bonfire Box in August, and Penalty Box in November).
“It has to communicate a little bit more about lifestyle than season,” Stutrud says. Bonfire Box, Summit’s recently-released pack, is meant to reflect when “it’s time to put on flannel and sit outside around a fire.” This winter’s Penalty Box connects to hockey, which is the “heart and soul for us in the upper Midwest,” he adds. Minnesota has consistently produced one of the highest numbers of hockey players in the country.
The value of these variety packs have caused Summit to double down in a way. In July, the brewery installed customized equipment to their canning lines to help sort and streamline the handfilling of every box, which totals 800-900 per hour. Instead of 10 employees pulling cans and preparing each pack, it’s now just four. Stutrud says the manual effort can be a “pain in the butt,” but along with others, he sees the importance of the variety pack.
This summer, Dogfish Head Brewery launched its Off-Center Your Summer Pack, a $20-$22 variety pack with four year-round beers, including special offers in hopes of enticing consumers to spend as much as $7 more than competitors. In addition to insulation which allows the box to act as a cooler when filled with ice, Dogfish also added a custom-made koozie in every box and is using them to run a contest where shoppers who buy the pack have a chance to win a trip to the Delaware brewery. The packaging innovation has been previously used by MillerCoors for Coors Light, and Heineken has advertised its CoolerPack, which grew twice as fast as other 18-pack bottle SKUs last year. Through the end of June, Dogfish’s pack sold about the same volume as brands like Schlafly Kolsch and Deschutes Pinedrops IPA in IRI stores.
More recently, Oskar Blues added its own 15-can variety pack, citing almost 33% growth in mixed can packs through August. That pack was then followed up by a full-on CANarchy variety pack with beers from Cigar City, Perrin Brewing, Squatters Craft Beers, and Oskar Blues.
The real change in the category, however, is in a transition to style-specific packs, of which IPA has been far and away the most important for breweries. In 2017, IPA-only craft variety packs increased 46% in sales volume compared to 2016, per Nielsen.
Last year, with backing from parent company MillerCoors and its Tenth and Blake division, Oregon’s Hop Valley Brewing debuted its Hop Mixer Variety Pack, which featured three flagship IPAs and Citrus Mistress, a new grapefruit IPA. The variety pack sold about as much in grocery and convenience stores as Cigar City Florida Cracker White Ale and Great Lakes Burning River Pale Ale. Most importantly, Nielsen tracked it as the top new launch by volume and highest-velocity new item in beer for its Pacific region. Halfway through this year, it was the top growth brand in Oregon while commanding a suggested retail price of $15.99-$17.99, which may also be higher depending on different channels and geographies.
Arguably one of the most successful hop-focused variety pack comes from Stone Brewing, which grew almost 60% in IRI-tracked volume from 2015-2017, and is on pace to match last year’s sales when the pack sold a little more in IRI stores than Lagunitas 12th of Never Pale Ale.
“When we first came up with the idea to come out with a variety pack of something that hadn’t been done before, Double IPAs were certainly sought after,” says Dan Mitchell, owner of Ithaca Beer Co. in New York, which will mark its fifth year of its Box of Hops IPA variety pack in 2018. The SKU has evolved from a 12-pack of glass bottles to a unique 8-pack featuring two 16-ounce cans of four brands each, three of which are one-offs. This year’s DIPA lineup includes flagship Flower Power, all-Mosaic Dr. Zaic, New England-style CitraPetal Force, and an all-New York State-hopped DIPA.
“I think for us to offer this each year is like a bowl of candies,” Mitchell says.
“With all the craziness of breweries constantly opening and people looking for the next big thing, we get a ton of excitement about it each year,” adds Chad Gourley, vice president of sales for Ithaca Beer.
The success of this variety pack is focused on two key aspects: the wild popularity of IPA and rarity of its beers. Only 5,000 cases of 8-packs are filled each year, and that’s spread in tiny increments across the brewery’s 14-state footprint.
“This definitely presents a special, one-time way to introduce people to a brand,” Mitchell says. “It gets people talking about Ithaca Beer for a short period of time.”
And quite clearly, that seems to be an important part of what it means to succeed with a variety pack these days. The ascension of craft and the wide variety of beers it has brought has helped provide unprecedented choice. In turn, there is unique pressure on characteristics like price and style, two variables that can help draw attention to the niche category. It would seem hard for “classic” versions of the style to ever disappear or suffer too much—the mainstream popularity of Sam Adams, Leinenkugel's, or Kona seems too strong to allow for such a thing—but more niche versions of a mixed box of beers is undeniably catching on.
The simplicity of variety is changing, no longer dependent on its mere existence, but constantly pleading its case through newfound connections to lifestyle, emotion, and preferences of taste. All of which is to say: like so many other things in beer, “simple” isn’t so simple anymore.