They say that variety is the spice of life, but for beer drinkers, this platitude takes physical form in the Mix a Six Pack station. A growing trend in grocery stores and bottle shops, such sections allow you to build a sixer by the bottle. Some individually price their bottles, while others offer a flat rate (for instance, $9.99 at my local Kroger, where you can choose from more than 80 different beers). Adding a bit of diversity to your drinking experience is the obvious advantage, but there’s more to the mix than meets the eye. Apply the strategies outlined below to be more deliberate in your decision making.
Unfortunately, some retailers use the Pick Six station as an opportunity to move merchandise that’s selling slowly. Which means they might fill the shelves with bottles approaching their Best By date, after which the flavor begins to degrade, or stock the section with beers that have flat out expired. IPAs, pale ales and other hop-forward styles, in particular, suffer the most, as hop flavor and aroma can deteriorate relatively quickly. As a rule of thumb, avoid refrigerated IPAs more than 90 days old, and warm-stored IPAs more than 60 days old. Similarly, the coffee notes in a coffee stout can fade fast—Founders recommends their renowned Breakfast Stout be imbibed within 150 days of bottling. So, as you make your selections, be sure to study the Best By, Bottled On or Expiration date printed on the label (or in some cases, on the bottle itself). If the whole field of options is not particularly fresh, fear not: Russian imperial stouts and sour beers are most impervious to deterioration, and in many cases, taste even better with age.
When the Mix a Six station offers a flat rate six pack, you have the highest chance of snagging a damn good deal, and simple price comparisons can reveal wonders. Say the Pick Six section charges $9.99 for a six pack. Then any bottle you find there that sells for more than 10 bucks as a normal homogenous six pack is thus at a discount in the Pick Six section. Furthermore, keep an eye out for beers that are typically sold in four packs, such as Dogfish Head 90 Minute Imperial IPA, and other beers with high ABV. The alcohol percentage of a beer is often linked to the price it’s sold at, simply because higher alcohol requires the brewer to purchase more fermentable grain that must then be turned into alcohol. Therefore, if offered at a flat rate by the bottle, you might find a bargain—for instance, a beer that typically sells in a four pack for $12.99 ($3.25 a bottle) could then be bought in a $9.99 variety six pack for $2.17 each.
It may seem self evident, but the Mix a Six Pack section is the ideal way to try a new beer without having to commit to a full six pack. Think of it as the equivalent of a flight at a brewery. You can take a beer for a test ride without getting stuck with five more bottles cluttering your fridge in the off chance you’re not a fan. It’s a particularly smart path when you’re exploring a polarizing style, like the sour/salty gose or the black IPA. For holiday gatherings, you might even consider loading up on a combination of seasonal brews, like pumpkin ales or winter warmers. These super-syrupy beers can be hit or miss, but this way you can bring a conversation starter to the party and sample a range without investing in a full sixer of something sickeningly sweet.
The sequence in which you choose to consume your chosen beers can have a direct influence on their taste. If you pull six IPAs from the Mix a Six Pack section and plan to drink them one after the other, the intensity of the hop profile will affect your palate in such a way that the flavor of the subsequent IPAs will be dulled (especially if you start with the most bitter). Balance your six pack by interspersing IPAs with malt-forward or sour beers to cleanse your palate. High ABV beers can have a similarly overpowering impact on successive brews, so you’re best off saving double IPAs and imperial ales for the end of the evening.
Though purists may scoff at the thought, mixing two complementary beers can yield some unexpected (and surprisingly delicious) flavors. Black and tans, made by combining light and dark beer in the same pint glass, have been a staple in England since the late 1800s. Experiment with your own craft beer black and tan by filling your Pick Six with stouts and pale ales. To make one, fill half of your pint with light beer, then slowly pour dark beer into the glass over an upside-down spoon. But beer blending doesn’t have to be limited to black and tans—explore combining flavors you think will fit well together (stouts are a particularly safe bet). Victory Brewing even recommends a few “Monster Mashups” on their website, such as half Donnybrook dry Irish stout and half Storm King American imperial stout, or half Prima Pils and half HopDevil American IPA. You’ll find beers that use the same yeast balance particularly well.
The fact is, if you’re going to go through the effort of selecting individual bottles from a Mix a Six Pack station, it just makes sense to approach the situation with a fully-formed game plan. With the strategies outlined here, not only will you get more bang for your buck, but you’ll bring better balance to your drinking diet.