A Completely Serious Guide to Pairing Craft Beer with the Whitman's Sampler | Wine Enthusiast
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A Completely Serious Guide to Pairing Craft Beer with the Whitman’s Sampler

Every year, by the morning of December 26, display cases at drugstores across America change from Santas to heart-shaped boxes of Valentine’s Day sweets. Few confectionary collections are as iconic as the Whitman’s Sampler, an array of bite-sized chocolates filled with nougat, cream, fruit or nuts.

The Whitman’s brand was created in 1842 in Philadelphia. Eight years later, the company created the first packaged confection by selling mixed sugar plums in a printed box, according to brand lore from Russell Stovers, which now owns Whitman’s.

As Whitman’s grew, so did its footprint. The Whitman’s Sampler, a collection of the company’s most popular products, was first released in 1912, and it quickly became a best seller. Over the following decades, it would employ celebrity spokesmen like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, and the iconic box would be displayed in the Smithsonian Museum.

Kim Yates, vice president of new brand & business model development at Russell Stover Candies, says that certain pieces do well year over year, like the milk chocolate messenger boy and cherry cordial. Others have been phased out to make way for new recipes, like the now-retired chocolate turtle and white chocolate pieces.

The chocolate industry has changed dramatically in the nearly 200 years since Whitman’s debuted. One recent development has been the rise of artisanal chocolate makers, similar to the craft beer surge that brought once-obscure styles and regional brewers to grocery stores nationwide.

As a result, you can take your Whitman’s Sampler and find suitable beer pairings for each of the pieces.

Craft Beer Pairing Guide to a 20-Piece Whitman's Sampler
Find beers with complementary flavors to play off the sweetness of rich chocolate./Photo by Tom Arena, Styled by Julia Lea

It may be tempting to pair beer flavors already in the chocolate, like raspberry or orange peel, but the real fun comes from discoveries of complementary flavors that bring out the best attributes of each. And while there’s no shortage of chocolate beers on the market (there’s even a category known as pastry stouts made to resemble desserts), why not try to find beers that don’t feature cocoa for a more interesting pairing?

“You can create some incredible new flavors when you have a chocolate that gives the beer something it is missing,” says Kate Reyes, a beer industry consultant.

At a recent beer and chocolate tasting that Reyes co-hosted in Oregon, a panel of attendees found that a really rich chocolate pairs well with a dry, crisp beer. Spiced beers sipped alongside a smooth almond candy create a cake-like experience.

Ready to give it a try? Whitman’s Sampler boxes range from a small four-piece box to a comically big 84-piece collection. No matter what size assortment you get, we have you covered, with pairings for 20 classic confections across all chocolate types, styles and fillings.

And don’t worry if you can’t find a particular beer mentioned. Scan the shelves of your local bottle shop and you’ll likely come across something with a flavorful ingredient that will pique your interest and you’ll ask yourself, “Will this go with chocolate?”

The answer is probably yes.

Craft Beer Pairing Guide to a 20-Piece Whitman's Sampler
The most popular chocolates include the messenger boy and cherry cordial, according to a brand representative./Photo by Tom Arena, Styled by Julia Lea


The Chocolate: Coconut Cream

The Beer: SeaQuench, 4.9% abv; Dogfish Head, DE

The Pairing: Brewed with black limes and bursting with effervescent carbonation, this refreshing sipper highlights tropical coconut flavor to create the experience of a piña colada, if only for a minute. Think of it as a mini-island vacation.

The Chocolate: Molasses Chew

The Beer: Ninjabread Man, 5.6% abv; Asheville Brewing Co., NC

The Pairing: A seasonal release to mimic holiday cookies, this porter features generous flavors of toasted cinnamon, raisin, caramelized ginger, fresh vanilla, raisins and molasses. The molasses in the beer adds body and mouthfeel. Paired with the rich molasses in the candy, the ginger comes to life with extra spicy zing.

The Chocolate: Chocolate Butter Cream

The Beer: Ommegang Abbey Ale, 8.2% abv; Brewery Ommegang, NY

The Pairing: This deep garnet-colored ale is strong with spicy notes, orange peel and a bit of licorice. Its earthy flavors are rounded out by sweet butter cream notes in the candy. The chocolate takes on a fruity quality with each bite.

The Chocolate: Chocolate Covered Almonds

The Beer: Newburgh Brown Ale, 4.2% abv; Newburgh Brewing, NY

The Pairing: A simple pub ale with soft flavors of chocolate, coffee and toffee, it serves the dark chocolate-covered nuts well. The combination creates a vanilla and marzipan-like flavor.

The Chocolate: Peanut Cluster

The Beer: Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, 6% abv; Great Lakes Brewing, OH

The Pairing: This porter has chocolate and coffee flavors, thanks to the malt bill, and it just works with the familiar chocolate and peanut notes. The crunchy candy texture contrasts with the smoothness of the beer. The final result is like a peanut drizzle atop an ice cream sundae.

The Chocolate: Milk Chocolate Messenger Boy

The Beer: New Glarus Raspberry Tart, 4% abv; New Glarus Brewing, WI

The Pairing: A simple piece of dark chocolate that’s slightly bittersweet, the Messenger Boy serves as the centerpiece of this Sampler. While it might not have the bells and whistles of some neighboring treats, it never lets you down, just like this beer. The raspberry is earthy and ripe, with a smack of acidity and a lasting, savory finish.

Craft Beer Pairing Guide to a 20-Piece Whitman's Sampler
Drink a SeaQuench with your coconut cream for a pleasantly tropical pairing. Photo by Tom Arena / Styled by Julia Lea

The Chocolate: Cherry Cordial

The Beer: Westvleteren XII, 10.2% abv; Brouwerij Westvleteren, Belgium

The Pairing: The cherry cordial is often the most coveted chocolate in the box. Rich, dark chocolate creates a cocoon for the syrupy cherry. It’s bold, and it deserves a beer equal to the task. The Westvleteren XII, sometimes called Westy 12, is a Belgian quad of the highest order. It has warming alcohol notes and complementary dark stone fruits like plum, raisin and fig to tamp down some of the sweetness of the chocolate.

The Chocolate: Coconut Cluster

The Beer: Monday Night Cloaks & Mirrors Milkshake IPA, 6% abv; Monday Night Brewing, GA

The Pairing: There’s a trend where brewers add lactose, fruit purées and vanilla to India pale ales. The result is a creamy, often tropical fruit-forward concoction with modest hop bitterness. These are often done in small batches, like the peach-forward Cloaks & Mirrors, so consult your local brewery for the best and freshest option. IPAs brewed with pineapple, mango or other tropical fruits make an ideal pairing for the coconut candy.

The Chocolate: Chocolate-Covered Peanuts

The Beer: Guinness Irish Stout, 4.3% abv; Guinness, Ireland

The Pairing: One bar staple deserves another. Here, the dark chocolate that covers the peanuts are boosted by the stout’s coffee and chocolate notes, neither actually an ingredient of Guinness. The creamy mouthfeel from the nitro pour is a nice contrast to the crunchiness of the candy.

The Chocolate: Chocolate Whip

The Beer: Maple Nipple, 8% abv; Lawson’s Finest Liquids, VT

The Pairing: This beer is smooth and brewed with 100% Vermont maple syrup, which offers an earthy sweet flavor that builds with each sip. The ale’s roasted caramel flavors and light berry fruit notes make it a wonderful pairing to this creamy chocolate piece.

The Chocolate: Vanilla Cream

The Beer: Toast Pale Ale, 5% abv; Toast Ale, NY

The Pairing: Brewed with surplus loaves of bread from bakeries around the New York City area, this beer has a little grapefruit flavor and a touch of caramel. These are well served by the rich vanilla found in the chocolate.

The Chocolate: Maple Nut Cream (Milk and Dark)

The Beer: Regular Coffee, 10% abv, Carton Brewing, NJ

The Pairing: This beer resembles a coffee with milk and sugar, and when paired with the rich and thick maple, it’s reminiscent of a pancake breakfast. Coffee beers tend to have limited distribution, often brewed with beans from nearby roasters. Consult your neighborhood brewery or bottle shop for the best version available.

The Chocolate: Raspberry Cream

The Beer: Allagash Curieux, 10.2% abv, Allagash Brewing, ME

The Pairing: A Belgian-style triple aged in Bourbon barrels, this is an oaky, vanilla-laden, tropical and nutty beer. It’s complemented by the smooth, fresh-candied raspberry flavor of the chocolate.

The Chocolate: Raspberry Caramel

The Beer: Perennial 17 Mint Chocolate Stout, 10% abv, Perennial Brewing, MO

The Pairing: With a rich stout base and subtle mint, this full-bodied ale adds an extra layer of depth and creaminess to the jammy chocolate.

The Chocolate: Toffee

The Beer: Mooey English Bitter, 4.8% abv; Bonn Place Brewing, PA

The Pairing: Two fine English traditions, together at last. The subtleness of this beer style—with caramel, a light red fruitiness and just a touch of sweetness—provides sweet background music. The toffee’s brown sugar and butterscotch flavors get a lift from the roundness of the beer.

The Chocolate: Chocolate Butter Cream

The Beer: Blueberry Muffin, 6% abv; Great Notion, OR

The Pairing: A tart beer meant to invoke blueberry muffins pairs wonderfully with chocolate and butter cream. It’s like an extra-decadent breakfast.

The Chocolate: Maple Nut Butter

The Beer: Bigfoot, 9.6% abv; Sierra Nevada Brewing, CA

The Pairing: The seasonal beer is rich and full-bodied, with boozy vinous characters that can be almost leathery or tobacco-like. But with its bright citrus and pine flavors, it pairs well with the sweet, earthy flavor of the candy.

The Chocolate: Chocolate Truffle

The Beer: Birdsong Jalapeno Pale Ale, 5.3% abv; Birdsong Brewing, NC

The Pairing: The beer’s citrusy heat is a fun complement to the sweetness of the chocolate truffle. You want to choose a hot-pepper beer where the capsaicin won’t overpower the truffle.

The Chocolate: Caramel

The Beer: Cryptic Message, 5.1% abv; Cerebral Brewing, CO

The Pairing: The black lager is aged in foeders, which impart a woody sensation on the slightly roasty, yet crisp beer. The effervescence of the lager brings a lightness to the rich baked sugar of the caramel.

The Chocolate: Almond Nougat

The Beer: Pollinator Honey Lager, 4.5% abv; Wren House Brewing, AZ

The Pairing: Honey has shown up in more and more beers around the country. It’s often produced in limited quantities, so consult your local brewery or bottle shop for a local offering. This lager from Wren House uses local honey to create flavors akin to a granola bar. The almond nougat accentuates the earthy-sweet character of the honey beer, providing a decadent feeling.

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