22 August 2010
We covered this on the Friday Beerbuzz show this past week, but I can tell you this is no new issue in the beerbuzz world. Beer freshness dating has been one of my personal beer pet peeves for a long time. Maybe it was that case of beer I bought that ended up tasting awful (who knew a beer distributor would still sell a 4-year old fresh hop!)…or maybe it was the simple thought of how hard a brewer works to make a great beer, only to have some distributor ruin it…in any “case” beer freshness is a big beer issue.
This is a somewhat tricky proposition to monitor because there are no across-the-board standards or laws for dating beer packaging. There are however two somewhat standard dating methods. Most brewers stamp the case/box and/or the bottle label itself. Bottle labels can be a label notch, date stamp OR the more difficult bottle stamp. I say “more difficult” because these bottle dates are sometimes hard to read, most times not visually available in a sealed case AND in some circumstances they’re coded. Coded labels require some previous knowledge to decipher as well as a sharp eye at the distributor.
Dating also falls into two categories and it’s important to understand both. Some brewers stamp a bottling date and some stamp a “best by” date. Pay attention to this because a case purchased in Aug 2010 that is stamped June 2010 is VERY different for bottling dates versus a “best by” date. As a ballpark, most brewers for most beers use a “best by” date that is usually 3-months after bottling…so if you see a “best by” date on June 2010, it was likely bottled in March 2010.
So what does all this mean to you? For many big beers like a Barley Wine or Belgian Strong Ale, if properly stored (more on this later) the date means very little. Weyerbacher stamps a “best by” date on Blithering Idiot that is 5-years after the bottling date, and I can tell you this beer is even better in 5-7 years. For hoppy beers, despite the historical use of hops as a preservative, you should be drinking them fresh, and by fresh I mean within 2-3 months of bottling. This is especially prevalent with “fresh” hop beers like Troegs Nugget Nectar, Bells Hopslam, Russian River Pliny the Elder and Oskar Blues GUBNA. These beers were designed and brewed to be consumed fresh…don’t save them…drink them. And if you see cases that are 5 or 6 months old, be aware that they won’t be tasting like the brewers intended for them to taste.
Now I know you;re already asking, “so what happens the day after the freshness date passes?” Well please know that beer doesn’t go bad and ultimately it may taste odd, but it will likely not make you ill…it’s just won’t be as good as it should. With hoppy beers the hop will fade quickly and the beer will taste more malty. I’ve had year old Nugget Nectar, and while it is disappointing from a hop standpoint, it’s still an acceptable beer….but it is NOT Nugget Nectar.
We should also mention beer storage is important. Beers like dark and cool conditions to maintain optimal freshness. Leave your beer in the sun all day or in the trunk of a hot car, and it will fade much faster. Store it in the dark cool basement and it will last much longer. This is why craft brewers use dark brown bottles and this is why you need a lime in your clear bottled beers. Light struck beers, better known as “skunked” beers can ruin a good beer day.
So now we’re all armed with some good beer freshness info…but now what? Well first off, we need to ensure our distributors and bottle shops know that WE know about freshness. Distributors and bottle shops need to be aware that beer sitting in the window for weeks is not good for the beer, and simply trying to sell old beer, is bad for everyone. Distributors and bottle shops also need to learn what beers can and do age well, and which ones do not. I have no problem seeing a 5-year old barelywine on the shelf, but I cringe when I see a wheat beer dated 2009 sitting in a sunny window.
With all of that said it’s up to us. Be aware of dates on cases and look for them. Experiment with your favorite beers and see what dates are acceptable and which ones are not. Keep in mind some beers get better and better with age, and some are just fine with age. Learn what beers age well, and which beers do not. Talk to your distributors and bottles shops. As beer drinkers we want fresh beers and we want to taste the beer the brewer designed, and I’m sure your beer-merchants want the same. This is not an “us versus them” mentality…together we can ensure the beers are fresh and the ones that are beyond their “best by” dates either get sold before they get old, or returned to the brewery if they don’t. Pay attention to dates and I guarantee down the road you’ll thank me.
So what if there’s no date visible or what if the date stamp looks like it was added at the distributor…you have two choices…ask…or remember my one simple rule…NO DATE NO BUY!