By Diane Catanzaro and Chris Jones
Hello there boys and girls. Today we’re going to talk about beer freshness. No, not Frenchness, not how well beer goes with a baguette, but freshness, how young a beer is. One of the best ways to know your beer is fresh is to support your local brewery. A beer brewed nearby is more likely to be fresh than one brewed on the west coast or in Europe.
Is freshness important? After all, it’s just beer. More than likely a beer long in the tooth will not taste the way it was designed to taste.
Imagine a pale ale brewed last week and one brewed a year ago. Which one is going to taste better? The one made last week, obviously. Beer scribe Randy Mosher, in his book “Tasting Beer, An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink” (Storey Publishing, 2009), says that as beer gets older, the flavor undergoes a metamorphosis – “Light beers change fastest, and higher temperatures accelerate the process.” Hop aromas dissipate and a cardboard aroma winds its way into your consciousness.
Mr. Mosher cuts to the chase and states “beers with less than 6 or 7 percent alcohol are never meant to age.” We would add that beers where the hops aroma and flavor are showcased, for example IPAs and even higher-alcohol double IPAs and imperial pilsners, will also degrade over time and should not be aged. Hoppy beers and lighter, more delicately flavored beers are best enjoyed as soon after brewing as possible, so the aromas and flavor are fresh. Wait too long and you get stale cardboard flavors and the hops aroma isn’t fresh. The lighter and more delicate the beer, the more important freshness is. Light lagers, cream ale, pils, helles, kolsch, light lagers, and wheat beers are examples of styles where freshness is especially important.
You may have heard that aged or ‘vintage’ beers are so desirable among beer geeks that folks buy beers just to set them aside to drink after the next election so that the flavor will be….huge….big league. However, aging benefits very few beer styles. Barleywine is a high-alcohol beer that can age well for several years. It will develop a sherry-like “oxidized” character that increases with age. This may be desirable and adds a complexity you may find pleasing. Imperial stouts are strong beers and a year or two of aging may be fine. The Trappist beer Orval is considered by many to be excellent after a year of aging. The Duchesse de Bourgogne, one of our favorite beers, ages very well for several years, provided you appreciate the more prominent balsamic notes in the aged version. Many quads and higher gravity Trappist ales hold up well with a year or two of aging. Vintage gueuzes from Belgium can age well for many years and are highly sought after. Aging under refrigeration or at a cool temperature will retain freshness longer than beer aged at room temperature or, perish the thought (and the beer), warmer. While there are many factors that play a role in how long a beer “keeps,” the vast majority of beer that consumers purchase is meant to be consumed as fresh as possible.
So, the question is, how do you know if the beer you are purchasing is fresh as-the-brewer-intended or stale, oxidized, or otherwise past its prime? It can be challenging to discern whether a bottled or canned beer sitting on the retailer’s shelf or on a restaurant beer list is fresh. But, it is worth the effort.
There are different types of “freshness dates.” Some breweries print a packaging date on the bottle or can, some print a “best by” or “enjoy by” date. This latter date is basically the expiration date after which the beer may have some change in flavor quality. The beer isn’t going to hurt you if you drink it, however the flavor may not be as intended. Some breweries print a code that can’t be deciphered by the consumer, and some don’t provide any information. Packaging date is preferred by many beer fanciers, as it allows the consumer to decide when the beer is “best consumed by.” They know that the kolsch will be “old” after three months, but the imperial stout will still be fine after three years. Others prefer a “best by” date, which takes the guesswork out of determining when a beer is no longer at peak quality and indicates that it should be pulled from the shelves. Our point of view is that either approach is better than no date, but it would be nice if whatever date is used is easy to read and specifies if it is “packaged on” or “best by.”
The folks at Stone Brewing, in San Diego and Richmond, recognize that many consumers don’t look for freshness dates. Their IPAs should be consumed fresh, and if a retailer or restaurant serves a 6-month old bottle it isn’t going to taste as it should. So Stone brews an “Enjoy By” IPA series of where the ‘expiration date’ is part of the beer’s name. Hard to miss the expiration date on that “Enjoy By 02-14-17 Chocolate Cherry IPA.” Some breweries, like the Virginia Beer Company, insist that their beers be pulled from the shelves after 90 days, but it is up to the distributor or retailer to remember to do this. (This 90-day guideline would not apply to a higher alcohol beer like a barleywine or imperial stout, by the way). If you start checking the freshness dates at your local retailer you may discover that old stock is not being pulled off the shelf. Recent visits to local beer retailers turned up quite a few beers that should be pulled from the shelf due to age.
Why do brewers and brewery owners care? Because when a consumer drinks a beer that is old and stale, they often think that the brewery is producing an inferior product. They don’t realize that the beer was brewed perfectly but sat way too long in a distribution warehouse, on a store shelf, or in a restaurant’s storage area. Old beer hurts the brewery’s reputation for quality when someone purchases it and finds it less than delicious. So, if you want to be sure your beer isn’t old and stale, always check for the “freshness date” on the bottle, label, or can.
However, you have to know where to look to find the date. When you just want to quickly get in and out of the store, it’s not always easy to find that date. Bottles may have the date inkjet printed faintly on the neck, or the date could be printed on the front of the label, or there could be a tab on the side of the label where the month (presumably bottling) is notched, or a date may be on the cap in rare instances. Canned beers generally will have the date on the bottom of the can, however often it isn’t specified as to whether it is a packaging date or a best-consumed-by date. Any info will be on the bottle or can itself, not the exterior packaging (six-pack holder or exterior of case).
Here is an idea of where you can find freshness dates for a sample of Virginia breweries.
Breweries that provide a packaging date:
Fair Winds Brewing, Lorton -“sprouted on” – bottom of can
Smartmouth, Norfolk – “canned on” – bottom of can
Center of the Universe, Ashland – “in orbit” – bottom of can
Bold Rock Cider, Nellysford – “canned on” – bottom of can
O’Connor Brewing, Norfolk – “bottled on” – inkjet on neck of bottle
Port City, Alexandria – “bottled on” – inkjet on neck of bottle
Devils Backbone, Lexington – “boned on” – inkjet on neck of bottle
Parkway Brewing, Salem – “parked on” –inkjet on neck of bottle
Starr Hill, Crozet – “packaged on” – inkjet on neck of bottle
Date, unspecified, but probably packaging date:
There is a date, but it is not identified as “packaging date” vs “enjoy by” date. However it is likely this is the packaging date. Beers canned by the Old Dominion Mobile canner generally seem to have a date on the bottom of the can. (One exception: if the date is in the future, it is most assuredly the “enjoy by” date).
Alewerks, Williamsburg – stamped on bottle label
Virginia Beer Company, Williamsburg – bottom of can
Hardywood, Richmond – bottom of can
Young Veterans, Virginia Beach – bottom of can
Commonwealth Brewing, Virginia Beach – bottom of can
Champion Brewing, Charlottesville – bottom of can
Devils Backbone, Lexington – bottom of can
Best consumed by or “enjoy by” dates:
Green Flash, Virginia Beach “best by” – bottle label
Blue Mountain, Afton – “enjoy by” – bottle label
Stone Brewing, Richmond – “enjoy by” – inkjet on neck of bottle
Could not find either packaging or “enjoy by” date:
It is possible that the date is small and could be seen with a flashlight, but this reporter could not find it after serious scrutiny. If we missed it we apologize. It may be there was a date readable through backlighting, not meant to be read by consumers.
Bold Rock Cider – Nellysford – no information on bottle
Hardywood Park, Richmond – no information on bottle
Legend Brewing, Richmond – no information on bottle
Heritage Brewing, Manassas – no information on can
Apocalypse, Forest – no information on can
Date is not readily usable to the consumer.
This is a code or time stamp that is not readily deciphered by the consumer. It allows a brewery to identify any quality control problems. Some of these are almost invisible and can only be seen when backlighted.
Lickinghole Creek Brewing Company, Goochland – inkjet code on bottle neck.
St George Brewing Company, Hampton – inkjet code on bottle neck, Gregorian calendar (for example 140 is February 9).
O’Connor Brewing Company, Norfolk – inkjet code on bottle neck, needs backlighting to be visible, first four digits is the date of packaging (for example 0207 is February 7).
What’s a person to do? The newer the brew, the better for you. If you want your beer to taste the way the brewery intended it to taste, get it while it’s fresh, fine and divine. Check for either a packaging or expiration date and seek the freshest beer possible to get your beers in peak condition. And, purchasing beers brewed locally increases the odds that you are getting a fresh product.