I once served a five-year-old bottle of craft beer to a college buddy, just for laughs. As he popped the top, I waited in anticipation for his first sip, which he promptly spit all over my coffee table. I deserved it. Without the benefit of freshness dating, he was helpless against the twin evils of stale beer and a bastard friend.
Craft brewers have long debated whether and how to date beer bottles. Providing freshness dating is one of those things that most craft breweries have avoided so far, even though it would be hugely useful to consumers struggling with two age-old questions: “How old is my beer? And, more importantly, is there a chance I might wind up spitting it all over myself?”
The overwhelming majority of beer, by its nature a foodstuff, is generally meant for consumption promptly after its creation. If you miss a certain window of time, your beer won’t grow mold or make you sick, but it will change for the worse. Even chest-thumping Double IPAs can fall prey to beer’s two biggest enemies: oxygen and light. Overexposure to these elements can leave you drinking either a cardboard cocktail or a stink bomb.
So while it’s cool that I can sit in Boston and drink beers from Seattle, Singapore and Sydney, the brews in hand usually no longer taste as the brewer intended, or as I may have hoped. But this isn’t an argument against shipping beer around the world. Even local beer can pose a grave freshness threat. A liquor store near where I live in Boston used to leave the Harpoon Brewery’s beers on the shelves year-round, regardless of whether they were seasonals. While at first I thought it was odd that the brewery released its Winter Warmer in mid-August, the brewery representative later confided that the store’s owner had just left it there from the previous year (or earlier). I pity the poor, unwitting fool who wasted eight bucks on that particular six-pack.
The repercussions of a stale beer experience can be serious. After getting burned by, say, a three-year-old Winter Warmer, many consumers will just head back to their staple brands, opt to drink only tap beer, or start futilely scouring labels for often-illegible freshness dates. Yet too many people in the beer industry either refuse to acknowledge the problem, or act as apologists for it. In reality, many brewers, importers and retailers simply don’t want you to know when your beer was made. Why? Because they know most of us don’t want to drink beer that tastes like cardboard, and therefore we won’t buy old beer. And that would leave brewers with a lot of unsold beer and unrecoverable losses.
This criticism of the beer industry’s lackadaisical attitude towards freshness, however, should not be read as an indictment of all parties. To be sure, many breweries have stepped up. Unsurprisingly, the Boston Beer Company, brewer of Sam Adams, pioneered freshness dating in the mid-’80s by adding a “best by” date to its labels. Ten years later, Anheuser-Busch trotted out its famous “Born On” date. While widely viewed as a marketing tool for A-B (you’re not likely to ever have a stale Budweiser anyway), the controversial freshness dating system was certainly a positive first step.
Many smaller fish have acknowledged the importance of freshness dating as well, utilizing a range of approaches. Victory Brewing Company employs an expensive laser coder that inscribes either a “best by” or “bottled on” date, depending on whether the beer is bottle-conditioned. Clipper City Brewery uses a cheaper method: Workers fire up a buzz saw to cut notches in stacks of labels before bottling. On the other end of the spectrum, the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery vintage dates its higher alcohol offerings to promote the cellaring of its beers.
The rest of the beer industry needs to follow this lead, should stop equivocating and help empower consumers. If they expect curious drinkers to spend nine bucks on a six-pack, why not take an easy step to protect their lips from stale sips? Consumers new and old shouldn’t have to worry about being turned off by a bottle past its prime. Otherwise, beer lovers will remain unprotected from unscrupulous store owners and diabolical friends alike.
And there’s no telling what that’ll mean for the nation’s coffee tables.
–article first appeared in December 2006 issue of Beer Advocate Magazine