To Drink or Not to Drink: What Date Codes Say About Your Beer

Feature by | Aug 2014 | Issue #91

The aisles of my local distributor are a lesson in beer buying: rows of six packs and bombers grouped by region, inviting your taste buds to globetrot. But it’s not all promise and enticement. Some bottles have gathered several seasons’ worth of dust. Others have faded labels, showing their age. With beer styles that do not improve with time, sitting around that long is death for flavor. IPAs lose the floral top notes for which the best are savored; lagers take on an unappealing dullness; ales obtain a skunky funk.

My distributor doesn’t preen about the dustiness of its wares, but I can roughly measure the age of its beers with a glance: double IPAs with a thick coat of dust? I’ll pass. Places more concerned with cultivating their appearances as well-curated shops, keep their stock shiningly clean. Is there a standard to which beer drinkers can hold those obsessively dusted labels? No, but not because there’s much resistance on the part of brewers, retailers or the Brewers Association, an advocacy group for smaller, independent breweries.

When I asked him about bottling dates, Paul Gatza, the organization’s director, said that he hadn’t heard of anyone who thought they were a bad idea. The association’s Technical Committee, which includes representatives from many of America’s most celebrated breweries, has discussed bottling dates, and is currently considering how the 2011 Food Modernization and Safety Act would impact any guidelines they implemented.

“I do expect that there will be a best practices statement related to clear, easy-to-comprehend date coding for packaged beer that will be finalized by the committee at some point,” Gatza said. Until they do however, breweries will continue giving the piecemeal date information that they each find appropriate.

In practice, that generally falls into “best by” or “bottled on” dating, each of which has its proponents. When a beer is labeled “best by,” the brewery makes a judgment weighing freshness against shelf life, and, presumably, the brewery’s bottom line. With “bottled on” dates, buyers must decide for themselves—using the knowledge, prejudice or ignorance at their disposal. When I consider Stone’s Ruination IPA, which was bottled on the other side of the country and shipped to stores in my New York neighborhood, do I know as well as their head brewer when the taste will begin to fall off?

Donovan Keating, Westbrook Brewing Company’s brewer, notes that there are pros and cons to both approaches to dating. Westbrook splits the difference by printing the bottling date of each batch on the bottom of their cans and also stating that certain products, like Gose and White Thai, are best within 90 days of bottling. To determine 90 days, Westbrook set aside (and still keeps) two six-packs from each batch, tasting them over time. They’ve determined that flavor suffers after 90 days as oxidization begins to give beers a “‘cheesy’ taste,” Keating says.

Stone Brewing Company’s brewmaster Mitch Steele contends that brewers know their products best, and so their “best by” dates are most useful for beer drinkers. Stone uses “Enjoy By” dates on all beers that are not meant to be bottle aged, which get a “bottled on” date instead. Stone also uses “bottled on” dates for beers where the code length hasn’t been determined, like ales with herbs or other ingredients that may offer additional protection against oxidation. Their shelf life, or date codes, range according to style: malt forward beers, like Smoked Porter, receive a 120-day date code, most IPAs and other hop forward beers, like Ruination, get 90, and the Enjoy By IPA gets 35, since Stone wants it consumed as fresh as possible.

“I don’t think there should be an industry date code standard,” Steele says, “I wish everyone would put dates on their bottles, but some breweries are better at minimizing oxygen pickup than others,” which means that one brewery’s IPA will suffer the creeping, cheesing effects of oxidization slower or faster than another. “So,” Steele concludes, “date codes should be determined by the brewery.”

Perhaps signaling a broader industry trend, this spring Sierra Nevada switched from Julian dates to a more transparent date coding system. Previously the first four digits of their bottling code had encoded dates using the last digit of the year and the Julian date: Jan. 1, 2012, would be 2001, and Dec. 31, 2014, would be 4365. Most customers found this to be, unsurprisingly, opaque—if you search the internet you’ll find videos of people “cracking” the code. Sierra Nevada now uses the same simple, six-digit format you use to sign your rent checks: MM/DD/YY.

When I reached out to the company about the reason for the switch, its communication manger, Ryan Arnold, told me that their goal was to provide useful information to consumers. “A little Julian math could sometimes cause lots of confusion, so we took an important step toward clarity. The packaged-on date is far easier for drinkers to understand and it helps us work with wholesalers and retailers to make sure only the freshest, best beer is on the shelves. And since some beers are great candidates for aging, ‘best by’ dates can sell their long-term potential short.”

Sierra Nevada gives guidelines for how long their bottled beers will keep on shelves under the proper conditions (cool, dry and dark), from 100 days for their Harvest IPA series up to 365 for bigger styles, like Bigfoot Barleywine—though they note that many people cellar these longer, to develop flavors that come with aging.

For their part, most retailers seem interested in assuring customers that they take all necessary precautions to provide a fresh product. Upmarket grocer Whole Foods, for example, touts their staff’s training and understanding of beer. “We have specialists in every store,” says Devon Broglie, associate global beverage buyer. “We trust [them] to understand the intentions of the brewer, follow the individual brewery instruction or protocol on dating, and manage their store’s inventory to ensure the highest possible quality and freshness of product.”

With beer as with everything else, retailers have to weigh freshness with demand. When managing stock at Uncle Barry’s in Brooklyn, Matt Volner, the bar’s beer director, notes that bottling dates “are good metrics, but they’re imperfect.” He uses them as a guide, and buys in small quantities, particularly with hoppy beers, to avoid having anything past its prime. “Best by” dates are useful, he believes, since brewers know their beers, but adds, “The ‘best by’ date is never going to give the full story of how a product’s been handled. In other words, even a beer that’s in code can go off.”

Where does that leave the consumer, anxiously studying bottles for clues about freshness? Some people will want to decide for themselves whether a beer is at its best. In that case, go with what you know (or ask someone you trust). If you are choosing between two similar IPAs, a “bottled on” date is more useful than a “best by” date: you can’t possibly know the idiosyncratic appraisals that go into each brewer’s decision about shelf life, but you do know that a batch made in July is fresher than one made in April of the same year. When freshness is key though, look for an objective date. And as a rule of thumb for must-drink-fresh styles, avoid bottles more than three months old.

If that doesn’t work, it may be time to appreciate the nuances of an Old Ale or a Barleywine.