Beer is a fragile product and should be treated like any other perishable food item. Despite popular belief otherwise, beer does spoil with time and most should be consumed within 3–6 months of packaging. Pair this with the growing costs of brewing ingredients, transportation, and a slew of other increases that are all getting passed down to consumers, and it suddenly becomes even more important to ensure that what you buy is in the best shape it can be. Trust us, there’s nothing worse than losing $10 on a 6-pack of stale IPA.
Here are some tips that’ll save you money and a palate beating:
In most cases, try to stay away from stores and bars that focus on massive selections, as the selection can quickly become the enemy. We’ve found that few have the time or care to stay on top of it and wind up playing host to dead beers.
Look for Freshness Dates
Be it a packaged on, best before, or bottled on date—look for it. Some brewers notch the side of their label, noting which month to consume the beer by, while others will print a date or cryptic code in varying places on the bottle, label, or outer packaging, that requires a beer geek decoder ring. Personally, we dig Anheuser-Busch’s “born on date” as it’s easy to understand and millions of potential craft beer drinkers have already been exposed to it, but unfortunately most craft brewers do nothing at all.
The freshness dating methods are all over the place, and not having an industry standard is a real pain in the ass for consumers. Many brewers avoid the topic completely as they’re afraid of associated costs and time, while others have gone on the record saying that they don’t want the consumer and retailer to know how old their beer is. Send a message. Don’t buy beer that doesn’t have a readable date. Otherwise, consumer beware!
Buy Beer From the Cooler
Generally speaking, beer that’s constantly kept cool will be fresher. Beer sitting out at room temperature degrades quicker and its chances of getting oxidized or skunked increase. Even the tightest bottling system will allow minute amounts of air into the bottle, which over time will start to destroy the beer and give that wet cardboard flavor. Cold storage will aid in slowing down oxidation and increase your buying-fresh-beer odds.
If you can’t buy beer kept in the cooler: 1) Avoid buying beer that is kept in direct light, which allows damaging UV rays in. Both excessive direct sunlight and heat can give the brew a skunky, stale flavor, which is a byproduct of the delicate hop oils spoiling. 2) Check for dust. It’s a sure sign that the beer has been let sit there for far too long.
If you’re unlucky and end up buying some bad brew, simply bring it to the attention of the store and the brewery—giving the latter as much info as possible, as few have the resources to monitor their beer first-hand after it’s left the brewery.
Ask Before You Buy at the Bar
Unlike a store where you can see the product, it can be more of a crapshoot at a bar, but don’t feel shy about asking to see the bottle before you buy a beer, or inquiring when a beer was tapped. It’s your right as a consumer to demand this information and take your money elsewhere if you don’t get answers. In the case of ordering something that tastes off, politely bring it up and they will take the beer back.
Of course there are always exceptions to these rules. Some beers do well with aging (bottle-conditioned or high alcohol) and an increasing number of shop and bar owners are taking pride in keeping on top of their inventory. But there’s not enough of this happening, the industry has a lot of work to do, and more consumers need to question the quality of the beer they buy versus blindly buying under the assumption that craft beer always equals better beer. ■