I got to thinking about the subject of beer freshness after a friend and I were discussing some recent comments made on a popular craft beer site. By now we have all heard of the ‘Born On Date’, as a rather large and global beer conglomerate has made us all aware of the term. What many do not know, is that Anheiser-Bush InBev did not start the practice of marking when the beer was bottled. The Boston Beer Company first started the practice with its Sam Adams line back in the1980’s and many do it now in one form or fashion. Putting born on dates aside for a moment, the crux of this issue exactly how long is beer fresh?
This is indeed a highly debatable topic with many thoughts on how fresh a beer stays before you have to consume it. It often depends on a few factors, such as the style, how the beer is packaged, how it’s handled by the brewer, what the distributor does with it, as well as the retailer. Does a beer really go bad beyond its ‘freshness date’? I’m not going to be able to put that issue to bed in the article, but maybe I can give a little insight.
What I can tell you is that generally speaking, there are no specific guideline lines out there telling us when to consume our favorite craftbeer that I know of. A pretty good rule of thumb though is to look at the style you are about to buy. Beers such as most Ales (Pale Ales and IPA’s being the big ones) as well as Ambers and most beers with a lower ABV, tend to be best when consumed within 90 days. Consequently, higher ABV and heavily hopped beers such as as Stouts, Barleywines, Imperial beers or let’s say double IPA’s, the higher alcohol and heavy amount of hops act as a preservative allowing you to keep these for a while. Some beers actually benefit from a few years of aging.
Currently, there are no Federal or state guidelines or laws as to what is considered fresh and what is not. Breweries are also not required to put any kind of a date as to when the beer was bottled, brewed or should be consumed by. This is up to each brewer and each has their own thought on when beer is best fresh by and most certainly known when their beer is best consumed. For example, Dogfish Head typically recommends up to 120 days, where as Stone Brewing prefers not to exceed 90 days.
What consumers should also be aware of is where the beer is coming from. If I buy a six-pack of local craftbeer, I would expect that it would be pretty fresh. However that six-pack from Colorado is not going to be as fresh. Are either bad though? Hardly. Very often these self imposed dates can be pushed a little. That can of Dale’s Pale Ale bottled two weeks ago will taste just as fresh as the local craftbeer bottled yesterday.
Never fear though training is here! “Now, a big part of the Cicerone program is knowing how to identify off characters and how they are caused so that beer may be served properly in the market. Beer gets handled by the brewer, distributor, and then retailer before it gets into our hands as consumers. It’s important for people in every link of that chain to know how to handle it and store it properly. Temperature, light, movement… there’s alot of factors that affect it. We want to make certain that beer stays at 50ºF or lower (down to 32º), that it doesn’t come into contact with fluorescent or ultraviolet light, and that it doesn’t get too jostled along the way.” says Rob Landerman, Ranger Creek Brewing and Distilling’s Head Brewer and resident Certified Cicerone.
Does that mean you shouldn’t have a beer that does not have a freshness or born on date? Absolutely not. Just make sure to remember some signs of a beer to stay clear of are rusty caps, dust on the bottles or shelves and beer in clear bottles. These are often signs that at some point, the beer has not been handled as it should. This all brings us back to the question: Should I drink a beer that is past its recommended date? Again, look at styles, Ales, hoppy beers and those low in ABV you will want to have sooner, but your higher gravity beers and darker beers you push the edge if you wish.