A Field Guide To Fresh Beer

It can be daunting to enter your favorite liquor store and see a plethora of bottled beer on the shelves, waiting to be gulped down. While many customers choose beer based on recommendation, label art or past tastings, there is one other important way to choose beer—bottling date. Purchasing out-of-date beer is a lose-lose. You get beer that tastes less-than-stellar and the brewery doesn’t get an opportunity to showcase the beer the way it was meant to be enjoyed. Being an educated consumer can help you avoid purchasing and eventually drain-pouring old beer.

Working in customer service for a brewery, I receive many emails regarding off-tasting beer. Often, this is due to the beer being severely out-of-date on the shelf. It helps us immensely to hear about what stores are selling old beer, so that we can handle the matter with our distributors across the country. If someone buys an old Samurai in Virginia, we want to know about it. If someone buys an out-of-date Hibernation at the liquor store down the street from us, we want to know about it. Likely, old beer on the shelf is indicative of a larger conversation that needs to take place between the brewery and the distributor.

 

Craft breweries may differ in style and technique but they all have something in common; they all want consumers to have the best tasting, freshest iteration of their beers. Unsurprisingly, breweries want you to have the best possible circumstances to like their beer. Many people assume that if a beer is on the shelves, it is fresh. Not so, my friends! Even in a bastion of delicious craft brew like Denver, we can still be the unfortunate purchasers of stale beer, if we’re not careful. This is why many breweries print package dates on their bottles to better help you find fresh beer.

 

How Fresh Is It?:

While it would be easy if all beers had a consistent shelf-life, freshness is subjective by style. Simply put, the hoppier or lighter the beer, the shorter its shelf-life. Beer with a strong malt backbone tends to last longer or, indeed, taste better with age. Let’s say you buy a Yeti or a Claymore and you want to cellar it for a year. This certainly won’t hurt your beer. Some say they like it better after a little time in the bottle. Should you do the same with a Denver Pale Ale? Definitely not.

 

Hoppier or lighter beers, including IPAs, pale ales, fruit beers and some lagers often end up stale after about 3-4 months. Hops are one of the most delicate ingredients in beer and they wither dramatically with time. Out-of-date hoppy beers will taste profoundly stale and are certainly not shining examples of how brewers intend for their beer to taste.

Rule of Thumb:

Pale Ales, fruit beers, light lagers and IPAs: 3-4 months after bottling date

Stouts, barleywines and winter beers: 1 year or more from bottling date.

 

Reading The Label:

Some breweries, like Great Divide, include the bottling date on its bottles. This way, you can easily calculate how many months you are from bottling date to make an educated purchase. On our bottles, you will see the following in the lower right-hand corner of the label: “Bottled on: Month/Day/Year.”

Bells Brewery in Michigan announced recently that it will begin adding packaging dates to its bottles. Theirs will reportedly be a similar style, but will also include the batch number and shelf-life code, which the brewery will use in case of reports of old beer.

Some breweries are more cryptic with their dating, including bottled-on dates but not in a format known to consumers. Some breweries place the bottled-on date on the glass, making it hard to read. However, many breweries have easy-to-read dates featured on their bottles.

Next time you’re in your favorite beer store, take a peek for the packaging date. If you see old beer, don’t buy it and make sure to mention it to the store. Like the famous NYC subway system says, “If you see something, say something.”

About Hanna Laney


Hanna Laney is that middle space in the Venn diagram between grammarian, beer geek and miniature horse aficionado. You can find her tweeting and Facebook-ing for Great Divide Brewing Company and staying around after hours to enjoy a couple cold ones. She will happily discuss picayune details related to the Portland Trail Blazers franchise with anyone silly enough to listen.

  • Mike

    This article is a no-brainer, when beers have bottling dates on them. But what about the many beers out there that have no such dates?? Or tips on how to “decode” the cryptic ones referenced in the article? Would have been more helpful if the article had addressed those questions.

  • Hanna

    Thanks for the feedback, Mike! Many people do not know how long beers are fresh, so I wanted to start there. Likely, I will delve deeper into the subject in the future, but I wanted to help those just entering the world of craft beer be able to buy the tastiest beer they could!

  • http://tewsdaybrewsday.blogspot.com CraftBeerDude

    I actually find it rather frustrating when breweries don’t use readable formats for their date codes. The date the beer was bottled on shouldn’t be a guessing game for consumers; there are some beers I would love to buy as soon as it rolls off the truck, and there are others I that would make me giddy if I discovered they’d been (hopefully in the refrigerator) on the shelf for a year… And the opposite is also true. Nothing is more of a bummer than buying a beer with no readable date stamp, only to find it’s well past its prime and into stale flavors. Thanks for the good read!

  • Jake Grover

    @Mike

    This is a great place to start:

    http://sites.google.com/site/freshbeeronly/

    • http://denveroffthewagon.com PJ

      Jake, awesome resource! I’ve tweeted it. (under @denverwagon)

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  • http://billybrew.com Billy Broas

    Great post Hanna. Beer being sold stale and mishandled by retailers is a common problem. It kills me when I see the beer shelf right in front of a sunny window.

    I think another problem is that too many beer drinkers think beer should be aged. Yes there are some styles that benefit from it, but the vast majority should be drunk fresh. I love this Michael Jackson quote that I repeat often:

    “One of life’s great but simple pleasures, widely recognised, is the aroma, taste, and satisfaction offered by truly fresh bread. Another, less well acknowledged, is the same sequence of sensuous experiences brought forth by really fresh beer”

    Beer isn’t wine. Heck, even a lot of wines shouldn’t be aged.

  • http://www.conkphotography.com CONK

    What would be an out of date Hibernation, this seems like a good beer to age. In fact, I would gladly trade you a six pack of fresh Great Divide Hibernation for a 3 year old Hibernation.

  • Hanna

    Ryan, I think you make a good point but I think time in the bottle definitely changes the brew. If you are used to fresh Hibernation, perhaps you wouldn’t enjoy the nuances of the older bottles.

  • Sean

    Thank you Hanna ! Very helpful article ! I am a huge fan of Colorado craft beer, especially Great Divide. Tonight I picked up a 22oz bomber of Old Ruffian. I was really excited about trying this one. I noticed that it was brewed November 8th 2010. I took a chance on it anyway hopeing, it would still be good. I realize barleywines and stouts usually have long shelf life. It is my understanding that, traditional Scotch ale barleywines have no Hops but, barley instead. Old Ruffian being more of an Belgian Old ale style barley wine has Hops. An extreme amount at that. So wouldn’t that make it’s shelf life considerably shorter ? I think it was unfortunately, quite stale. It had an extremely bitter, acidic, astringent aftertaste. Even a couple of minutes after I had taken a sip, the bitterness permeated my tounge. I realize it’s 90IBUS but, I’m usually a fan of extremely roubust brews. I even took it back to the Store, exchanged it, and got an Oak Aged Yeti instead. Which was actually dated Dec. 27 2010. haha It was much better but, still not the best Yeti I have had. I told them they might want to take those other Ruffians off the shelf.

    • http://www.greatdivide.com Hanna Laney

      Hi Sean. Thanks for your comment! I’m sorry you had a less-than-desirable experience with Great Divide. While Old Ruffian is not Belgian, you are correct that it is jam-packed with hops. Your beer may have been mishandled at some point. I am glad to hear you returned it to the store. I hope more people will return old beer, too. Cheers!