Should be easy, right? You go into a shop, you chose a beer and you pay your money. Nice and simple. However in most cases you probably want fresh beer but with good beer infiltrating almost all bottle stores in some shape or form, it’s very easy to end up wasting your money on old or poorly treated stock.
There are many clues to what beer you should purchase in a store. Hopefully this guide will help you out. While there are no hard and fast rules, being aware of some of the basics can help you get the best beer in the best condition.
Bottling/Best before dates
The first thing to do is to look for packaging/best before dates. Try the neck of the bottle (you may need to hold them up to the light), the underside, the label or if there is a box/six pack holder, take a gander at that. Not every beer will have one but it doesn’t hurt to check.
Unfortunately there is no industry standard. Some have three months, some six, some nine, and some a year (in the case of some beers suitable for ageing it can even be three, five or twenty years). Which makes it even more difficult on the consumer. Occasionally they have a “born on” or “bottled on” date, which is far easier to decipher, and ideal transparency from a consumer perspective.
Here are two tools which will assist. The first is a guide to a dating system used by many US breweries which is handy to be aware of. The second is a (US centric) guide to bottling dates (thanks to Lee in the comments for the link)
Also be aware that US uses a stupid date format so 03/12/15 is March 12th, not December 3rd. I’ve been caught out more than once going on a social media rant about old beer before sheepishly realising my mistake.
Some brands move quicker than others so if you aren’t sure, weigh up store traffic vs popularity vs what you’re prepared to drink. For example, I’m guessing most stores move a lot of VB/Stella/Heineken etc etc, but I don’t want to drink those regardless if it is fresh beer or not. Things like Stone and Wood Pacific Ale or Sierra Nevada Pale are likely to move a lot in any store so even if you didn’t have them in mind they may be a better option than an IPA from a smaller brewery you aren’t sure about.
Also, reputable brands are more likely to have their quality control sorted, while smaller breweries might start showing their age quicker. Sierra Nevada, for example, put a lot of work in to process and shipping so it’s more likely to be a more stable product on the shelves. As much as it pains me to say it, you can often trust a beer from a US brewery like Sierra Nevada or Stone to be in better condition on Australian shelves than you can many local beers.
I’m not saying stick to those beers, as that would be boring as hell, but if you are going to pick up something new then it’s best to do it at a store you know cares about the product.
Do your shopping at places you know and trust and always try and get a refrigerated product if you can. Cool storage helps keep beer fresher and slows oxygen and other impacts of ageing.
Also, I’m not too keen on going to chain stores and am always extra weary of a small-town franchise or something similar. You don’t know how much they know. Did the beer sit in the sun for a day? How much stock did they purchase to fill the shelves and how quickly does it move vs their mainstream product?
Because of this, try to stick to beer specialty shops or shops that you know and trust. It might be less convenient or a little more expensive but when you get home and pop your beer do you want to be happy or disappointed? They are also more likely to be able to give you advice if you aren’t sure. A simple “what’s new?” to the person at the counter may save you some pain.
If you can’t find what you are looking for, get online. There are a number of stores maintaining a good online service and most will ship within a couple of days. Another benefit of online is they often have a “New stock” page or when the beer was updated; so you can know for sure what is newer in stock.
Some beers last better than others. Generally the basic guide is that anything hop forward with a light malt profile will lose flavour and oxidise quicker, so be wary of pales, IPAs, golden ales etc. There is nothing sadder than an IPA that is well past its date.
In terms of what is going to be more reliable, high abv, dark, and soured beers will often hold up better over longer periods of time. The dusty gueuze on the shelf is always going to be a better option than the dusty IPA when you aren’t sure of age.
The reason darker malt beers are a safer purchase is the higher presence of melanoidins, which result in “sherry” like flavours over time (due to oxygen) where as pale malt beers will often end up tasting like wet cardboard given enough time.
Beer with souring bacteria, such as lactobacillus, added after boiling (during fermentation) that isn’t pasteurised will also hold up a lot better as the bacteria will continue to work. Even though many have lighter malt bodies and low abv, the bacteria helps keep the beer lively, evolving and interesting. If you aren’t sure of the process, read the label or check their website to try learn the process of the beer. Often you can pick up clues from that.
In addition to styles and bacteria, beer that is bottle conditioned (bottled with live yeast rather than force carbonated) might have a bit more life in it due to the active yeast continuing to work eating sugars. For the ultimate in yeast protection though, look out for brettanomyces yeast (which is often used in conjunction with bacteria but also increasingly used alone or with traditional yeast) will also usually continue to eat sugars and evolve, helping prevent oxygen spoilage and preserve overall flavour. Some “brett” IPAs are recommended to be aged for that reason, going against the idea that IPAs shouldn’t be aged.
Note: Dark beers will end up tasting like cardboard eventually too. Depending on how much oxygen the beer has been exposed to over it’s life.
If you’re clever, you can swipe some good deals with “bargain bin” beers or specials on older stock. In the past I’ve picked up reduced price lambic blends, brettanomyces beers and strong Belgian styles that have aged magnificently. While your knowledge can help you getting something fresh, it can also help you get something cheap.
If you use twitter/facebook/instagram, then make sure you follow your favourite breweries or stores to keep track of what’s fresh and new. It’s also a good way to find out about unknown shops from other drinkers. There might be a good shop just the corner and you didn’t know it existed..
Also Untappd is obviously a great way to see what’s going on and get a feel for what is tasting good around you.
Use some common sense and you’re less likely to get burned. Support stores you know care about fresh beer and keep an eye out for packaging dates (for hoppy beers) or bargains (for almost everything else). A little bit of research and knowledge can really go a long way to making you far happier when buying beer.
Regarding the different “dates” used by breweries the following site has a fairly decent list (admittedly more North America centric): http://freshbeeronly.com