The model for making money off beer is pretty simple. You brew a beer, you package it, you send it out, and someone (eventually) pays you. Easy squeezy.
Is that the right model for what modern beer is trying to do though? Fragile products, unpasteurized, with wild yeast or volatile hops are entering a marketplace built for the pasteurized, filtered and shelf stable. And instead of competing with a handful of other shelf-stable products they are competing with hundreds of beers. And a large percentage of these brands are using ad-hoc, cobbled together equipment, picking up oxygen all along the way.
The end result is people like me questioning bottling dates, or finding stock that is well beyond its original intent, The distribution model and marketplace for beer simply isn’t designed for volatile IPAs or unpasteurized lagers. The history of this model is all tied into pasteurization and refrigeration. While refrigeration is still just as important, pasteurization is a dirty word amongst small brewers. When sending your beer out of the brewery you can almost guarantee that your beer is going to end up old, and probably on a warm shelf.
This isn’t the case with all breweries. In the US, breweries such as Hill Farmstead, The Alchemist and Tree House all have incredible demand and global reputations but theirs, and many others like them, have a distribution footprint not much larger than the brewery itself. While that model isn’t exactly new, the volatile “New England” IPAs they have helped pioneer are definitely a different beast altogether. Now that breweries are aping these styles and sending them into the industrial marketplace the problem of shelf life is only going to be amplified.
A successful small brewing industry has been built on this industrial marketplace, but in order to do that there has been a lot of truth stretching, compromise and stock that brewers, distributors and stores know isn’t at its best. Think about any other industry and could you say that’s true? Beer is an anomaly in the sense that it doesn’t spoil like milk or fruit, but it also degrades over relatively short times when compared to other alcoholic beverages. When you factor in warehousing of stock, and lack of package date transparency, then buying beer even within a few kms of the brewery is a crapshoot – let alone across states, countries and oceans.
I’m not sure what the solution is or if there even needs to be one, but the more I look at shelves the more all I can see is beer that I don’t want to risk my money on. Not because it’s bad, but because I don’t know if it’s fresh and vibrant or dull and oxidised. The market for volatile beer is getting more competitive and drinkers are more educated. The further the industrial beer model is followed the more it looks like it’s a square peg in a round hole.
It’s insane that breweries don’t print easily legible expiry dates on bottles and cans. Even good small breweries are bad at this – had a fixation IPA the other week with missing expiry dates altogether. There just wasn’t one. Why bother emphasising you’re on the fresh beer wagon and then mess up the expiry date?