Beer is a Perishable Product
Beer is a foodstuff. As with most foodstuffs, beer is perishable-it deteriorates as a result of the action of bacteria, light, and air. However, unlike other food products, packaged beer is not legally mandated to carry a "sell by" date. Nonetheless, some domestic beer sold in the United States does carry a freshness date. The Boston Beer Company was among the first to use freshness dating, as far back as 1985. Anheuser-Busch has followed suit with its much-publicized "born on" dates. There are still many breweries, large and small, which do not send all their beers to market with a freshness date, but the trend is certainly moving in the right direction.
Prior to bottling, a typical commercial ale or lager will undergo some form of stabilization to extend its shelf life. The two primary forms of stabilization are sterile filtration, in which the beer is passed through a microporous filter that will not let through any "crunchy bits" larger than 0.5 microns; and pasteurization, whereby the beer is heated briefly to kill any microbial wildlife. Both approaches are widely used, though a number of brewers have noted that sterile filtration strips some hop flavors from their ales. A third, traditional option for preparing a beer for its journey in a bottle to your glass, "bottle conditioning," is dealt with later.
Freshness period: The drinking window
The length of time it takes for a beer to become stale (a papery note, dulled hop character, or other off flavors) is determined by the alcoholic strength and hopping level of the beer. Both alcohol and hops help preserve beer. Thus hoppier, stronger beers keep for longer. Typically, the freshness period for a lager is four months; for stronger craft-brewed ales, five months. High-gravity, high-strength beers such as doppelbocks typically carry a six- to twelve-month freshness period. All of the preceding assumes proper handling of the beer.
How can you determine the "drinking window" of a beer? It depends on the dating system used by the brewery. Taking a typical example of Boston Beer’s Samuel Adams brands, the freshness period is the time between shipment from the brewery and the freshness date, or "consume by" date, marked on the label or capsule. In the case of a beer with a "born on" date (Anheuser-Busch products, for example), the freshness period is approximately four months after the date on the label.
Imports: A note of caution
Imported beer can have a rough ride on its way to your local retailer. First, it must undergo a sea voyage, hopefully in temperature-controlled containers, or "reefers," in industry parlance. After sitting in the bonded customs warehouse (hopefully, air conditioned), it must pass through an importer’s warehouse and then be shipped to a wholesaler’s warehouse. In the best case, the local wholesaler will have temperature-controlled storage and an efficient stock
control system, although this is an area of commerce that is not renowned for sympathetic handling of product or startling efficiency with stock. One thing is for sure-at any moment of time in the Byzantine system of beer distribution in the United States, a prodigious amount of imported beer is sitting in warehouses slowly undergoing the inexorable effects of aging.
This is not to suggest that many imported beers do not find their way to us in perfect condition. However, one is not reassured by the reluctance of virtually all beer importers to put freshness dating on the wares that they import. Beers produced for consumption in European Union countries are mandated to have an expiration date on the packaging. When the same breweries produce a batch for export to the United States, too often, off comes the expiration dating and on goes the Surgeon General’s warning.
It must be said that some imported beers do carry a freshness date, but they are vastly outnumbered by those that do not. Thus a consumer purchasing a six pack of imported Czech pilsner or English bitter may have no idea as to how long the product has been in the chain of distribution. In both examples freshness is as important as with any domestic ale or lager. Dust or label discoloration may give a clue that a beer has been too long on a retailer’s shelf, but even these are not always reliable indicators. At the Beverage Testing Institute it has been noticed that a number of bottles purchased at retail have failed the freshness test, sometimes to the point of being undrinkable. Ultimately, market pressure will be the only factor that will promote wide-scale introduction of useful freshness dating for imported beers. Until such time, consumers can use the following commonsense approaches to avoid being shortchanged with stale imported beer.
Packaging: Bottles, Cans, Widgets, and Growlers
What, if any, difference does packaging make? Surprisingly, it can be quite a significant factor. Following is a brief rundown of the major points of interest regarding the various "enclosures," or containers, in which beer is shipped and sold.
Clear versus colored glass bottles
If you have ever wondered why most beer bottles are amber or green, the answer is simple. The full spectrum of daylight can have undesirable effects on a beer over a period of time. The ultraviolet portion of the spectrum is especially harmful; promoting chemical reactions that produce "off flavors" that will take the edge off the freshness of a beer. Dark glass greatly inhibits this photochemical effect, whereas clear glass leaves the beer within vulnerable to being "light struck." The industry standard is for green or amber glass, but for some unfathomable reason a number of British breweries stick resolutely to their traditional practice of using clear glass bottles, with often undesirable consequences when such beers are left on a retailer’s shelf for any length of time.
Nitrogen capsules ("widgets")
Guinness introduced the nitrogen capsule, commonly known as the widget, in cans of Guinness Stout in the late 1980s. Subsequently, this device has caused many shirts and shoes to be soaked with beer as people discover for themselves the magic of nitrogen draft flow systems. Guinness served on draft acquires its creamy head when nitrogen bubbles are flushed through the beer at the time of serving. The widget is a small plastic capsule containing pressurized nitrogen gas that rushes out of a pinhole when the can is opened and the internal pressure is lowered. Widgets have now found their way into bottles as well as cans and have jumped species from Irish stouts to other ales, though not necessarily with the same levels of critical acclaim.
Aluminum cans are more popular at the economy/supermarket/bulk package end of the market than at the premium side. Packaging in aluminum cans does necessarily imply pasteurization. Although cans do not fit the image of the craft-brewed product, there is no technical reason why high-quality beer cannot be sold in cans, and, in fact, a number of craft brewers are launching canned products. A significant impediment to craft brewers using cans instead of bottles is the high capital cost of the pasteurization and packing equipment required. Among imports, British bitters are often shipped in aluminum cans, and a certain brand of Australian lager has forged an image by being sold in a large "oil can" size.
A growler is a plastic or glass container used for selling fresh draft beer straight from the tap. Beer sold in this format, generally from a brewpub, must be refrigerated and then consumed within a day or two.
Bottle Conditioning: Living Beer
The term "living beer" can be either high praise or a slap in the face for a brewer. If the things that are "living" in the beer are microorganisms that ought not to be there, then it is bad news for a beer and its brewer.
Live beer, however, generally refers to the presence of noble yeasts left over from the brewing process. Beers that have been bottled unpasteurized and unfiltered, with a significant amount of live yeast, are called "bottle-conditioned" beers. The purpose of bottling beers in such a manner is to give them the potential to age and develop more complexity. Yeast inhibits oxidation and contributes complex flavors as it breaks down slowly in the bottle. Many Belgian ales are traditionally bottle conditioned through a secondary fermentation in the bottle, in a process similar to that which produces champagne.
An unpasteurized beer bottled with its yeast will not age in the manner of a conventionally processed beer. With age, bottle-conditioned beers develop a rounded, smoother mouthfeel, and over the course of years, often take on winey, vinous flavors.
Bottle conditioning is an economical means for small-scale craft brewers to bottle ales without the need for costly pasteurization or filtration equipment. How long one cellars bottle-conditioned beers is a matter of personal taste and will also depend on the specific character of the beer in question.
The following is a list of some of the top-rated, cellarable, bottle-conditioned beers we have reviewed. All or any of these would be highly recommended for a beer cellar (e.g., a cool cupboard in the basement). Suggested cellaring periods are in brackets, though they are only approximate cellaring times based on personal experiences and in some cases, brewery recommendations. Three gueuzes have been included for the simple reason that these beers have the best cellaring potential in the beer world. Frank Boon of Brouwerij Boon claims a 30-year cellar life for his gueuze beers.
The Bar: Drink Locally, Think Globally
As a consequence of the craft beer revolution, there is a vast choice of beer from abroad and closer to home. When confronted by a line of tap handles stretching the full length of the bar, do not overlook your local craft brewer. Independent local breweries are the backbone of any serious beer-drinking culture and should not be taken for granted in the competitive commercial environment. Recognize that a beer brewed in smaller quantities with 100% malted barley and high-quality hops will necessarily cost a little extra. Fresh, well-brewed beer that has traveled only a small number of miles will invariably taste better than an equivalent beer that left the brewery a few months ago. Indeed, a draft beer that has traveled a great distance will certainly have been pasteurized, thus is slightly handicapped from the start. The flip side to this is that a pasteurized imported keg of beer will certainly last longer when it is tapped than an unpasteurized, "live," craft beer. The latter needs to be drunk fresh. A conscientious draft bar should keep a few tap handles devoted to local craft brews and ensure that they remain fresh.
If a beer fails to live up to its obligation of being fresh, send it back over the bar-politely of course. Beer condition must always be the primary concern of any good bar. When confronted by a long line of tap handles, your first question to the bartender should be, "What’s fresh?"