This week we continue on discussing the potential areas post-brewing that can negatively alter the way a beer can taste–today’s topic is storage, which I promise is more interesting than it sounds.
The environment in which beer is stored can have real impact upon the longevity of its flavors and subsequently your drinking enjoyment. This is a real potential issue that gets overlooked or not tended to time and again by consumers, retailers and distributors alike for a variety of reasons.
You should know by now that beer has a distinct shelf-life, a “best-by” timeline. No, it won’t go “bad” in the way that your carton of milk from two months ago at the back of the fridge went bad. But there’s a window of best drinkability that everyone should consider. Problematically, it’s different for every beer, and can depend upon a lot of other factors. For example, macro and large regional breweries with national distribution often pasteurize, fine or centrifuge their beer to remove yeast and excessive hop matter. This not only makes for crisper, clearer beer but also can help extend package-life with less particulate in the bottle or can. A general guideline to best beer flavor is to consume it within three months of packaging (excluding specialty beers that are considered optimal for aging like barley wines, some sours, imperial stouts, etc.). Look for a date on your bottle or cans–you may have to search for it, but in my mind, all responsible breweries should include one. The absence of a packaging date could mean losing or at the least disillusioning consumers–not anything to overlook in today’s crowded market. Big specialty bottle shops with hundreds of SKUs are fantastic for expanding consumer knowledge and palates but they are often some of the worst offenders in retaining and selling old beers too long. Make your selections carefully everywhere–our contemporary cornucopia of beer choices can hide a handful of problems and nowhere is immune.
Storage conditions and stability of temperature matter for a longterm product as well: bringing beers from hot to cold and back again over time is detrimental and speeds up issues similar to the oxidative reactions we discussed last week. Unfortunately, the moving of beer from cold to warm and back again is routine at large distribution companies who often do not have enough refrigerated warehouse space to keep kegs cold. Some bars also have this problem, and keep kegs in a pen outside or at room temperature in a closet or hallway. Many stores have limited cold display space for bottles and cans–and one state even has bizarre archaic legal requirements to keep beer unrefrigerated entirely (I’m looking at you, Indiana). Obviously with today’s massive SKU availability many shops are merely loading up without regard to their cooler space, hoping to sell the maximum. Be wary, if you can, of how much movement and manipulation of product a store does.
Lastly, there is light. Or rather, there is what happens to hops under light of any origin. Hops are magical, but they are also vulnerable ingredients that react to excessive light and UV exposure–over time, or even just in one instance. You already know this flavor well: skunky, off-putting, and just generally old-tasting. Cans and kegs are perfect vessels to avoid lightstrike since they are opaque. Brown or amber bottles do a decent job as well, but over time in highly-lit environments like grocery store displays they too can succumb. Green and clear bottles are usually not worth your time buying unless you’re filling a clear growler from a taproom and taking it home (in a dark bag) to drink very soon.
So what’s the lesson? And what can you do? Well, the obvious best choice is to buy beer at the source–it’s freshest, and has been under the care of its makers. Support establishments that take care to rotate product, store it carefully and show transparency. When you find drastically outdated beer, mention it to the store manager. You could also contact the brewery–many would love to know if their products are being sold beyond their prime. And at home–keep only aging beers beyond a month or two. This is ultimately up to you, of course–you bought the beer, so you can do what you want with it (within reason). Your ultimate appreciation of it, however can depend on all the above factors of storage, so consider them duly!