With all the recent talk of big beer attacking craft beer from the inside out, you might think that the four biggest enemies of craft beer would be the big four in macro beer. Nope, the biggest enemies of craft beer are much more subversive, extend throughout the whole industry and in some ways are easier to fight. It turns out, time, light, oxygen and temperature are the four biggest issues facing craft beer and any one of the four can undo all of the hard work the brewers put into making that beer taste delicious.
The fresh-factor is one of the biggest issues facing craft beer when it comes to taste. While there are certainly some beers that are meant to be aged, like barley wines, imperial stouts, Belgian strong ales, and lambics, most other styles of beers are really best fresh. IPAs, pale ales, and ambers are just a few of the beers that fit into the “consume fresh” category. Specifically talking about IPAs, the fresh, bright, hoppy characteristics that we love so much don’t often age well. In fact, hoppy beers will start to lose their aromas and hop presence when sitting in a bottle or a can for too long and the malty sweetness often becomes cloying in an older IPA. Thorn Street Brewery brew master, Eric O’Connor explains it like this, “Hoppy beers need to be consumed the fastest, as the hops drop out and the lack of specialty dark malts which can lend additional balance lead to a sweet and overly malty out of balance beer.”
So how long is too long? For IPAs, it’s best to drink them in the first 60 days. They aren’t going to spoil or become undrinkable on that 61st day, but they also probably won’t be as delicious. During the first 60 days, beer recipes are designed to be in harmony regarding malt sweetness, bitterness, hop aroma, and flavor. After that two-month period, this harmony can fall out of balance. Sometimes the imbalance isn’t horrible or that off-putting, but it’s also not the intended experience from the brewer.
This is why it’s so important for breweries to put “Enjoy By” or “Bottled On” dates on their packaging. Next time you are at your local shop looking for a beer to take home, start checking dates. If it’s a “bottled on” date then try and get ones that were bottled within 60 days of the day you want to drink it. Many bottles and cans still don’t have freshness dates on them so in this case you need to think about where you buy your packaged beer from. If you buy your beer from a liquor store or beer store that is popular and goes through a lot of inventory, you are probably good to go. If you are buying it from a random store in an area where craft beer isn’t that popular, that beer may have been sitting on their shelves for quite a bit of time and it’s best to be wary.
Light is another thing that can stand in the way of optimal beer flavor and is responsible for the dreaded, “skunked” beer. This off-putting flavoring is due to the light-sensitivity of the hops in the beer. In fact, the term “skunked” is scientific in its basis. Chemists from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill studied what makes a beer skunky and found that when they hit three isohumulones (the compounds responsible for the light sensitivity in hops) with enough light, it created a compound called “skunky thiol” which has the same chemical make-up as a skunk’s noxious spray. While brown bottles help the issue somewhat, cans and kegs are really the best way to make sure that light doesn’t change the flavor of a beer.
While oxygen is both a friend and an enemy to beer, the process of oxidation can be damaging when it’s introduced after early fermentation. Oxidation can cause that dreaded “stale beer” taste and is most often detrimental when it occurs during packaging. Before that, if oxidation occurs, it will be caught by the brewing team and not packaged at all. Air doesn’t act alone when it comes to oxidizing beers, however. Temperature also plays a major role in oxidation and the resulting stale beer.
Last but not least, temperature can be a killer of good tasting beer. The 3-30-300 rule has been conventional wisdom in the craft beer world for some time. While who commissioned the research is somewhat hazy (Ninkasi just says “a brewery,” while Mad Tree Brewery says the info comes from macro beer), the science is real and what was uncovered was that when it comes to storing beers, in 3 days at 90°F you would get the same age-related flavor development as you would in 30 days at 71°F and 300 days at 33°F.
The best thing to do is keep your beer cold. While you can’t control how the beer is stored before it gets to you, and in fact, it’s likely it has already been up to room temperature a few times, you can only do so much when it comes to being vigilant. Some aging of the beer is expected and adjusted for in brewing recipes. Higher temperatures will just speed up that process past the, “oh this taste different but still good” to “WTF happened to this beer?” Just please don’t leave your beer in your car as this is a surefire way to skunk it. Furthermore, be wary of stores that have their beer on shelves where sunlight hits and warms them higher than 70 degrees on a daily basis. Based on the 3-30-300 rule, beer should probably not be kept at room temperature for more than 30 days if freshness is a factor in its flavor.
Don’t Be Afraid To Ask
If you want the freshest beer available, drink at the source! Luckily, for most of us here in San Diego, we live within a few miles of a brewery. There is nothing better than freshly kegged beer, so don’t be afraid to ask the beer-tender which beer on tap was recently kegged.
Likewise, a good rule of thumb when you go to a bar or a restaurant is to ask the bartender which kegs were tapped recently. Although this doesn’t always mean its the freshest keg, it gives you the best chance of not getting an old beer.
To recap, drink your beer as fresh as possibly, keep cold, buy cans when possible, and if you want the best beer experience, walk down to your local brewery for a fresh pint.