Whether it’s a days-old IPA or a crisp lager, many drinkers are fanatical about finding the freshest beers.
This week, I did the opposite. I went searching for the oldest beers I could find.
I didn’t have to look hard, their necks speckled with a telltale layer of dust. In an area grocery store I unearthed a lager bottled on Feb. 15 of last year. Then an India pale ale (IPA) and a brown ale, both bottled a couple weeks after that. And the worst offender? An IPA with an enjoy by date of Oct. 30, 2014. (I did some research and discovered this particular beer is bottled five months prior to that enjoy by date, meaning it was bottled almost a full two years ago.)
This is an IPA, a style that should be consumed fresh, and here it is having languished on a shelf for nearly two years.
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I’ll spare all parties involved the embarrassment in this case. The point here is not to call anyone out, but to serve as a public service announcement and to ask, “How does this happen?”
To answer that question, you need to know that most beer finds its way to a shelf near you via the three-tier system. Brewers sell to distributors, distributors sell to retailers, and retailers sell to you. The details vary by state (for example, in North Carolina, breweries that produce fewer than 25,000 barrels a year can self-distribute), but that’s the gist of it.
So which of these three tiers is to blame for old beer? All of them play a role in it, according to Ryan Self, director of sales at The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery.
“You get into an issue where everyone’s at fault,” says Self. “You’ve got old beer going to the consumer, and that’s a bad look for the store, it’s a bad look for the distributor and it’s a bad look for the brand.”
The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery is campaigning with other breweries to raise the self-distribution cap so they can continue to distribute their beers after eclipsing the 25,000-barrel mark. They do currently have a partnership with Charlotte’s Tryon Distributing, which keeps OMB’s beer stocked in area grocery stores. The brewery didn’t enter into the partnership without a few stipulations, though.
“The vast majority of brands ship to their distributor once a month,” says Self. “We pretty much demanded that we have to either ship or be picked up once a week.”
This requires a little more effort from both the brewery and the distributor, but it affords OMB more flexibility when it comes to adjusting orders from week to week. The brewery also has its employees visit accounts to spot-check dates, and it will take back old beer.
“We have a promise for our brewery,” says Self, “that if the beer is more than 45 days old you can bring it back to us, no questions asked, and we’ll get you a new six-pack.”
That often means eating the cost of the beer, something Tryon Distributing founder Brad Johnston knows all too well. The record-high number of breweries and beers makes his job more challenging than in the past, he notes, especially when it comes to beers with a short shelf life (like the aforementioned IPAs). Still, he says his employees should be checking dates while they are at accounts.
Michael Brawley, owner of Brawley’s Beverage, says the onus is not on the brewer or distributor, but on the retailer.
“At the end of the day, it’s the store,” says Brawley. “When they bring the product in, you should check the dates then.”
Brewers and distributors can certainly implement better procedures for dealing with out-of-date beer. Some breweries aren’t dating their beers, which is another problem altogether. Those that do use a variety of approaches: bottled on dates, enjoy by dates, and even Julian dating (do a quick online search to see how to decipher these).
Or, at the very least, beware those dust-covered bottlenecks.
How old is too old?
A beer’s shelf life depends on the style of beer and what the individual brewery deems acceptable, but often ranges from 3 to 5 months. In general, most beers are best enjoyed fresh. The calling card of pale ales, IPAs and double IPAs – that bitter, citrusy punch – fades with time, so keep an eye out for those in particular. Coffee and spices fade, too. And most beers are by light and oxygen, so exposure to these elements should be kept to a minimum.
But if there’s an upside to old beer on shelves, it is this: Some beers do age gracefully. High-gravity beers with more alcohol – think Russian imperial stouts and many Belgian styles – can better stand the test of time. Though it’s subjective, some people even consider styles like these to improve with age.