The obsessive-compulsive disorder that saw teenage me endlessly twisting doorknobs and cracking my knuckles is mostly in check, except for one tick I can’t quite quit: Checking the packaging date on beer cans and bottles.
It's not such a bad thing, though, mainly because my mania is centered on IPAs. I just released Complete IPA, a hop-first dive into the international phenomenon that has become of the style, so you might assume I’d be burnt out on it, diving headfirst into a pilsner’s crisp embrace. On the contrary, I crave more IPAs than ever, gusting with fragrances of tropical fruit and smoother than a jar of Skippy. But I have one caveat: My IPAs must be fresh.
Like Macaulay Culkin, the IPA does not age well. It’s best as soon as it’s packaged, the flavors and aromas quickly deviating from a brewer’s original intent. The ascent of IPAs has put a premium on previously utilitarian date codes. They were mainly for brewers to pinpoint a beer’s birthdate and batch number, allowing traceability should anything go awry. Date codes doubled as unspoken communication between brewery and distributor, signals for when ancient beer should be snatched from shelves. “It’s a tool for the brewery and our distributors,” Lagunitas founder Tony Magee says. “It’s a fine hammer to drive in a nail.”
Lagunitas’s packaging uses the Julian date, followed by the batch number and time. To the layman it looks like hieroglyphics. (The Julian date is composed of the year and day of the year; Lagunitas writes November 17, 2016, as 321 6.) Figuring out a beer’s birthday requires a little beer-aisle math. “We see freshness as an important business between us and our distributors,” Magee says. “It’s not really a consumer thing. The consumer should expect that the beer we’re delivering should be fresh.”
But not everyone fully entrusts distributors with being the freshness police. While Ballast Point uses the Julian code (November 17, 2016, equals 16321, in their case), Firestone Walker and Oskar Blues deploy packaging dates in an easily comprehendible calendar format. Sixpoint uses a “best before” date, no mention of inception — an approach some take issue with, but that's surely better than nothing. Mobile packager Iron Heart Canning stamps most every can (a minority of breweries decline) with the packaging run’s date. “We try to strongly encourage it,” says CEO Tyler Wille. “If something happens, it’s the only way we can figure out what happened with the beer.”
In 2014, Sierra Nevada switched from Julian coding to a month-day-year format. “Our drinkers were contacting us more regularly trying to gain knowledge about beer freshness and how to read our code,” writes Sierra Nevada’s California-based director of brewery operations, Mike Bennett. “We felt there was enough interest in the industry at that time that we needed to make the change ASAP.”
Stone Brewing has long made freshness a philosophical cornerstone. The best-by date is front and center on bottles and cans, and the brewery’s website provides info on shelf life (90 days for most IPAs, 120 days for Smoked Porter) and a link to report lazy retailers’ expired beer. If this feels excessive and obsessive, that’s the point.
“One, we think it’s good for the industry, says Stone COO Pat Tiernan. “Two, our fans are pretty savvy. They’re educated. Not only do they deserve it, but man, you do a side-by-side test [of fresh and old beer], your taste buds don’t lie.”
Stone’s commitment to freshness reached its apex with the Enjoy By IPA series, the expiration date — 37 days from packaging — printed on the bottle in big ol’ type. “The clock starts ticking as soon as the bright beer leaves the tank to keg or bottle,” Tiernan says. “It takes a coordinated effort, from the brewer to the packager, to the distributor.”
In addition to consumer-friendly dates, Stone’s bottles feature a laser-etched serial code that, Tiernan says, essentially features traceability down to the hop in the field. “The date code is really for freshness,” he says, later adding, “One is a control thing on the back end, and frankly, one is a control on the front end.”
So is putting information in customers' palms, via transparent date codes, the way forward for breweries? Yes and no. “Just looking at date codes is only part of the picture,” writes Sierra Nevada’s Bennett. Equally essential to freshness is storage. For an unpasteurized beer, every 18 degrees Fahrenheit above optimal storage temperature (32–45 degrees) slices shelf life in half. Moreover, storing a beer in direct sunlight starts the chemical reaction causing skunking. “While transparency is important, educating people that freshness is about more than just date codes is also important,” he writes.
“Making freshness a selling point is kind of like Coors wanting to own cold,” Magee says. “It’s one thing among many. It’s a lever.” That’s especially true when it comes to styles. IPAs and more delicate, lower-ABV styles like pilsners and kölsch are best consumed quickly, while higher-strength stouts, barley wines, and Belgian-style ales can better endure time’s tick-tock. “Consumers aren’t always prepared to understand why one beer would age better than the other,” Magee cautions. So maybe the solution is a mandate to date-code IPAs and other hop-forward beers, not imperial stouts.
In a perfect beer world, freshness should be a given. No brewery wants drinkers to buy old beer. For me, date codes provide an extra layer of watchdogging when the retailer doesn’t care, and distributors and reps might’ve missed that last case in the cooler. Bypassing a beer because it’s barely a month old, though, is a bad move. Beer takes weeks to move through the distribution chain. Beer that’s eight or nine months old, though, deserves to be called out. Date codes give folks the ammunition to make educated purchasing decisions. The difference between OK beer and great beer can be a matter of time.
“People deserve to have beers at their freshest point,” Stone’s Tiernan says.