Monday, January 6, 2014

POURsuasion: Dating and Getting Fresh with Beer

No, I'm not suggesting you take your favorite beer for a night out on the town... maybe a movie, some dinner, someone gets a little drunk and the wax comes off... okay no. What I'm suggesting is that more, if not all breweries, need to start putting "bottled on" or "drink by" dates on their packaging.

There's been a lot of things that have been bugging me that have led to this post; the most troubling incident happened over the Christmas break while in was Michigan. The girlfriend and I were visiting her family for the holidays and as usual I was trying to escape the house to track down beers not available to me here in Indiana... I know I know DRINK ONLY WHAT'S AVAILABLE HERE!!! (that's a rant for another day).

Of particular interest this trip was Lagunitas Sucks, which is their highly acclaimed double IPA/Hoppy strong ale/style-bending beer. I knew that the beer was recently released in early December, but not being familiar with Michigan distribution patterns or the best stores, I wasn't sure when Sucks was going to show up in SE Michigan. I headed to the store that was recommended to me as a close and decent option and luckily I found one last 6-pack of Sucks on the shelf and purchased that along with some local beers. At the register I asked the liquor store clerk how old the Sucks was, to which he replied "maybe a couple months?". I thought this was odd considering Sucks should've only been a couple weeks old, but I chalked it up to the clerk not being familiar with all of their beers and when they came in. I also didn't think to check for a bottling date so off I went with the beer. I got back to the place where I was staying and noticed that there was beer residue down the side of one of the bottles. I use to work in the beer industry so I know that this likely means the beer got dropped at some point and foamed over; this wasn't freshly spilled sticky residue either, this was crusty dried discolored stuff. I started to wonder how old this beer really was, so I started checking for a bottle date. After some internet research I found a ten digit number on the bottle of the neck (actually 2 different numbers depending on the bottle):

0379010340 and 0379010350

Let me pause here for a second to make a point about bottle dating. It shouldn't look like numbers that are apart of the Pi sequence. Make it easy for people to figure out when the beer was bottled (Lagunitas has since switched to an easier, but not completely clear date format).

After about 15 minutes of research and requesting help from the online beer community, I found out that the beer was from Feb 6th 2013 (or thereabouts)... so nearly a year old and way past it's prime. There was no way I was going to drink a 10 month old beer that is meant to be consumed fresh. I was pretty upset about being sold a potentially "damaged" and out of date beer, and also being lied to about how old it was, so I was going to do something I've never done... I was going to try and return beer. I went back to the store that night and talked to the clerk I bought it from; luckily he was understanding and was willing to let me exchange it for other beer. I really wanted to try something different from Lagunitas since I like their beer and haven't had the opportunity to try that much of it. 

I looked through all the Lagunitas beers on the shelf (about 6-7 different ones) and just about all of them were bottled at least 6 months ago, but I did end up with some Brown Shugga since it was only 6 weeks old. After telling the clerk that nearly all his Lag beers were past prime, he still claimed that his distributor brought him the Sucks 2 months ago and that he's had "other problems with them", like receiving 2012 Goose Island BCBS instead of 2013 (that doesn't sound like a problem to me). As I was leaving with my new beer the clerk said he was going to sort through the Lagunitas stock and "do something with the old beer". I may not shop at that store again, but I may go back to see if that old beer is still there.

This long winded story has a point- It's difficult for breweries to always ensure that the consumer is getting the freshest beer possible. This is especially critical with certain beers that are intended to be consumed fresh, especially if that beer is halfway around the country. It is my opinion that the best ways to police beer freshness is put a "bottled on" date on the packaging. This will help distributors, stores, and consumers. Let's look at this from the bottom up.

Consumers- Some beers taste better properly aged, but "drink fresh beers (DFBs)" taste okay at best past when old and some taste awful- I've poured many a beer down the drain because it was old and I might as well have thrown my money down the drain. Letting a DFB sit in your fridge too long is on you, but you have control of the situation at the store. I've run into indifferent distributors and stores who want to move that beer off the shelf regardless of freshness, so that means you need to pay attention to what you're buying. Some tips:
  • Looking for a DFB that is brewed year round? No bottled on or drink by date? Leave it on the shelf. If you know the store and trust what the clerks tell you, ask them when it came in. This still doesn't mean it's fresh, because it could've sat in the distributors warehouse for months. 
  • If you see something out of date tell the store; I feel like stores take advantage of consumers who aren't aware that some beers have a shelf life. Stores should know that we pay attention and do know this.  
  • Talk to your brewery about it and ask them why they don't bottle date if they don't currently.
Stores- There are some stores that you can count on to have the freshest DFBs, because they are high traffic, high turnover, reputable stores. Grocery stores are also safe bets most the time because beer merchandisers and salespeople in this division are supposed to take old beer off the shelf or they get in trouble (this was the case with the distributor I worked with, but I don't know if this enforced by all). The problem spot is that liquor store that's down the street that you go to because it has a decent selection and more importantly it doesn't require a 30 minute drive (or proper attire?). Not every person that frequents that store loves IPAs or (gasp!) craft beer, but that store wants to carry them because IPAs are becoming mainstream and everyone is making one. So said store orders enough from the distributor so they get a cheaper price, but maybe more than they'll actually sell within the freshness window... but chances are that beer is going to sit there... and sit there... until someone buys that last 11 month old hop dud 6-pack. That poor person who loves fresh Half Cycle, might hate 11 month old Half Cycle, again changing their perception of the beer and the brewery... but also the store it came from: "Why is my store selling old/bad beer? I can't count on them to have good DFBs". It also makes you wonder what other issues might be lurking in that store, such as proper storage. I frequent stores that have very old DFBs based on bottle dates (been seeing 8 month old Head Hunter frequently) and I would never ever buy a DFB that is lacking a bottle date and in some cases I've stopped going to those stores altogether, so they've lost my business. 

So how do bottle dates really help stores? With bottle dates the store at least has the chance to make a decision on "old" beer, whether to ignore the issue, let the distributor/brewery know they've got old stuff, or sell it at a discount and/or making sure the consumer knows what they're buying. Also, trustworthy or not you can't expect all liquor employees to know when a beer came in, but bottle dates tell the story. Understandably bottle dates can be a double edged sword as a store rife with out-of-date (OOD) DFBs doesn't look good, but they have to understand their consumers and what they buy. 

Some of this assumes that store employees know that there's such thing as "old" beer and that bottle dates are useful, but this is where training comes in... and you know what? distributors (and breweries) should help with this.

Distributors- To keep this short, it's similar to the store level. The distributor can make a decision on what to do with OOD beer and offer an outlet for it's accounts to do something with their OODs. I know my former employer gave away cases of beer near OOD to it's employees among other things. Without bottle dates this becomes more difficult to do. Distributors probably have less to lose, because they work behind the scenes and can remain blameless.

Breweries- They have the most to lose in this, but they also have the most control over the situation. The Big Guys (not the big guy) put dates on their adjunct concoctions otherwise know as beer for a reason. They spend millions of dollars on telling you how their beer will taste and they want to make sure it tastes that way; if it's OOD it tastes... worse and you might switch to another lager that tastes... less worse. Those dates are there to help distributors and stores (the consumers who purchase these beers rarely look at these dates) make sure that old beer is off the shelf and sent back to the pits of hell. 

Most packaged beer is DFB and first impressions are everything. The craft beer scene is a very competitive market nowadays and if you don't have your "A" game going, a consumer can move on to another craft beer or worse yet back to macro. Just like the big guys, craft brewers have specific flavors they want their consumers to get when they drink that beer, if it's not within that freshness window (or not stored right) the consumer may get something unintended; simply put "beer bad!!!" and you've lost that person... maybe not for good, but it'll take them awhile to return. It's not necessarily the brewery's fault that their beer is not selling before it leaves the window, but by putting dates on bottles breweries can give someone in the above chain a chance to stop that beer.

"Drink by" versus "Bottled on"

I don't think one is necessarily better than the other as they both have pros and cons. "Drink by" takes away any guessing on the consumers part, but some of the craft nerdier folk would no longer be able to have their pissing contests about how fresh their Pliny or Heady Topper is. While "Bottled on" might be preferred by those in the know, it requires the novice to understand when certain styles of beer are past their prime... those who struggle with math may also be at a disadvantage. Regardless easy to understand dates of some sort should be on the bottle in a clear spot... I shouldn't have to scour the internet to figure out what 1X67B823 means after I find it written in smudged black ink on a dark brown bottle neck.  

I haven't mentioned the extra cost of implementing a dating program, obviously it's not free, but as they say it takes money to make money. In all seriousness I would love to hear what people have to say about the costs involved.

Many have foreseen a craft beer "bubble" or ditch as I like to call it, that will lead to breweries closing, so now is not the best time to put a bad foot forward. By no means, am I'm trying to say that "no bottle dates = brewery closing", but it's something to account for. I was fortunate that Lagunitas bottle dates (cryptic as it can be), because I would've opened that Sucks and it would've really sucked, changing my opinion of the beer and Lagunitas. I'm also fortunate that I was allowed to exchange the beer in Michigan, because that is a no go here in Indiana. Once you buy it's yours regardless of any issues the beer may have.


  1. Good post. I would not put all of that on the liquor store. You never know how long a distributor sat on a beer before delivery. We have one here in Indiana that will drop off super old beer to liquor stores and then refuse to take it back.

  2. Matt thanks for the comment. I'm not trying to put it all on the liquor store by any means, I use to work for a local distributor so I know they do stuff like that. Unfortunately liquor stores are stuck in the middle, but unlike distributors they can't hide in the warehouse and remain blameless. Liquor stores can advise people not buy that beer though and try something else instead... maybe something from a different distributor even.

    The point of this post is why breweries need to bottle date and doing that will at least tell the liquor stores "how long a distributor sat on a beer before delivery". Even with bottle dates things won't become perfect, but it will at least tell people what they have in their hands.

  3. this is a fantastic post. well done Russ.