ORATB v.4: A Brewer responds

I know to some of you are tired of this bit of information, but it’s important for me to get it right. In response to my recent posts on beer expiration dates, I wasn’t at my best in getting my points across, and several brew masters called me for not being absolutely clear in my points.

However, Ashton Lewis was kind enough to want to provide his take on the whole deal, so I’ve given him the space to put this business to rest once and for all. For the record, Ashton is a Master Brewer for the Springfield Brewing Company as well as a Technical Editor and Columnist for Brew Your Own Magazine. I think his words carry some weight.

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Kate, thank you for allowing me to respond to the whole topic about beer freshness recently brought to life by the article written by G. Bruce Knect of the Wall Street Journal. I donâ??t want to mislead your readers about why I am writing; I am a the master brewer at a brewpub in Springfield, Missouri and am a columnist and technical editor for a homebrew magazine. I also like to read factual articles about food and beer.

Unfortunately, the article in question has a couple errors that distort the whole issue of beer dating into what appears to be some huge conspiracy among brewers intended to mislead the public. The opening sentence of the article is clever and inviting to the reader, but it is also hyperbole. â??A loaf of bread has it. So does a carton of milk. But if you’re looking for the expiration date on a bottle of beer, forget about it — for many brewers, that information is a closely guarded secret.â? There are very few food products available that use the term â??expiration dateâ?. A trip to the local grocery store will confirm this and one will find the words â??sell byâ? and â??best beforeâ? on most perishable food stuffs like loaves of bread and cartons of milk. Either the folks at the WSJ, like many big city dwellers, donâ??t do much grocery shopping and didnâ??t notice this mistake or they simply let the hyperbole slide.

Freshness of food, including beer, is not black and white. It is in a food companyâ??s best interest to assure that the consumer eats or drinks a product that he or she will want to again buy in the future. It doesnâ??t matter whether the product is bread, milk, wine, beer, cheese or a bag of chips. If an individual has a bad food or beverage experience their future buying habits are likely to change.

Most food producers like using â??best beforeâ? and â??sell byâ? dates because they are consumer friendly and relatively easy to control since the food producer has pretty tight control over their product in the market. In fact, the stockers who put food on the shelf, for example bakery goods, snack chips and soda, usually are agents of the food company. These stockers are able to pull out-dated products of the shelf and by doing so ensure that their company is selling products that fit into their standards of freshness.

This is not the case with beer, wine and liquor. Most states still require the use of independent distributors for alcoholic beverages and the producer of the beer, wine or liquor relies on the distributor to care for their products in the market. Some states do permit self-distribution, but beers that are available on either national or regional levels invariably sell some or all of their beer through independent distribution chains. This dates back to Prohibition and was originally intended to prevent huge breweries from dominating the market, but that notion did not exactly work as planned. In any case, it is the distributors job to pull out-dated beer and return it the brewery and some do it better than others.

This is where Mr. Knechtâ??s generalization is ripe for misinterpretation. He states â?? There are now more bottles of beer on the store wall than ever — more than 2,000 domestic brands alone — making it harder for both stores and consumers to steer clear of the stale stuff. Age is critical: Nearly all beer begins to deteriorate before it even leaves the plant, partly due to oxygen in the bottle, and many experts say most brews are well past their prime after six months.â? There is absolutely no argument about oxidation causing staling and this downhill slide usually begins during packaging because this is the first time most beers are exposed to an environment that can lead to oxygen pick-up.

Letâ??s unravel his quote â?¦ most beer consumed in this country is very light lager beer with very little to hide changes in flavor brought by age. So his unnamed expert is correct if he is speaking about beer volume. The quote however, is meant to convey the thought that most of the beer brands on the shelf have the same shelf life. This is not correct and is something you pointed out on your web site. Bigger beers, meaning those with more alcohol, malt flavor and hoppiness, typically age better than lighter beers. The beer consumer needs to remember that beer has been moved around the world for centuries and that bigger beers were historically the one most likely to be exported because they had a better shelf life. Examples include India Pale Ale (originally brewed in England and shipped to India), Russian Imperial Stout, German â??Exportâ? Lagers and strong Belgian Ales. For the most part, flavorful beers last longer than less flavorful beer.

The part of the oxygen pick-up story that was left out was some pretty neat stuff about brewing technology. Advances in bottle filler design has dramatically reduced oxygen pick-up during filling and most beers on the shelf today taste differently from beers a couple of decades ago when oxidation was a very big deal.

The bottom line is that beer freshness is not black and white. Bigger beers last longer on the shelf than the everyday pale, yellow brew. Refrigeration dramatically improves shelf life and many beers of the world taste great after a year of cold storage. Light causes problems for beer and many beers packaged in clear and green bottles smell skunky because ultraviolet light reacts with hop components in beer and the result is skunky beer.

Some beers, for example Miller Genuine Draft and Rolling Rock, use reduced hop products (meaning at the molecular level a double bond has been converted to a single bond by the addition of hydrogen) and are not susceptible to this light-catalyzed reaction. Brown glass filters UV light and thatâ??s why beer is brown bottles is not skunky. Finally, beer with yeast in the bottle is generally ages better than filtered beers.

It looks like your web site is dedicated to the food lover and this debate about beer freshness has a twist of irony that should appeal for the advocate of the under dog. Big breweries specializing in brewing bland beer donâ??t object to your suggestion of settling this by printing a date on the bottle. Anheuser-Buschâ??s very clever and calculated way of doing this was to use a â??born on dateâ? and then tell the consumer how many days beyond packaging is acceptable. This clever bit of gamesmanship gets beer drinkers thinking that all beers have a 120 day shelf life and most beer drinkers never consider that all beers are not the same when it comes to shelf life.

Thereâ??s no conspiracy here. Itâ??s simply a hard thing to clearly define and thatâ??s why many beers donâ??t have best before or packaging dates. I wonder why Mr. Knecht didnâ??t question why wineries avoid such dates.

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