Nick Carr on August 28, 2015 0 Comments Table of Contents Selecting Your Beer Best-By Dates How It’s Packaged The Brewer’s Footprint Storing Your Beer Is It Stored In Light? Temperature It’s Stored In The Shelf Life of Beer Serving Your Beer Drinking From Cans Drinking From Glass Is the Tap Clean? Location You Drink The Serving Temperature What Causes Beer To Go Bad? Often brewers are blamed when a customer has a less than stellar experience with one of their beers, but just as often this blame is unjustly placed. Brewing is a business. If there is something wrong with the brewing process, sanitation, or packaging, or whatever and a brewer doesn’t get a handle on it, they won’t be in business long. Sometimes green or infected beer is released but this doesn’t happen that often. So, for this article we will assume that the brewer is doing everything right. Good beer has left the brewery. After this the beer is essentially out of the brewers hands. Essentially… there are some things they can do to make it easier on the customers; use best-by-dates, pull out-of-date beer from shelves, educate pubs and bars about the importance of tap-line and hardware cleaning, etc. We will touch on these from a customer’s point of view. But, though they should do these things, many of the smaller breweries don’t have the time, staff, or resources to do all these things. They may be making fantastic beer, but one lousy customer experience can truly hurt any brewer, especially the smaller ones still working toward a firm footing. In the end, it is about being a discerning buyer and a careful criticizer. We all want the best drinking experience we can get. The brewers have done their job, worked hard to brew something they are proud to put their name on. Something, they hope, will be enjoyed. A good brew has left the brewer, how do you make sure that beer stays good, and close to that perfect drinking experience the brewer has worked hard to create. How do you keep good beer from going bad? SELECTING YOUR BEER Best By Dates Next time you go into the grocery store or liquor store take the time to notice if the beer you are about to spend your money on has a best by date of some kind. Sometimes these dates are frustratingly hard to decipher coming as “packaged on,” “bottled on,” “born on,” and “best before” forms, with many using codes of some sort. But no matter how cryptic they seem if you can get a handle on them it will give you a vital piece of information. For help visit the Fresh Beer Only or Beer Dates website. They list breweries that do date their beer and how to interpret those dates. Packaging What difference does a can, a bottle, and glass color make in the taste of your beer? Absolutely everything. Packaging can affect a beer’s exposure to light and oxygen, two big enemies of beer. Light Ultraviolet light can cause beer to become “lightstruck,” a term often and wrongly used for all sorts of off flavors, but it is only responsible for one of them. Without getting technical, UV light reacts with alpha acids in hops causing them to breakup and recombine with sulfur components creating 3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol, which in a basic sense is very like skunk spray. Even florescent lighting can cause this reaction. So, be aware of beer stored in the grocery or liquor stores under this type of lighting. This is less of a concern in most grocery and convenience stores because they have a relatively quick product turnover rate. Bottle shops and liquor stores stock a wider variety of beer and their turnover is usually not as quick, creating more of a worry to the discerning shopper. But these shops should know better too. Bad lighting in a bottle shop would make me suspicious of other product handling practices and I’d probably head to another store. So, light is bad. It stands to reason that beer be packaged in such a way as to minimize light exposure and the ability of this photochemical reaction to occur. Looking at this purely from the perspective of blocking light; cans are preferable to bottles and brown glass bottles are preferable to green or clear glass bottles (there is little difference in light absorption between clear and green glass). Oxygen Oxygen causes beer to oxidize. This essentially is akin to growing old and just like with our own bodies it can’t be stopped, but it can be slowed down. Oxidation speeds up with increases in heat and motion. This is why beer traveling long distance (see “The Brewer’s Footprint” below) will inevitable have oxidative qualities. The stress of travel turns beer old fast. Many off flavors are associated with oxidation, but the one most often described is a cardboard/paper or lipstick aroma and flavor. This flavor is caused by the formation of trans-2-nonenal and is most common in lighter beers. A honey-like aroma and flavor is also common in these light beers. Oxidation in darker beers often present as sherry-like notes, which can add complexity to high gravity beers (to a point). A couple other flavors often associated with oxidation are diacetyl (butter-like) and a metallic-like flavor, which is most noticeable in the foamy head. The Brewer’s Footprint When beer travels any distance it is inevitably effected by light, changing temperatures, movement, and time. The further beer moves from its origin the more likely it won’t be exactly what the brewer intended. The brewer’s footprint is its distribution area. For some brewers this will be a single city, for others it will be every part of a country and possibly extend to foreign lands. Despite a brewer’s best efforts, it is important to remember that nothing good is added to a beer through travel. The closer to “home” you drink the better and fresher it will be. Even those beer styles that do age well gain nothing by being put through the wringer of moving long distance. That foreign stout bought and enjoyed in America probably tastes quite different then it would in its native land. The point to take away from this isn’t that you shouldn’t drink long traveling beer, but to remember what it’s been through. Its taste has likely changed. Selection Summary: Pay attention to Best-By-Dates or Bottled-on-Dates. Light is bad (cans are better than bottles, brown glass is better than green or clear). Oxygen is bad (cans are best, pry-off caps are better than twist-off caps). Buy within a brewery’s distribution footprint, even better…Drink Local. STORING YOUR BEER Ok, you’ve considered your options at your favorite liquor store. The shelves are shadowed with non-florescent lighting… Check. You’ve taken into account best-by-dates and found a candidate in its prime… Check. The brewery is only one town over and you are well within the distribution footprint… Check. It is in a bottle, but a brown glass bottle; good enough… Check. Everything’s in order. You grab the nominee and head for home. But once home, how to take care of your carefully selected beer? Storage is just as important as selection and assuming you’ve made your selection judiciously, from here on out the beer’s disposition is completely in your hands. No more blaming the brewer, or distributor, or bottle shop. Now the beer’s lifespan is unequivocally linked to how you decide to store it. Lighting: As mentioned above light is one of beers’ greatest adversary’s, so store your beer bottles in complete darkness. If you are drinking it soon, it’s probably going into your fridge. This is usually a great place to store your beer, because once the door closes, the light goes out. Otherwise place the beer in a dark cupboard, closet, basement, or anywhere else that’s dark and stays cool. Temperature: The temperature you store your beer at will depend on the style and how soon you plan to drink it. 45°–50°F Lighter beers (lagers, milds, pilsners, wheat beers) and possibly hop heavy beers, especially fresh hop IPAs or pale ales, should be stored at 45°–50°F. This will prolong the delicate flavors of these beers. 50°–55°F Your “middle of the road ales,” IPAs, bitters, stouts, lambics, ambers, and browns; should be stored at 50°—55°F. This is also a good all-around temperature if you don’t have the ability to create three temperature gradients. 55°–60°F Strong beer, such as barleywines, trippels, old ales, and dark ales; can be stored at around room temperature. A general rule of thumb is the lower the ABV the cooler the storage. You may also notice that the shorter a beer’s shelf life the cooler it should be kept. How Long is Too Long: Most beer is meant to be consumed fresh. Follow the best-by-date if one is provided. Some brewery websites even provide a chart of their common beers and the approximate shelf life of each. But not all do, so here are some (very) general guidelines to consider: 4 to 6 months — Lagers; pilsners; wheat beers; and delicately flavored beers, including fresh hop IPAs 6 to 9 months — Stronger ales; IPA’s; and Double IPA’s 9 months or more — Most Belgian beers; High gravity beers of most styles (even some double IPAs) *Some beers can be aged years. Storing Summary: Store beer in cool darkness. The lower the ABV the lower the temperature; i.e. (light beers at 45°-50°F, med-range beers at 50°-55°F, and big burly beers 50°-60°F). Fresh hop ales should be refrigerated and consumed fresh. Generally, the higher the ABV and more complex the beer the better it will age. General shelf lives: Delicate flavored beer = 3 to 6 months; Stronger ales = 6 to 9 months; Most Belgians and high ABV beer = 9 months and on. SERVING YOUR BEER Ok, you’ve stored your well selected beer with thought and now you are ready to enjoy the fruits of that thoughtfulness. There are only a few things that will affect a beers flavor right at the point of serving. Some of those listed below will make a significant difference; others, if not done, won’t hurt the taste of beer, but doing them will enhance the drinking experience. Cans: Drinking from a can may be convenient but that ever persistent complaint about the metallic taste, well… continues to persist. The inside of cans have a coating that keeps the beer from contacting the aluminum (BPA or not), so the only point the metal contacts your beer and your mouth, for that matter, is when you take a swig. Pour your canned beer into a glass and you’ll have a whole new drinking experience. A Clean Glass of the Right Kind: Use a “beer clean” glass. What’s beer clean? Clean in the sense that you don’t wash them with the rest of your dishes because each grease-spot, each dust speck, any detergent left behind impedes good head retention. Next time you pour a beer into a glass notice how many bubbles are clinging to the sides of the glass instead of traveling straight up to the surface. Each place the bubbles gather is a nucleation point created by dirty spot. Is there lots? Means the glass isn’t clean. A “beer clean” glass means using proper detergent, rinsing thoroughly, rinsing again just before you pour, and keeping your beer glass for beer only. The type of glass you use can also enhance sensory input and heighten drinking pleasure. Though any glass is better than the bottle, most beer styles have a “best” glass, and a few even have a glass singular to the style; Pilsner glass for Pilsners, Stange glass for Kölschs, Weizen glass for wheats, and — the recent addition — IPA glass for IPA’s. What if you don’t want to collect all these different glasses? Well, first, you should want to. It’s fun and they are great conversation pieces especially when you serve several styles of beer, each in their appropriate glass, in one evening. But if you’re looking for a good all-around glass… yes, you could go running to the popular pint glass. It’s a decent glass, but I find the tulip or snifter to do more justice to almost every style of beer. Dirty Taps: If you buy kegs from a brewer to hook up to your kegerator or other home serving system realize that dirty tap lines and hardware can adversely affect the beer’s taste. Clean your tap system at least every time you change a keg, but better yet every couple weeks. And your favorite pub down the street should be cleaning their taps once a week minimum. Where you put your glass: I know what you’re thinking, what does where I put my beer glass have to do with anything? One word: Light. Yup, light can affect your beer at all three stages including serving. It takes very little time for the “lightstruck” reaction to occur, so it doesn’t hurt to make some effort to keep your beer out of direct sunlight. This is doubly true for hop heavy beers; remember its lights reaction with alpha acids that cause beer to become lightstruck. Temperature: Serving temperature isn’t something many of us, including most pubs and bars, consider; except to say it should be cold. But, this isn’t strictly true. Serving temperature is usually right around the storage temperature, or just slightly cooler. The bigger and more complex a beer, the warmer (up to a point obviously) you want it served. Cold temperatures can mask much of the aroma and taste complexities. By the same token, because they are crisper and more delicate of flavor many lighter beers, especially those that were lager fermented, are most enjoyable at cooler more refreshing temperatures. Serving Summary: Use a glass. Avoid the metallic taste of a can by pouring your beer into a glass (preferably), but a camp mug, plastic cup, or really anything else but another tin can will do. Heighten your drinking pleasure by using a clean glass matched to the beer style. Keep your beer taps and lines clean. Beer “skunks” fast. Try your darnedest (without becoming obsessed) to keep you beer out of the sun. Serve beer at a temperature appropriate to the style. Breaking Beer: What Causes Beer To Go Bad Beer is alive. It will change, grow old, and at some point die to drinkability. As with all living things it can be infected by different things all through its life. The brewer is responsible for the beer when it is at its most vulnerable, and we expect a lot from them. But, we need to look long and hard before we blame the brewer for bad beer. Granted, things happen in the brewery (Green beer happens, as does infection) and there are sub-par brewers out there, but most of the time when the beer leaves the brewhouse it’s good. Give them the benefit of the doubt. If you find a beer with something truly wrong with it, use what you’ve learned here in this article, and give it another chance. Important Takeaway: A quick aside needs to be addressed here. I want to be clear here that I am not talking about disliking certain styles. Badmouthing a brewery because you tried one of their beers and have an aversion to the style, is a bit like criticizing a raven for being a bird just because you don’t like birds. It doesn’t make the raven a bad example of a bird. In the same way that criticizing a brewer for the taste of their stout, when you don’t like stouts, is no help at all; and can severely hurt the smaller brewing companies. Care must be given when we criticize; especially with the mass audiences we have at our fingertips. The heart of all this is simply to broaden understanding about what causes beer to go bad. Maybe criticisms shouldn’t always be dumped in the brewers lap. Was it the brewer that made the beer bad, or was it neglect while it traveled? At the bottle shop? In your own home? The above guidelines will enhance your drinking experience, no matter your favored style of beer may be. Hopefully it will also make those quick to judge beer, a little more mindful, a little more hesitant to place blame too quickly. Select with care. Store with kindness. Serve with thoughtfulness. Cheers!