On Ageing, Condition and Best Before

Beer Rant

As my recent post about Sambrook’s Barley Wine shows, beer can sometimes benefit from time spent in the bottle. Ageing can bring out a real depth and complexity of flavour that makes it worth the wait, no matter how hard that can sometimes be! As an extreme example, I have a bottle or two of Fuller’s Vintage Ale from last millennium.

Of course, this is hardly unique to beer. Whisky has to be aged for at least three years before release, and it can spend decades maturing before reaching the drinking public. The majority of that ageing takes place in casks, but although conventional wisdom says that whisky stops maturing once it’s in the bottle, I’ve found that old bottles have a distinct ‘aged’ character to them.

Wine is perhaps the best known example of bottle ageing, although this is complicated by the variation from year to year in the grapes themselves. Even from the same vineyard a bottle from one year will age differently to a bottle from the preceding or following year, but virtually all wine will benefit from a least a few years maturing.

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However, beer is such a diverse product that the “age is good” mantra isn’t a universal truth. Different flavour elements age in different ways, and although stronger (and darker) beers often mature favourably, the more hoppy beers – and especially the pale hop bombs of “craft” beer – suffer as the hop flavours and aromas start breaking down almost immediately. These beers, then, are best drunk fresh.

All of this was in my mind when, a little while ago, I was reviewing beers from Fourpure. Their house style is very much of the “pale and hoppy” kind and when I found their flavours muted, my first thought was that they were past their best. It was a little unusual, because in my experience hop aroma fades even quicker than flavour and these beers had managed to retain a lot of that. The ‘best before’ dates on the bottles suggested that they should be in good condition, so I admit I wrote them off as lacklustre beers.

Soon after publishing that post, I was contacted by the folks at Fourpure. They were surprised by what I’d found, and wanted to check the batch and age of the beer I’d tried. In the end, they invited me down for a chat over a beer at the brewery, to try and understand what had gone wrong. The problem, it seems, is two pronged and afflicts the entire industry.

Firstly, unless you’re drinking in the brewery itself, you have no idea how the beer has been treated between the fermenter and your glass. Although beer is a reasonably robust product, if it’s been thrown around and exposed to temperature extremes in the back of lorries, warehouses and stock rooms, it’s going to suffer. This is (hopefully) less pronounced when you’re in a pub, because at least the supply chain is used to dealing with beer but once you’re into the retail space, all bets are off.

Secondly, that ‘best before’ date on your beer bottle is, at best symbolic and, at worst meaningless. That 1999 Fuller’s Vintage Ale bottle I have in my cupboard says it’s ‘best before 2002’, which I’m sure isn’t the case. Those Fourpure bottles had a six-month best before date on, but as far as the brewery is concerned they’d rather you drank it within three months.

So why put six months on it? Because the retail trade hates short best before dates. It costs them money; they have to work harder to manage their stock levels, and they run a greater risk of having to discount to get rid of out-of-date stock. And a small brewery literally can’t afford to insist that shops accept shorter dates because without retail outlets, they very quickly cease having a viable brewery.

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Anyway, we weren’t able to narrow down whether the issue was one of poor storage, age, or a combination of the two but having tried the beers from the brewery tap, and other bottles since, I’m delighted to say that – as long as you find it in good condition – Fourpure beers live up to the promise of their nose. The flavour is as full of citrus hoppy goodness as the aroma, and their Oatmeal Stout is an tasty and well balanced example of the style.

So what’s the lesson for me here? Well, simply to be more aware of condition when reviewing beer. The reason I like to do these ‘brewery tours at home’ is that by tasting several bottles from a brewery, not only do I get to explore their range but – hopefully – it allows me to filter out any ‘false negatives’ from getting a single bad bottle.

In this instance, the whole collection had quality issues and even spreading my tasting over five bottles hadn’t allowed me to identify it. I’m hugely grateful to Fourpure for reaching out and trying to understand what had gone wrong; if they hadn’t, I would have written them off as a rather lacklustre brewery and missed out on what is, in the right condition, damn tasty beer.

Of course, it could be argued that they should short-date their bottles. I understand the reasons why they feel they can’t, but not every punter that drinks one of their beers after it’s past its best will write a blog about it and get to understand what went wrong. It might be useful to add a ‘brewed on’ date; while I now know that they put six month ‘best before’ dates on the bottle, when I’m stood in the shop it would be easier not to have to do the sums to work out just how fresh the bottle is.

And maybe that’s something the industry as a whole needs to consider. Ultimately, I’m not a commercial brewer – I’m just a keen consumer. The person who  knows best how well a beer will mature is the guy or gal who made it. If Fourpure feels their beer is best in the first three months, then they need to print that on the label – along with a date of birth to enable consumers like me to make the right choice. At the other end of the spectrum, while it’s amusing that Fuller’s have to put a ‘best before 2002’ label on their Vintage Ale, it would be a lot more helpful if they could say “it’ll be good for 15 years” rather than leaving me to guess.

So that’s my plea to brewers. While I understand the demands from your retail channels, put something on the bottle so that your more discerning customers – the ones who can read and understand “bottle conditioned” and not take the bottle back to Asda when the beer “comes out cloudy” – can enjoy your product in peak condition.

It’s your baby. Help us enjoy it at its most beautiful.

7 Comments

HardknottDave

It’s an interesting one. I once put a comment on a bottle label to the effect that the best before date was irrelevant, only to get told off by trading standards. I seem to remember it was Granite, which is generally over 10% and by law doesn’t actually need a best before date anyway. I think it is tricky if there is conflicting information on the label.

Getting the best before date right is tick for brewers. Bottling runs for any particular product might happen less often than is ideal. It’s all about getting the scale right. If one bottling run takes say 6 weeks to sell from the brewery, an ideal best before of 3 months is already half gone. It might take another 2 weeks for the bottles to get onto the shelves, depending on the route to market. We are now down to 4 weeks shelf life. It sits on the shelf, or in the shop stock room for another 2 weeks. We now have stock on the shelf that has only 2 weeks left on the best before. Customers than stop buying on such short dates and for sure the retail outlet will be getting twitchy at this point.

Better storage helps tremendously. It doesn’t just help a tiny bit, it really, really does help a lot. Unfortunately this is one thing most brewers are helpless to improve.

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Sjoerd de Haan

If you like those almost ‘keep till whenever’ labels, you’ll love the dark beers from De Molen in The Netherlands. They generally have this on the label:

Enjoy within 25 years. Keep cool and dark.

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News, Nuggets & Longreads 02/08/2014

[…] → This post from Pete Drinks is thought-provoking: when he found beers from a brewery underwhelming, they contacted him to explain that it was a result of over-optimistic ‘best before’ dates — a commercial necessity, it seems. But, as Pete observes, “not every punter that drinks one of their beers after it’s past its best will write a blog about it and get to understand what went wrong“. […]

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Andy

It’d help if the brewers of these hop-fests started including “bottled on” dates and also “DRINK FRESH”, then it’d be clearer that their beer should be drank as early as possible.

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Elizabeth

A very interesting and thought-provoking post. I had absolutely no idea! As an aside, have you ever tried any of the ales from Britain’s most northerly brewery in Shetland? I highly recommend it. 🙂

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David

That’s great to read, as this is pretty much the reason we set up EeBria. I wanted to make sure that whenever customers buy beer, they are getting it in the best possible condition – hence all beers being sent from the brewery. It’s stored in the brewery, as the brewer would want it to be kept right up to the point it gets handed to the courier. The next day it’s with the customer, so the beers are as fresh as possible.

When we are adding new breweries to the site we run blind taste tests, where new breweries beers are scored blind against a control set of known good and bad beers. We’ve been running a little experiment at the same time with a really good IPA. We got a case from one batch, purely for these tastings. This beer was bottled in September and has been tasted at all of our beer tastings since then. The first tasting it did really well and ever since then the scores have decreased – the carbonation has worsened, the aromas and flavour diminished to the extent that it is now always near the bottom of the pile. Yet this beer is still in date. It’s still drinkable, but not a patch on what it can be.

It’s a tough balancing act for breweries between quality control of ensuring the beers are drunk at their best and ensuring that they have as long as possible to sell the beers!

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