Bar Tending & Beerspectives
by Matt Martinkovic
Brewsearch & Development -
I was recently in a very large bar in New Brunswick, NJ that featured hundreds of bottles of
beer.  Before ordering I asked to inspect the bottle first to see if it was fresh.  The bartender
didn't look pleased (and his tip reflected his attitude) but if I was going to spend good money
I wanted to make sure it was on good (as in fresh)  beer.  A more savvy bartender would have
understood my concern and actually look at every bottle before serving.  The place touted
itself as a haven for serious beer lovers so I expected a serious approach to serving.

I was especially concerned since several of the bottles I was considering were IPAs where
freshness is really key to quality. 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 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  once wrote..
“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.)
So you see, figuring out a some beer’s birthday requires a little beer-aisle math and frankly
in today's marketplace that's bogus and to me signals a brewery that worries its product
might not be moving as fast as they like and on that customer goodwill is not priority #1.

So some breweries believe we consumers really don't have to know the born on date since
the distributors do and they will make sure stale beer doesn't linger on the retailers' shelves.  
Having been in the business a long time I suggest you consider not placing your full trust in
distributors being the freshness police. Some do a great job, some don't.

Let's take a quick look at the practices of some major craft beers you probably know.  Ballast
Point uses the Julian code (November 17, 2017, equals 17321, in their case), Firestone
Walker and Oskar Blues deploy packaging dates in an easily comprehensible 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

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,” said Mike Bennett Sierra Nevada’s California-based director of
brewery operations at the time. “We felt there was enough interest in the industry and by
consumers that for the benefit of everyone we had to make the change and do it quickly."

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. Good for them!

One last word. Just looking at date codes is only part of the picture. 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.

Matt Martinkovic is not only a recognized beer authority but an agricultural
consultant on, of course, the growing of hops.  His personal hop garden currently
features Magnum, Crystal, Cascade, Centennial,Mt. Hood, and Chinook hops..
Check The Freshness Date
To all my readers and friends many thanks for all your support.
Also special thanks to two great breweries and the many fine people associated with them:
Conclave Brewing and Kane Brewing.
Come back soon for more of my take on what's happening in the beer world with my
insights derived from many years in the industry.  Cheers!