The age old debate in the beer world is ‘What exactly is craft beer?’. At Black Hops we aren’t too concerned about what is craft beer, we are more concerned about what is good beer. And more often than not, the answer to drinking good beer, is drinking fresh beer.
Breweries and bars have an important role to play of course, but there are things you as a beer drinker can do to ensure you are getting the best beer possible. This article is designed to enable you to play your part in ensuring that what you get to experience as ‘craft beer’ is actually good beer.
First off let’s start with the 4 main factors that affect the freshness and flavour of the beer you drink.
4 factors that affect the quality of beer
1. Age/shelf life
Before we got into craft beer, we would generally just go to the bottle shop, pick up a beer and take it home and drink it. We quickly discovered this was a mistake and a lot of what we were drinking wasn’t fresh and therefore wasn’t much good. But we didn’t know any better!
As a general rule, full flavoured craft beers should be consumed within about three months of the date they are bottled, if you want them to taste their absolute best. This is particularly the case when it comes to hoppy beers such as IPA’s. There are exceptions of course for beers that are brewed to get better with age like some Belgian beers and darker beers, but for the most part, the beer you are buying to drink will be much better if it’s been brewed recently.
Going by the ‘best before’ date can be a mistake. The best before date can be up to a year from the time of brewing in some cases. You won’t die if you drink a beer that’s close to (or even beyond) it’s best before date. However depending on how the beer has been handled, it’s probably not going to taste very good. If you are buying beer on special, we’d suggest checking the dates.
Bottled and best before dates can sometimes be hard to spot, but can usually be found on bottle necks or labels. Here’s an example.
With cans they are generally underneath, but can also be found pressed into the label. Here’s an example of the bottom of a can.
Of course the challenge of brewing a beer and getting it into customers’ hands within 3 months is immense and let’s be honest, impossible at a large scale. That’s why the mass produced beers churned out by the mainstream breweries go through a very different brewing process. Their beer is filtered and pasteurised to achieve a shelf life of up to two years, sacrificing character and flavour in the process.
There’s a few hard and fast rules here. Beer doesn’t react well to hot temperatures, so never leave it in a hot storage space or sitting out in the sun for any length of time. This is universal, regardless of whether the beer comes in a can, bottle or keg. Light in particular can destroy the flavours in beer almost instantly. Don’t ever leave beer in the sun (more on that below).
There’s a school of thought that cycling the temperature of beer from cold to warm then back to cold is a no-no. The problem is however that you as a consumer really don’t know how the beer has been handled. While it’s always bottled cold, it might be stored warm, then delivered warm and then chilled again at the bottle shop. So even though it’s cold when you get it, it hasn’t always been cold.
If you buy direct from a brewery, you can ask how it’s handled if you like. At Black Hops we package on a very small scale so the beer is always kept cold.
As well as hot temperatures, beer also doesn’t react well to bright or intense light. Leaving a six pack on a sunny shelf in a hot room in the middle of summer is a recipe for ending up with ‘skunky’ tasting beer. This is a term used to describe ‘lightstruck’ beer which ends up with a musky smell and sulphurous taste, like something given off by a skunk..not good! This is caused by a chemical reaction when ultraviolet light reacts with bitter hops compounds. And it doesn’t take long to happen either.
Light is the enemy of beer, regardless of temperature. Beer stored in a fridge but under halogen lights will still go skunky after a while, regardless of the fact that it’s being stored at the correct temperature.
Beer in kegs, cartons and cans are safest. Beer in bottles is most susceptible to skunking, especially beer in clear bottles…hello Corona! Or in the words of Govs: “you never find good beer in clear bottles, it just doesn’t exist!” Brown bottles are best for filtering out uv light, followed by green bottles.
Bottom line: never leave your precious beer exposed to direct sunlight, unless you’re sitting in a beer garden, knocking it back there and then!
Oxidisation is another factor in turning good beer bad. Oxidisation is a chemical reaction that degrades the quality of beer and is always occurring in packaged beer, regardless of how it is stored. As time goes on or conditions get worse, the oxidisation gets more aggressive. As with most chemical reactions, heat and motion accelerate oxidisation so storing beer warm will make it worse. Having it regularly moved (for example beer that travels from overseas) will also make it worse. But ultimately, either way it will happen, so beer that isn’t drunk within a few months of brewing will start showing signs of oxidisation.
So how can you tell if a beer is suffering from oxidisation? It’s most typically described as tasting dull, muted, bland..or like cardboard!
If you have been drinking a lot of beer from mainstream bottle shops without giving a thought to the things that can impact the freshness of beer you might be used to it, and you might just think that is what beer tastes like.
Now let’s look at what you can do to make sure you are getting the freshest possible beer.
Ways you can help preserve your beer to it’s ultimate freshness
Travel with an esky
Seems extreme but if you take your beer drinking seriously this is an easy option. When beer travels, it’s open to the potential effects of heat and light. So when you pick up your precious cargo, be prepared and bring it home in an esky, especially if it’s a hot sunny day or you won’t be getting it home in a short space of time.
Learn the types of beer styles and the hops used in their brewing processes. We’ve broken it down fairly simply here: drink your craft beer within 3 months and manage your exceptions – make sure you know your IPA’s from your Imperial Stouts when it comes to shelf life. Be extra careful buying beer that’s come from overseas.
Learn about the breweries
The more you know about breweries the better. Go to brewery tours in your area and learn how they handle beer, when they brew, how they date beer etc. If they do seasonal releases, for example, you can figure out when beer is brewed. Some breweries will put a 12 month date on the bottles, so you can work out it was brewed a year before that date is up. Some breweries will store packaged beer warm, some won’t. Knowing how they operate will help you make an informed choice.
The local brewery is the best chance of providing fresh beer to you. The less distance the beer has to travel, the better, and often local breweries will get by on cellar door trade and can be profitable at smaller sizes. Their point of difference is they can brew a wide range of beers at excellent quality, and with limited intervention, so it’s good to buy beer from a brewery if you have the option. We advocate squealers and growlers at Black Hops, it’s a much more efficient process and you can often get beer here that has been kegged days if not hours before and drink it that night. You can’t beat that level of freshness.
Learn how venues and bottle shops should handle beer
This is a big one because you assume that everyone who sells beer knows how to handle it well. Often this isn’t the case, so it helps if you as the consumer have a good handle on it.
If bars or bottle shops store the beer hot, or keep it in the sun for weeks (it’s happened), then the beer will taste like shit. If the venue doesn’t move a lot of beer and a beer stays onsite for 8 months before making it onto the tap, it’s going to be no good. If the venues have dirty lines, perfectly good beer could go through the lines and taste sour or worse when it goes into the glass. This happens quite a bit too, so choose venues that know how to handle beer well.
Don’t hesitate to ask questions of the venues either. Venue owners will take notice if enough customers ask the same questions. If they realise their customers are educated on beer, they will realise they have to answer those questions and will start to up their game as well. It’s an industry that is rapidly growing so everyone from breweries, to storage, to venues to end customers all vary in terms of their beer knowledge. The more you educate yourself and the more questions you ask of the venues, the better it is for all of us.
We hope this has been useful, if you want to get deeper into the beer world and chat about beer with us regularly, join us in our free Black Hops Ambassador Group on Facebook. If you have any questions, feel free to ask them below.