In these long, hot days of summer, it’s important to care for your beer properly. In a short span of a couple of minutes, your coveted stash of beers can be ruined as it’s probably already a little road weary by the time you get it.
Heat, light and aging are the primary enemies of beer. Some people have the misguided impression that since the stuff is sealed in a can or bottle, it has the same shelf life of plutonium. That’s not the case. Even up here, where it’s cold and dark much of the year, beer tends to get mishandled to the point that it changes significantly, and is not the product that the manufacturer intended.
It always asses me up to see beer sitting out on big warehouse floors in the heat and sun. This is not considered graceful aging. Cans probably fare better than bottles in this environment since they block the light, but the heat still gets to them. Light affects beer by giving it a skunky aroma over time. Heat changes internal compounds in the beer and affects its flavor and snap. All beers have an aging bell curve when it comes to the perfect time to drink them. A beer consumed too soon after fermentation and without proper aging can taste “green” and unbalanced. Beers that are past their prime tend to become stale and oxidized. A “wet cardboard” flavor is the most common sensation associated with oxidized or stale beer. When it comes to the aging bell curve, each style of beer is unique. Some have very steep bell curves and some are long and flat.
The Chateau Screwtop, Vintage 10:00 beers from the mega-swill breweries have limited shelf lives, despite pasteurization and other age-enhancing processes. Budweiser’s “Born On Dating” scheme is a good example of a large brewery’s attempt to educate the consumer that their brew isn’t intended to be archived with grandma’s quilts for consumption in some future era. According to Budweiser, back in 2000, their beer is guaranteed good for 110 days from the “born on” date on the bottom of the can, assuming ideal conditions, which translates to cool and dark storage. I would suspect that, like other beers, the best time to drink this beer is somewhere in the middle of that 110 day bell curve. Technology has improved since then perhaps extending shelf life, but I’d still drink beer as soon as possible after packaging.
Brewers lose control of their product the instant it leaves the brewery. Not all distributors take the fastidious care required to bring the brewer’s product to the consumer, and as mentioned above, neither do liquor stores with La Bodega’s Metro Mall location being the exception. Bodega designed the Metro store with special glass coating both on the exterior windows and the cooler doors to block light’s harmful damage, so that’s a plus.
Anchorage Brewing Company’s owner/brewer Gabe Fletcher knows this and is so concerned about his product that he’s incredibly picky about where his most delicate beers end out outside of the brewery. Those beers enjoy very limited distribution to locales he’s got firm care agreements with. Fletcher knows the best place to enjoy a fresh beer is right where it’s made and he prefers to maintain full control.
I haven’t said anything about beer on draft at your favorite watering hole. Draft beer stands up well overall, but can still suffer from aging and poor handling like any other packaged product. Where cans are a better overall pick for protecting beer from light and have less oxygen-containing head space than a bottle, kegs are the same, but the care and maintenance of the draft system that pushes the beer from the cooler to the spigot creates a whole new set of variables that can affect what’s pushed in front of you over the bar.
As a consumers drinking draft beer we not have the luxury of checking out expiration dates or storage conditions like we can at liquor stores, so we’re reduced to sampling what’s put in front of us and turning back if it’s suspect or actually bad.
On the other end of the scale, some beers are meant to be gracefully aged and can actually improve over the course of many years. These are generally very stable, big, heavy malt beers and a certain degree of blending and mellowing takes place over a very long time in cool, dark storage. Barley wine style ales are particularly notable for improved stature with aging. Thomas Hardy’s Ale, a strong ale, is thought to reach it’s peak at 25 years. Good luck finding one that old that someone would share. I drank a 20 year old Anchor Old Foghorn barley wine style ale a few years ago to celebrate my retirement from military service, and aside from being just slightly oxidized, it was divine.
Cellar aged beers from my collection are good picks for special occasions, but they’re not generally what we’re drinking at the peak of the summer season. I’m drinking a lot of pilsners, lagers, delicate saisons, summery wheat beers and other very light picks that are intended to be consumed immediately or within a very short time span after purchase.
So, for the best beer possible, heed the following advice. Generally, remember that freshness is key. Get your beer is close to the brewery as possible. This is why our local breweries and brewpubs excel with fresh beers around town, just as the brewer intended.
When selecting beverages at your favorite liquor store, always pull from the cooler if possible, and check the dates on the bottles, assuming you can both find and decipher them. Darker colored bottles block more light than clear or green bottles beers wrapped in brown glass will probably hold up better. For average beers, dark and cool, preferably refrigerated storage is best with intentions of quick consumption. This is especially important in you’re grabbing stuff that’s been sent up from down south and doubly important if you like stuff from overseas.
What you do with your beer after you buy it affects it too. Tossing unprotected six packs in the back seat of a hot vehicle and leaving it there all day will ruin it quickly. I pull a lot of single selections when I shop for packaged beer and I make sure I get them in a box that can block the light during the time they’re with me. Although sometimes there’s not much we can do about it, I don’t shop during lunch in the middle of summer so I can get my goods home and in the refrigerator as quickly as possible.
Buy good beer to drink now and buy good beer to age for special times, but always buy good beer carefully. Know what you are buying and know how to nurture it, and you too can learn to enjoy clock-stopping beer!
One final note; the smoke from the Kenai wildfire won’t adversely affect your beer if it’s a good one in the first place and I blinked through a lot of smoke and drank some excellent local beers through the endurance test over the last couple of weeks. A good, cold beer is super refreshing even in the pall of a burning wilderness.