Monday, May 6, 2013

Old beer: whose fault is it? | Chad'z Beer Op-Eds #5

In the past few weeks I’ve been getting burned on bottled beer. In one night I actually had three bad bottles in a row. And it’s not even the fact the bottles were old that made me so angry, it’s that there were either no freshness dates or they were impossible to read until I poured the beer out. Unknowingly ending up with old beer is my biggest pet peeve of the beer industry.

The majority of the time I want fresh beer*, so I’ll look for a freshness date even if it’s beer in the cooler and not on the shelves. I much prefer a “bottled-on” date to a “best before” date, because with bottled-on dates I know exactly how old the bottle is. “Best before” dates are more of a gamble, and breweries will often use dates that are much later than their true freshness window to keep it on the shelves longer. If I can’t find an easy-to-read date or if I see a code that looks like something out of The Matrix, I’ll usually pass.
Example 2

A 2-year freshness window isn’t all that helpful, either.

*In some cases, like a 750ml bottle-conditioned Trappist quad or an imperial stout, I’ll actually opt for an older bottle. We’ll discuss cellaring and vintages in a future blog.

So it certainly begs the question: whose fault is it when you get old beer?

Is it the brewery’s fault?

When beer goes “bad” it just tastes bad and won’t make you sick since pathogens can’t live in it (at least that’s what I’ve been told). That’s why beer isn’t required by law to have freshness dates. Any brewery that puts a date on their containers is doing it for the consumer’s benefit and for public relations. Craft breweries especially should know most beer stores and package shops allow their customers to “mix a six” (which I love), so it would behoove them to date every individual bottle and can and not just the boxes they come in.

So why don’t all breweries date all their containers all the time? Since freshness dating is such a common practice I’d assume it can’t be terribly expensive. Obviously, it incurs an additional expense which is then passed down to the consumer in the form of a higher price. Being the beer purist I am I will pay a premium for fresh beer. Maybe the Joe Six Pack type isn’t as concerned, but if he gets old beer that doesn’t taste good, the brewery risks losing his business as much as they risk losing mine by not dating their bottles in the first place.
Example 3

Why can’t every bottle and can be dated like this?!

Though there’s a second part to this question: if breweries are going to date their bottles and cans, why can’t they just make it an easy to read day/month/year format instead of using wacky codes and Julian dates? I cannot answer this question, though I’d imagine someone within the industry probably can (and if you can, please do so in the comments section). There are apps and websites dedicated to deciphering codes found on beer bottles, but to me that’s not that helpful. Why should I have to break out a secret decoder ring when the brewery could simply date the bottles in plain English?! Also, why can’t they print the freshness date in bright lettering? Just today I drank a bottle whose freshness date was camouflaged and I wasn’t able to read it until I had poured the beer into a glass (fortunately it was fresh).

Is it the distributors’ fault?

Most of us beer geeks are familiar with the “three tier system” where, by law, breweries must sell their beer to wholesalers, who in turn sell it to retailers, who then sell it to the consumers. As much as I know about beer and brewing, the inner workings of the industry allude me. Therefore, I’m not going to posit any theories on why old beer might be the distributors’ fault. However, let’s just say I refuse to believe they’re 100% innocent 100% of the time.

Is it the retailers’ fault?

I’ve been to many different beer stores around the country, but what baffles me is that I keep seeing old beer no matter where I go. The more modern a store is, the more this irritates me. If the inventory is managed on a computer database, why can’t that database alert the store to expired product sitting on the shelves? Perhaps the technology isn’t there yet, or maybe it is and stores just aren’t worried about it.

I’m sure there’s a cost-benefit-analysis to consider. If a store has to discount old product just to move it, they may barely break even or possibly suffer a loss, so it’s understandable that they’re not moving a lot of old inventory constantly. But when a store deliberately leaves old product on the shelves they risk losing sales they would’ve gotten had the product been fresh (or worse, alienating customers like me who feel they got hosed by paying full price for old and/or bad beer). You can’t really factor in these types of hypotheticals on accounting sheets, though.

Is it the consumer’s fault?

I’ll admit there’s been times I didn’t realize a beer was old until I had gotten all the way home and poured it out only to see a clear-as-day freshness date staring me in the face. I’ll take responsibility for that since it could’ve been prevented by taking a few seconds to look over the bottle at the store. If we buy discounted beer that’s out of season and it doesn’t hold up, that’s our fault too. But in the instances of no freshness dates or indecipherable codes, it’s unreasonable to expect consumers to figure out how old the beer is.

In conclusion, I think all parties from the brewer to the consumer have some responsibility in preventing the sale of old beer. I have friends that work at all three tiers and I’ve asked them about this topic many times. Each usually tends to blame the other two tiers for old beer, though everyone has a different theory as to how and why old beer gets to market and stays there. I’m sure there’s credence to all these theories, but from what I can tell no one knows for sure.

So, what do you think? How much responsibility should brewers, wholesalers and retailers take to make sure you the consumer gets fresh beer? What do you do to ensure you get fresh beer? How important is fresh beer to you? What can we do from a consumer standpoint to raise the standards of the industry?


  1. So if the beer gets old sitting on the shelf at the store - who pays for it? THere is the question - and the future answer. Nobody wants to pay for it. Did the store over-order? Did it sit at the distributor too long? Did the brewer make a batch of something that didn't sell well? Who should pay?
    I would guess the most correct model is that the brewer should pay, maybe sharing it with the distributor. The retailer needs the motivation to take it off his shelves so if he has to pay, it will never work.

    1. If you take the Sam Adams Brewery tour up in Boston (btw, what in hell's going on with their stock??), you'll hear them say they actually buy back all their kegs that are older than a certain time in order to ensure customer satisfaction and, as a corollary, loyalty. That's an admirable policy, one that could potentially be duplicated vis-a-vis bottled beer. Then again, with bottled beer there's the element of shelf placement that's also involved. Storeowners need to be mindful of how they're displaying the beers in their store. So many liquor store are a complete mess to try and navigate