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Ask the Brewers #4: Freshness Dates
Questions on freshness dating seem to come up now and then on BeerAdvocate.com from our site members. The general consensus of the forum comments is that people would like to some kind of freshness dating on bottles. Something consistent from brewer to brewer, and something that they don't need a circa 1945 Buck Rogers Secret Decoder Ring to figure out. You know, slap a simple, universal date on the label (bottled-on or best before, but pick one!) and allow the consumer to make the decision.
Oddly enough, where craft brewers have failed to unite for a standard, Anheuser-Busch has made freshness dating something that's marketable with its "Born On" date, featured on its products as a simple date that tells the consumer when the beer was bottled or canned. Pair this with their point-of-sale (POS) materials that shout "Think Fresh. Drink Fresh." and it's pretty much a proverbial bitch slap to the craft-brewing scene.
We polled BeerAdvocate.com members and asked them, "Does a beer with no freshness date effect your purchase?" 28% replied Yes, while 72% replied No. So what I got from this is that many consumers would love to see freshness dates on products, but it won't impact their decision-making if it's not there. Eh?
Confused consumers, if you ask me.
To get more clarity, I asked the brewers ...
I am a firm believer of having freshness/best before dating on beer labels. Shipyard products incorporate very clear freshness dating on the bottles.
This not only helps the Distributors and retailers to know they are getting fresh product but most importantly informs the consumer of the life of the product that they are purchasing. We will occasionally get a call from someone who has seen outdated product somewhere, which then enables us to ensure the old product is removed from the shelf. Old beer sales do not help build a better brand, since our firm belief is that it's the taste that sets us apart and we want no compromise on that.
We use a 12-month, 3-year square notching system on the edge of the label; to accommodate our dating. Our cases and 12 packs are also ink jetted with the same inf.
Shipyard Brewing Co.
I thinks it is important for Dogfish but for a different reason than breweries that brew 4/5% ABV beers. We have found that our beers between 7 - 10% ABV age really well for a year or so. Our beers over 10% age well for a decade or so. So, when a customer is spending good money for a high end, high ABV beer, it is important that they know how old their beer is for vintage dating and cellaring.
Sam Calagione, President
Dogfish Head Craft Brewers
For the US we do not put freshness code because the importer does not want to put anything as 'best before'...Maybe he's sure all the beers fly out as quickly they can and the consumer has to put his purchasing date on if he wants it aging.
For local market, we put on the cap a best before date on, because the law here obliges that and does not allow a bottle date.
There is even not an exception for beers with refermentation in the bottle. (There is an exception for beers with an alcohol % of 10% and more but most brewers brewing such beers put an best before date on.)
What concerns the length of the time between bottling and expiry date, every brewer seems to have his own opinion about that. We do two years for Oerbier and Stille Nacht, even we're convinced it is much more, and for all the other beers we produce we say one year.
The philosophy behind that is that bitterness decreases with aging and these (blond) beers need the bitterness for the taste-balance. Personally, I prefer the bottle date for all the beers and the mention of the alcohol % on the bottle or on the cap.
Added some people return beer thinking it is over time, confounding bottle date and expiry date.
So, on a last take off to Holland, there was a full crate amid empties. It was a crate of RESERVA 20000. (With no expiry date on) This is a beer aged in wooden crates and having already 2 years before bottling. Some (smaller) brewers put a bottling date and print beside it: best before two years after... This is just to make confusion even greater, we think.
De Dolle Brewers
It is important, as beer's quality diminishes over time. Each beer is unique and will stand-up to differently to time, temperature and light. So throw out some kind of industry standard right away. Instead, you must trust the brewer to give you correct information.
Pull dates are good, as the brewer knows his/her beer and can tell you when it's past prime, and the consumer knows immediately if the bottle is within code. However, some brewers will put pull dates of one to five years, and that is rolling the dice, even for a Barleywine. Also, flavor degradation is subjective, what some find undrinkable at 3 months, others may find right on.
Born on dates are also good, as the info is right there in black and white, unless it's a purple inkjet on a brown bottle, then you need to search a bit. However, consumers must do the math at the cooler, and a born on date alone gives no useful info to consumer.
Pull date vs. born on date? Both suffer from the same variable: How has the beer been treated from the time it left the brewery to the time it arrives in the consumer's hand? You never really know. Get to know your local pub and local packie, it's your best line of defense.
Tremont has always placed a "best if consumed" by notch on our bottles, and a few years ago we started with a born on date ink jetted on the bottle. If the consumer values this information, it's there for them. I've yet to hear a persuasive argument against date coding. Some say they can not afford to buy back out of code stock., how can you afford not to?
Tremont Brewing Company
Yes! It's a great resource for the consumer to have some sort of reference point to make a decision on the beer they are purchasing. That being said I would like to add that a "freshness date" should include information to put that date into context. Does the brewery consider it's beer fresh two-years into the future? I think mostly it's six months.
Here at The Concorde Brewery we date our Concord Pale Ale to four months and the remaining products at three. The Rapscallion line of beers is treated very differently since it is a bottle-conditioned product capable of a longer shelf life. Now this is such a subjective topic. I've tasted bottle-conditioned products that were still near there best at several years. This may take time to developed but the environment is different and some of the factors that make bottle-conditioned beer less desirable are different than force-carbonated.
So anyway we devised a system called "BREWTRAK" where we divulge all of the important information on a website (including brew date, bottle date, gravities, etc.) and let the consumer decide. I like this because, like I said, bottle-conditioned beer and it's quality over time is subjective. Soon I hope we'll have a section where people can comment on the beer on a batch-to-batch basis. It's geeky and a bit tricked-out but I think it's also fun, engaging and fascinating. That's my take anyway. The alternative, an un-marked bottle seems a less than obvious purchase in a cluttered beer market. At least on the first buy.
Save your soul!
Rapscallion Artisanal Beers / Concord
There's never a reason not to put dates on the bottles as far as I'm concerned. And preferably one that's not cryptic. Beer is food (to some more than others of course), and I'd never buy milk or orange juice without checking the dates. I always appreciate knowing when the beer was bottled especially when buying a relatively expensive product or when shopping in a store in which I question their turnover of stock. As a small brewer we are only able to notch the label with the month bottled. This requires no extra equipment and is relatively easy. I'd love to print the actual date but the cost isn't worth it to us at this point. We do however stamp the day / month / year on the cases and twelve packs.
David Yarrington, Executive Brewer
Smuttynose Brewing Co.
> Do you feel that it's important for breweries to mark freshness dates on
> product labels?
We feel it is important. So many bad things can happen to beer when it is in the distribution/retail chain. Certainly the beer (batch) need be identified on the container and the 'best by' date is the most meaningful method, we feel.
>And, only if applicable: Does your brewery mark freshness dates? Explain how
> if yes. Explain why if no.
We have a rather expensive laser coder that etches the 'best by' or 'bottled on' (depending on whether they are bottle conditioned beers or not) date into each bottle label. It picked up the job last September on our new Krones line after the ink jet dater (also pretty expensive) just plain failed to do a decent job and we gave up on it in 2000. Cases have the same info on them.
Bill Covaleski, Brewmaster & President
Victory Brewing Company
My answer is yes, freshness dates are important. In The UK and throughout Europe, freshness dates are now a legal requirement. When the requirement was first introduced, the effect was to improve everyone's performance - brewers, wholesalers and retailers could no longer hide any inadequate planning or stock rotation procedures. So the winner was the consumer, who got fresher, more consistent beer to drink.
Paul Ambler, Head Brewer & Director
The Black Sheep Brewery plc
Freshness is as important an ingredient in great beer as hops or malt. We believe that the brewer must take responsibility for making sure that a beer drinker always gets fresh beer. In 1988, we were the first American brewery to put clearly legible freshness dates on every bottle. Samuel Adams bottles still have the same unique label notches on the side of each bottle to indicate when the beer is no longer fresh. We also have clearly understandable out of date freshness codes on kegs. To try to achieve 100% beer freshness we instituted our "Let's Keep it Fresh" program with our wholesalers, the industry's first program to share the expense of removing out of date beer from the market with our wholesalers.
Boston Beer Co. / Sam Adams
As a brewpub brewer freshness is a factor in the beers I brew and serve and the guest beers also. I know when the keg is fresh or almost empty based on taste and carbonation. This said if a beer is kept cold and it is packaged well it should stay drinkable for a long time, however the brewer is the only one that knows how old that beer is. It would be in their best interest to freshness date for the retailer and consumer to have an idea if the product is still at its prime. Nobody wants to buy bad or stale beer and no brewery should want to sell it. Also if some breweries freshness date, and others don't, who's beer would you buy? I brewed for a local micro and we have some Barleywine which was not dated, at this point 1999 vintage would be more marketable than 2003 but would the package store throw it out?
Thanks for the opinion session,
Willimantic Brewing Co./ Main Street Cafe
Yes, we think it is important and yes we have a very visible and consumer-friendly (easy to understand) date on each bottle.
Widmer Brother Brewing Company
I don't see the point re: beer dating/freshness. The beer drinking public is light years away from caring about the quality of the product or freshness. It's sad but true I'm afraid.
I do believe however that brewers need to pay close attention to their product after it leaves their hands to insure that the customer drinks a product that is still in good shape.
For now at least I think it is the brewer's responsibility to insure the quality of the product.
Offshore Ale is introducing a contract-brewed product this summer. It will not have a freshness date on the bottle but we will make sure the customer gets the best possible product.
Offshore Ale Co.
I do feel it is important for breweries to date their beers in some manner. It is important for the brewery to track the quality of their product out in the field, and it is also beneficial for the consumer to be able to see how fresh the product is that they are buying. Beer is perishable and changes as it ages. There is no doubt in my mind that there are few old beers that taste good. I am not a fan of storing or laying down beers as i find many of them oxidize with time. Granted some do hold up better than others but I feel fresher is better. If I had the choice I would much rather people come drink off of the tanks than out of a bottle in order to better appreciate the products that i make.
Jason Dunson Todd, Head Brewer
Paper City Brewery Co
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