Beer is a perishable product. Like most other foodstuffs, it comes into being with a finite window of excellence, as well as a date (determined by the producer) after which it is no longer at peak quality. Like other perishable products, conditions of shipping, storage, handling, and rotation have an effect on its quality and the speed of its inevitable decline. Unlike most other perishables, however, beer is surrounded by a folk mythology that has resulted in some very strange ideas about its freshness and age-ability.
Let me put it to you straight: fresh beer is best. Almost always. Here’s why.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the overwhelming majority of beer leaving breweries for public purchase is intended for consumption immediately. Beer does not improve linearally with age; it merely changes over time. With relatively few exceptions, those changes are not positive ones. For a surprisingly large number of styles, those changes render the beer unpalatable in fairly short order. If you’re interested in aging beer, it would behoove you to learn a little about it, so your cellaring is as fruitful as possible: pick up Patrick Dawson’s excellent book on the subject. You will not be disappointed.
Beer is best fresh due largely to two factors: 1) the effects of oxidation; and 2) the ephemeral nature of hoppiness.
Oxidation is a complex subject, and Dawson’s book does an excellent job of explaining what you need to know about it, but in short, the effects of prolonged exposure to residual oxygen in a beer’s package (as well as the oxygen dissolved in the beer itself) will result in the degradation and transformation of desirable flavor compounds into decidedly undesirable ones. That two year old bottle of helles lager, once so crisp and snappy, might taste like wet cardboard now. Oxidized malt flavors, sometimes desirable in higher gravity aged beers, tend to be cloyingly sweet and stale in the context of lighter styles.
Hops oxidize too. And they fade – fast. The US craft brewing industry, in what started as an admirable attempt to educate the consumer and get her the freshest and most delicious product possible, has turned the freshness of hoppy beer into a marketing tool, and created a new galaxy of headaches for themselves and their wholesalers as the savvy consumer may now reject beers with months of consumable life left in them.
Consumers seemed to want to experience the extremes of bitterness, and breweries were happy to oblige.”
But I digress: hops drop off very quickly because the volatile oils responsible for their myriad beguiling aromatic qualities dissipate very quickly. “The hoppier the beer, the shorter the shelf life. At 30 days, I’ll notice a difference,” Matt Brynildson of Firestone Walker is quoted by Stan Hieronymous in his seminal For the Love of Hops. Hop aroma can change very quickly, be it in the case of raw hops or the beer brewed with them, as chemical compounds responsible for particular aromas fade and others come to the fore.
It’s a complex subject, and the specific stability or shelf life of a beer is affected by age (of both the hops used and the beer itself), presence of oxygen, packaging type, storage conditions, and handling, to name just a handful of factors. In the final analysis, there’s a great deal of truth informing the freshness-obsessed marketing: if fresh beer is usually best, fresh *hoppy* beer is almost always.
Freshness Style #1: IPA / Pale Ale
As mentioned above, the hoppier the beer, the better fresh. American IPA and American Pale Ale are probably the two styles most indelibly linked with hoppiness; in fact, they’ve redefined what it means to be “hoppy” several times over the past generation.
But hoppiness itself is a moving target: while the current fad is for wildly aromatic, low bitterness, creamy IPA in ugly self-labeled 16oz cans, not so long ago bitterness defined hoppiness. Brewers and consumers alike were IBU-attuned, and many an IPA brand in the first decade of the new century wore its International Bittering Unit score proudly on its packaging. Consumers seemed to want to experience the extremes of bitterness, and breweries were happy to oblige: beers like Stone’s original Ruination DIPA and Founders’ Devil Dancer Triple IPA were among the first beers most consumers experienced at 100+ IBUs, and they were wildly iconoclastic in their time.
I can absolutely guarantee there are plenty of once-prized hoppy beers moldering and becoming sickly sweet on a warm store shelf not so far from you”
Along with hop aroma, though, hop bitterness fades rather quickly: the iso-alpha-acids extracted from hops during boiling oxidize and fade, making the beer less bitter and (likely) eventually cloyingly sweet, as the balance of flavors becomes more and more out of whack.
Bitterness fades more slowly than aroma, however: a given beer may only lose 25% of its original measured IBUs in optimal storage over the course of a year, but aromatics derived from dry hopping, where hops are added (typically) post-fermentation, begin to disappear almost immediately. “Levels of significant compounds that produce floral, spicy and woody aromas drop dramatically the first three days after bottling,” Hieronymous writes (emphasis mine).
I believe that most craft consumers have experienced the degradation of an aged IPA, but if you’ve never had the pleasure, I can absolutely guarantee there are plenty of once-prized hoppy beers moldering and becoming sickly sweet on a warm store shelf not so far from you.
If you’re interested in seeing how fast hop qualities fade, though, a simple experiment: grab a six pack of your favorite consistent IPA (hoppy beers from small producers can vary wildly from batch to batch) and sock that thing away at the back of the fridge. Now, once a week for the next six, drink one and try to note your impressions of it.
Has it changed? How? Smell different? Taste different? In the sixth week, try to find a fresh six pack of the same brand (check date codes to ensure that it’s FAF) and open your freshie alongside the aged one—chances are, you’ll be able to notice the difference. To experience an even more marked difference, leave your aging six pack out at room temperature.
Freshness Style #2: Pilsner/Helles
“Brewers sometimes refer to pilsner,” Garrett Oliver writes, “as ‘naked,’ meaning that there’s nowhere for imperfect flavors to hide. Like all lagers, pilsner expresses very little fermentation character. The flavor and aroma are pure malt and hops, with little if any fruit.” Lagers are ingredient-driven beers; that is, lacking the “fermentation character” that accompanies most ales to a greater or lesser degree, they live and die on the basis of the quality of their ingredients, the skill of their craftsmanship, and the freshness of the resultant beer.
I arbitrarily group pilsner and helles together for several reasons, including the fact that they’re two of my favorite styles: Pilsner Urquell may indeed be my favorite beer of all time, with Weihenstephaner Original Helles trailing not too far behind. These beers in their prime are paragons of elegance and simplicity; time ravages them terribly.
The main difference between helles and pilsner (beyond some small regional variation in the malts used, water profile, and strength) lies in the hopping: pilsners, both the Czech and German types, are more bitter than helles, with pilsner IBUs typically ranging from ~20-35 versus ~15-22 IBUs for helles.
Pilsner therefore suffers more quickly and dramatically from the passage of time, the first casualty being a wonderful spicy-herbal hop aroma usually derived from Saazer-type hops and other related noble hop varieties. Malt aroma should be present as well, but if your pilsner smells overwhelmingly sweet (or like honey), you may want to check the date. Bitterness, as discussed above, will also fade over time, making the beer unbalanced and too sweet.
Helles, being a less hoppy style, tends to withstand age a little better in my experience; especially in regards to Weihenstephaner Original, the beer is quite shelf-stable, and will hold up remarkably well even when stored at (stable) ambient temperatures, due to its quality of ingredients, unparalleled craftsmanship, and pasteurization. Still, even the noble helles will eventually take a turn: its light hoppiness ebbs first, and this “fully-attenuated Pils malt showcase” becomes in time a venue for trans-2-nonenal, a chemical compound mostly responsible for the papery, wet cardboard flavor closely associated with stale beer.
I’ve experienced everything from musty basement to hot garbage to lit match as qualities of aged canned kettle soured beer.”
Freshness Style #3: Kettle Sours
As I’ve written elsewhere, kettle sours are still a point of mild controversy among some brewers and consumers. Cheap, quick and (in a relative sense) easy to make, kettle sours are meant to approximate the flavors and experience of drinking a “real” sour beer, that is, one fermented with a mixed culture of yeast and bacteria and aged for a longer-than-usual period of time in either stainless steel or some type of wooden vessel. Kettle sours get you tartness for less. They are also vile when aged.
A relatively recent phenomenon, there’s consequently very little written about kettle sours and their flavor chemistry. Thus I cannot tell you why they taste so utterly disgusting with a couple-few months on them, but O my friends: they do. Perhaps it’s the degradation of the lactic acid in isolation, perhaps it’s the lack of complexity that many of these beers begin with, perhaps it’s simply the fact that the base recipes for these beers require that punch of tartness in order to be palatable.
Whatever the reason, as tartness fades and oxidation encroaches, I’ve experienced everything from musty basement to hot garbage to lit match as qualities of aged canned kettle soured beer. I am absolutely certain there are plenty of people reading these words and thinking to themselves, “Bullshit! I have some year-old cans of Gose in my fridge right now that still taste GREAT.” To you I say: time makes liars of us all.
Another temporal hurdle for kettle sours is their ubiquitous use of fruit. Fruit flavor tends to fade fairly quickly, and when the fruited beer in question lacks the bacteria or wild yeasts that might both protect it from premature oxidation and transform less desirable flavors into more desirable ones over time (as kettle sours almost universally do), you may quickly be left with just a blonde ale full of rancid fruit flavor and diminished lactic tartness.
Drink these beers fresh; do not age them. In fact, probably better not to age anything in a can, for a whole bevy of reasons.
Thanks to Remo Remoquillo for the header illustration.