Skunk in my Beer
When the Best Beers Get the Worst Treatment
It is the private hazard of a professional beer writer that his friends expect to be served great beers when they visit, and I am always happy to oblige. Such was the case recently, when I had a small party in my house. It was still winter in Massachusetts, so I bought a bunch of beers to suit the season. They all fit the theme of “British trading beers,” the ones British merchants used to ship to India, Russia and the Baltics, where they purchased furs, spices and other materials for the home front.
Among the brews I had on offer were Saku Porter from Tallin, Estonia; Pripps D. Carnegie Stark-Porter from Stockholm (now apparently no longer made regularly by the brewery); Sinebrychoff Porter from Kerava, near Helsinki; Le Coq Russian Imperial Extra Double Stout made in Sussex, England, under the supervision of the Le Coq Brewery of Tartu, Estonia; and the Burton India Empire Ale from Burton-on-Trent in England, where the style originated.
As most of my guests were unfamiliar with these brews, I explained how, in the 1700s and 1800s, the British had supplied the czar with strong dark brews that warmed his imperial heart and soul in the Winter Palace at St. Petersburg and how these beers subsequently became known as “imperial” stouts and porters. These beers were eventually also brewed in the ports of call along the route, which is why we can now enjoy Baltic stouts and porters such as the ones that were on my table.
I also talked about the problems the British had during the Raj in keeping their imperial troupes in India supplied with good ale, considering that the casks had to travel across the equator on a six-week sea voyage. Brewers of Burton-on-Trent learned to make their pale ales stronger in hop-bitterness and in alcohol, both anti-spoilage agents, so the beers would still drinkable on arrival. These beers came to be known as India pale ales. Finally, I mentioned how lucky we are that many package stores feature these rare beers for the discriminating connoisseur. And then we reached for the glasses.
I knew these beer brands were great when the left the brewery, because I had tasted all of them fresh on their home turf during my travels as a diligent itinerant imbiber. After my bravado speech, therefore, I expected utterances of enthusiastic delight. But, oh, what disaster! My guests sipped my offerings in polite and embarrassed silence. At best, I got kind mutterings about how “unusual” the tastes were. I then tasted the brews myself—and each and every one was positively awful, hideous, undrinkable! To paraphrase the words from one of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” marches, the brews had turned into “Beers of Faded Glory.”
I finally went to the basement and dragged out a case of Paulaner Pils, a Munich interpretation of a northern-German hoppy pale lager. That was all I had on hand, and that case disappeared in no time!
The Dawn of the Obvious
As I reflected on what had happened, a pattern took shape in my mind that I should have understood a long time ago: When it comes to the care of rare and expensive beers, our beer stores and pubs are often frivolously dysfunctional!
Merchants do precisely the wrong thing when they allocate store space for beer. The fast-moving cans in a suitcase or the 40-ounce bottles of un-ruinable malt liquor are always in the cooler, while the slow-moving, most expensive beers are always out on the floor shelf, where they are exposed to permanent light and warmth. Yet, as professional merchants, beer store owners ought to know the most elementary truth about beer, one that any brewer has internalized as a core part of his professional credo, namely that beer is a perishable food commodity, one that does not get better with age, and one that undergoes flavor-destroying chemical changes when kept under the influence of light and heat.
With age, beer eventually becomes stale, hazy and skunky, a condition more likely to occur in slow-moving specialty brands than in ordinary, fast-selling mass brands. So consumers are paying the highest prices for the brews that receive the worst treatment.
Beer Aging Dissected
Light energy causes a photochemical process in beer, during which the hop’s bittering agents react with sulfurous fermentation trace elements and dissolved oxygen elements to form a revolting, skunky-tasting compound known by the impossible name of 3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol. This photochemical reaction occurs both on warm shelves and in brilliantly lit coolers, and it is fastest in clear or green bottles, which cannot block the frequency of light that is most responsible for the process. Brown bottles have optimum (though not perfect!) blockage ability, but they, too, can only delay, not prevent, the inevitable. Skunked beer, therefore, is also termed “light-struck” beer.
Oxygen is another great enemy of beer shelf life. There is always a small amount of oxygen in solution in any beer. In addition, bottled beer picks up so-called packaged oxygen during the filling process. The amount of pick-up depends on the sophistication of the bottling and kegging equipment. The effect of oxygen on packaged beer is called “staling.” Among the key compounds that oxidize during staling are fatty acids (lipids), of which beer contains a few trace elements. The impact of oxidized lipids is disproportionate to their numbers.
The flavor sensation of staled beer is variously described as soapy, fatty, sweaty or goaty. Other oxidized products in beer may impart winey, wet cardboard, cooked vegetable, celery, sour or acrid flavors. Importantly, the rate of oxidation accelerates significantly with an increase in the beer’s storage temperature. For instance, a particular brew that may have a shelf life of four months if kept at a temperature of 42 degrees F may have a shelf life of less than three months if kept at temperature of 86 degrees F.
There are exceptions, of course. Among these are, for instance, high-alcohol bocks and eisbocks, such as Samichlaus and EKU 28; or barley wines, such as Sierra Nevada Big Foot or Thomas Hardy Ale. Many of these brews carry the “vintage” year on their labels and are intended to be “put down” for a few years. Like Madeira, port, and sherry, which are deliberately oxidized wines, these big beers seem to acquire their sought-after signature flavor only after oxidation. Yet even these heavyweights ought to be allowed to age gracefully in a dark, cool environment, not on a brightly-lit store shelf at room temperature. Even an old eisbock or barley wine does not benefit from light-struck skunkiness.
Finally, beer exposed to higher temperatures and plenty of oxidation also tends to develop of permanent haze over time. Hazes tend not to be present in fresh beer. Technically, such hazes are formed when beer loses what is called its colloidal stability. The haze occurs when normally invisible dissolved protein particles form a loose bond with polyphenols (from grain husks and hops) and become visible. All beers eventually develop such hazes, but the rate of haze formation can increase as much as five-fold in heavily oxidized, over-the-hill beers.
From these explanations, it ought to be clear that after six months on a warm shelf in a well-lit store, there is hardly a bottle of beer that is anywhere near the wonderful treasure it was when it left the brewery. Even the best of brews can become undrinkable. The breweries themselves, too, seem to understand this problem, as I learned during a lunch meeting in November 2000 with the then-head of the quality lab of one of the big Munich breweries. He candidly admitted to me that it is next to impossible to reconcile the brew-technical rules for making a great brew with the modern commercial imperative of having that brew last a full year on the shelf. This, he said, was his biggest quality challenge.
The Obvious Confirmed
If my arguments are correct, I thought, other consumers must have had the same experience. When great beers arrive fresh on the shelves, they should produce rave reviews by beer lovers, but after they have been brutalized by a storekeeper’s carelessness, their awfulness should produce equally awful reviews. To test this theory, I checked my favorite consumer beer web page, www.beeradvocate.com, which features a huge collection of consumer beer reviews. And, lo and behold, there was a wide range of opinions expressed about individual beers by obviously caring and discriminating drinkers. Something was wrong with this picture. Either these consumers approached beer flavors from totally opposite angles or the samples they reviewed of the same brand were indeed as different as their comments suggested. I am now convinced that the latter is the case, and that it represents one of the most significantly under-reported stories in beerdom.
Pubs, too, are not immune from brutalizing beer before they serve it. I happen to have grown up in Düsseldorf, where the altbier style originated, and have had ample opportunity to try as many altbier brands as are brewed there. Also, when I still owned a brewery in Massachusetts, I won a bronze medal for my own micro-brewed altbier at the 2000 Great American Beer Festival. Finally, I am the author of the “Classic Beer Style” volume on altbier. So I know a thing or two about this beer style, and I was delighted to discover that a wonderful one, Frankenheim, has now made its entry into the American market in 12-ounce bottles. I found it recently on the menu of a beer bar in Baltimore. The bottle I had there, however, tasted old and stale, decidedly over the hill. That bottle cost me almost as much as a six-pack of fresh Sam Adams in a store, so I felt cheated.
I few days later I found a pallet of Frankenheim cases that had just arrived from the distributor in one of the biggest liquor stores in Massachusetts, and, of course, I bought a case. I think this time I was lucky, because that sample tasted almost as if it were served fresh in one of the pubs in my hometown. Now I finally understood: It’s not the beer, man! It’s the store, stupid!
Consumers to Arms!
The only way breweries can get around the shelf-life problem of their products is to “fortify” their beers with chemical inhibitors of the natural aging reactions and then package their beers in cans, the obvious practice of many factory breweries. For “real” beers, however, there is no antidote to the effects of aging, except to reward a finished brew with proper keeping conditions and to drink it promptly. Light-struck beer, abused by room temperature, ought to be a “no-no” by definition, for both store and bar owners as well as beer consumers.
I am not the sort of person who likes to complain. When I experience poor service or a seeming rip-off, I quietly walk away, never to return, but I tell everybody I know about my bad experience. Word-of-mouth negative advertising is my form of getting even.
If we were talking about an expensive item such as a new car, of course, I would be more vociferous. But over a $5.60 bottle of skunked imperial stout, nobody sues. I realize now, however, as I am nearing the end of my fifth decade, that I have probably blown, in the aggregate, half a mortgage on skunked and stale brews that I had to pour down the drain. If I had to pay for all that undrinkable beer in one lump sum, I would probably take a lawyer and go to court. And I bet you I would win. But, like most better-beer consumers, I’ve been gypped incrementally over a lifetime. My lesson from this realization is never to buy specialty beers, imported or micro-brewed, off the warm shelf again.
Theoretically, when you purchase a good, be it a car, a house, or a beer, certain explicit and implied, contract-like promises are always part of the transaction. It is understood, for instance, by both the buyer and the seller that, if a product does not perform its implied function, the sale is null and void. Consumer protection legislation, such as automobile lemon laws, is a typical example of this. The same should apply to the purchase of a bottle of beer. It is the ostensible purpose of a beer to be consumed with pleasure and to foster enjoyment in the process. If a beer is undrinkable, you not only deserve to get your money back, you also ought to be compensated for your disappointment and aggravation– if not from a practical perspective, at least from a moral one.
What is needed, therefore, is a completely new set of beer-retail ethics, at both off-premises and on-premises establishments, and a total paradigm shift on the part of the owners and designers of such premises. Customers, too, should either speak up about inappropriate beer storage conditions or, if they are of a more reserved nature, should simply boycott stores that sell defective (beer) goods. In the end, no beer at all is better than skunked beer, especially at the high prices of some of the specialty beers. Likewise, beer lovers should avoid going to beer bars that brag about their 100-plus beers on the menu, only to serve most of them skunked and oxidized.
As consumers, we should band together in an informal covenant of conviction to frequent only those stores and pubs that that never serve over-the-hill brews, pay heed to the needs of better-beer drinkers, and are receptive to constructive suggestions. In terms of positive reinforcement, we should reward “good” stores and pubs that keep their best and most expensive brews in the best place, in the cooler, preferably in the dark. Such stores and pubs deserve verbal recognition for their good deeds.
Perhaps one way to get the ball rolling is for you to photocopy this article and hand it to stores and bars that are “out of compliance.” Indicate that you will tell all your friends about their poor placement. Remember the effects of word of mouth. It’s a powerful consumer tool!
Horst Dornbusch is the owner of Cerevisia Communications, a Massachusetts-based PR agency for the international beverage industry; a beer history enthusiast; and the author of numerous books and articles on beer-related topics.