Why Is My Beer Stale? (Part II)
I began last week’s post with the story of a minor tragedy: a customer being forced to dump an IPA because it was so stale. That post discusses both what happens to beer as it ages and degrades, and how hard breweries work to slow the process. Nevertheless, we’ve all had the experience of buying stale beer. It raises some important questions. How does this happen? Whose fault is it? And the most important question of all: what can you do to avoid out-of-date, stale beer?
When beer leaves a conditioning tank—the last moment we can be certain it was fresh—the clock starts ticking. First the brewery must package it and get it out of the building. The distributor (sometimes referred to as wholesaler) must deliver it to a retailer, and that retailer must sell it speedily. The whole process, from conditioning tank to customer, can’t take longer than 90 days before the beer becomes noticeably stale. (There are a few styles like gueuzes and imperial stouts that actually improve with time, but they are outliers and constitute only a tiny percentage of all beer sold. The rest—and especially those fragrant, hoppy IPAs we love—are delicate and perishable.)
To answer the hows and whos of stale beer, I decided to contact people responsible for each step in the chain—breweries, distributors, and retailers—to find out what they do to ensure freshness. This is a mostly invisible realm to the consumer, and it’s fascinating to learn what’s happening (or not) behind the scenes.
Ben Edmunds, brewmaster at Portland’s Breakside Brewery, operates a typical small brewery. He does not have the technical capacity of larger breweries (“there is batch-to-batch variation”), but nevertheless argues that breweries are ultimately responsible for the freshness of their beer. “I feel that a brewer has to take responsibility within reason for all of his/her beer, regardless of how far away it is from the site of origin or how long ago it left the brewery.” When the customer gets a stale beer, Edmunds points out, she doesn’t think to blame the store or distributor—she blames the brewery. “Certainly, retailers and wholesalers have to store beer properly, rotate stock, and aggressively remove out of date beer from the shelves, but that can only be done in concert with the brewery.”
Because Breakside does not have the technical tools of larger breweries, that makes it even more important for Edmunds to put adequate systems in place to track his beer. “To come up with our ‘shelf life,’ we’ve done numerous stress tests, discussed and defined ‘acceptable degradation’ for each of our brands, and made conservative estimates. We tell our wholesaler how long the shelf life of our beer is and we can vary it between different types of package (say kegs vs. bottles). To work with the wholesaler on this, we have to date all of our kegs and bottles, as well as pallets.”
Whether a brewery has tight controls over their brewhouse, their oxygen levels, or their bottling equipment, they should all date their bottles. This is a basic level of transparency. Some breweries use “best-by” dates, which is adequate, but even better are “bottled-on” dates. These let the customer see when the beer was made and make judgments about whether to buy a package.
Once the beer exits the brewery, it’s on to …
The step totally invisible to the consumer is distribution. In the American system, policy-makers decided to install a middle-man between the producer and retailer so that breweries didn’t build huge monopolies over pubs. The system accomplishes that end, but also adds a layer of handling that can slow things down. Folks I spoke to told me the practices of distributors vary widely—some are fastidious about making fresh products available, others not so much.
I spoke to Jim Fick, Vice President at General Distributors in Oregon City, OR, to learn about the best practices among wholesalers. General distributes a number of local craft breweries, Coors, a handful of imports, along with cider and wine. Echoing what Edmunds said, Fick pointed out that the brewery/wholesaler relationship is key. “Around 60% of our volume is MillerCoors, and we get annual audits by them. They come through and do a ‘process audit’ (checking our operation out at our location) and a ‘field audit’”—looking for old beer on grocery shelves.
General takes responsibility for the beer on grocery shelves. If beer is near being “out of code” (past its sell-by date), one of the distributors’ staff should be pulling the beer and replacing it with fresh beer. Pulled beer is sold to staff at General, sold at cost or below at dock sales, or destroyed, depending on how old it is. General has a staff of merchandisers whose sole responsibility is checking accounts, rotating products, and stocking shelves.
Breweries and distributors have a symbiotic relationship, supporting either good practices or lax standards. Fick recommends that small breweries should be stopping in to “check on dates in grocery and convenience store chains. They should be out there seeing what is happening at the store level and checking on how their distributor is doing, whether their beers are rotated and if they are being properly stocked, and checking on pricing.”
You’d think that all distributors would have similar practices, but it’s not so. My retail source, Chris Ormand, explained what happens when breweries are not vigilant. “Some of the older A-B/MillerCoors houses that were late to the craft beer game seem to be clueless about the fact that craft beer ‘expires’ and appear to have no one on staff responsible for policing the warehouse for old beer.”
Which brings us to…
Everyone I spoke to expressed anxiety about the retail landscape, which seems wild and uncontrollable to them. Fick, the distributor, gave an example of the kind of thing that can happen in a store that neither the brewery nor distributor can easily identify. “A real problem is a lack of back-room refrigeration at grocery store and convenience store chains (those 85-90 degree storage areas in August are a killer for beer), and also slow movers at retailers that have beers sitting out on a warm shelf for weeks and months.” Of all the people responsible for handling beer, retailers have the most influence over freshness, and often, the least sense that it’s important.
To learn more, I spoke to Chris Ormand, who does the buying for specialty beer shop Belmont Station in Portland. Belmont stocks everything from beer down the street to across the continent and planet, and I’ve always gotten fresh products there. Because of that I figured Ormand would be able to explain how he keeps his beer from going stale.
He began with a basic fact unknown to me. “The distributors have a responsibility to deliver beer ‘within code,’ and a legal requirement to accept returns within 10-14 days for any reason. Beyond that, I don’t believe they’re under any legal obligation to pick up stuff that goes out of code on a retailer’s shelf, so it falls on the retailer to keep tabs on their inventory.” This demonstrates a basic principle: breweries and distributors may be very involved pulling old beer, but it ultimately falls to the retailer.
When I heard how sophisticated Belmont Station was in their beer tracking, it illuminated how easily a more lax process might let some product fall through the cracks. When he’s purchasing beer, Ormand decides whether he can sell it before it will go stale. “For example, if we receive a case of beer that has 45 days left before going out of code, but the computer tells me it took 60 days to sell the last case I’ll probably refuse it and temporarily discontinue that beer until the distributor gets a fresh shipment.”
“Unfortunately,” he continued, “outside the beer geek sector, the vast majority of bars, restaurants, and retailers are either ignorant to the fact that (unlike wine and liquor) beer has a shelf life, or they simply don’t care. I buy most of my beer at work, but I have a habit of checking out the selection any time I’m in a place that sells beer, and you would be shocked at how much stale beer is out there.”
That was, I’m sad to report, a sentiment I heard from breweries and wholesalers, as well.
Avoiding Stale Beer
With all that going against the consumer, it’s a wonder we ever get fresh beer at all. Things aren’t so bad, though. One reason is that, as the market matures, more and more people in this chain of handlers are aware of the need to get beer to market fresh. Another reason is that you, the wily consumer, actually have a number of ways to markedly increase the likelihood of getting fresh beer. Here are some handy tips:
– Look at the date on a bottle of beer. Breweries that don’t date their beer should expect customers to doubt whether they’re committed to delivering it fresh. There’s a handy online source that tracks this info called Fresh Beer Only.
– When you’re in a store, look around to see if there are old products on the shelves (seasonal are a dead giveaway). If the retailer hasn’t gotten the old spring beers off the shelves by November, it’s a good bet they aren’t monitoring their beer.
– If you do happen to buy an old beer from a store, let the staff know what you found. If they are responsive and immediately pull the product, it’s a good sign they are interested in fresh beer. If not, look for a different retailer.
– Drink seasonally. Most large breweries have one slot reserved at a grocery store for their seasonal offerings (a seasonal “SKU”). They make sure that beer from the old seasonal is rotated out as the calendar changes.
– Finally: buy beer straight from the brewery. It’s always the absolute best way to get fresh beer. There are now 3,000 breweries in the United States, and most consumers have at least one local brewery to patronize.
One of the biggest barriers to getting fresh beer is the recognition that it’s a critical component of good beer. As beer fans, we cannot only be vigilant, but talk to breweries and retailers about our experiences, praising them when the beer is fresh, and alerting them when it’s not. The more people realize freshness is so important, the more they’ll make sure beer is fresh.