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Monday, November 24, 2014

Does Freshness Matter?

A quicky follow-up on my two-part series at All About Beer on staling.  Some folks pointed out that a few styles do age well and some improve.  I did acknowledge that in the second post, and it's definitely something worth noting. The problem is that this truth seems to have overwhelmed the far bigger truth that most beers don't improve with age.  Worse, the focus on the beers that do improve creates a subtle sense that age is good for beer, and this is definitely not true.   I'm pretty certain that many fans are not aware of how perishable beer is nor do they recognize that a "bad" beer is actually just stale.  (If you spend any time reading the ratings sites about your favorite beers, you can identify the many times this happens.)  It is definitely true that some beers age. But they are the extreme minority, and if that's the one fact you know about beer and time, you have learned the wrong fact.

Staleness is not identical to oxidation.  Long before you get those flavors of paper or wet cardboard, you get dullness; the intentional flavors placed in the beer leech out.  These are the flavors we love in most of the styles we drink: delicate, bready malt flavors, vivid, green hop aromas and flavors.  As a beer stales, those delicate notes are the first to go.  Whereas in those beers that do age well, new flavors emerge as old ones fade, in most beers the process is one of subtraction.  Arguing that this is good for beer is like arguing that bread tastes better once you leave it on the counter for a week.

Modern IPAs, which owe so much of their character to post-kettle hopping, are especially vulnerable.  (Since they are the most popular styles among beer geeks, this fact is muy important.)  But it happens in just about all the beers most people drink--light lagers, all of the light ales of Britain, most of the lagers in Germany and the Czech Republic, and even many Belgian ales.  More than 99% of the world's beers fall into this category.  (Because Belgian ales almost invariably go through bottle-conditioning, oxygen is scrubbed from the bottle and those beers age a lot better than most.  Belgian ales also have fewer hops--and almost never late-addition hops--and usually have higher alcohol, two other advantages.) 

I don't consider myself an expert on beer but I am a pretty reliable emissary from the brewing world.  I've talked to hundreds of brewers in several countries.  Except for the lambic brewers (who produce, collectively, something on the order of less than 50,000 barrels a year) I have not encountered a single one who argued that their beer should be drunk stale.  Rather, they talked extensively about the processes they use to keep their beer fresh.  I don't doubt that there are people out there who like stale beer, but it's akin to liking lightstruck beer.  (There's no arguing about taste!)  Except in the case of a few types of beer (either high ABV or wild, usually dark), the flavors are closest to what the brewer intended when the beer is freshest.  Don't believe me, believe the brewers.

If this all seems outlandish, you can actually run your own experiment.  Select an IPA you admire with a lot of perfumy scents and rich hop flavors, buy a bottle, and put it in a warm cupboard.  Wait three months, and then buy a fresh bottle and do a blind tasting of the two.  This experiment also works with English bitter, session lagers, pale ales, wheat beers, German ales, light Belgian ales--pretty much anything that's not strong or wild. 


  1. Good article Jeff. Now queue the people who will inevitably want to argue every nuance on the subject.

    As a suggestion to your experiment: here in the Northwest with so many breweries, the test can be carried out as you stated, but instead I would recommend buying a growler at the brewery (fresh) that the bottle came from, for comparison rather than another bottle off the shelf at a store. I only suggest this since many local breweries do not yet have born on or drink by dating.

  2. Drink, drank, drunk. As it recently was watching an excruciatingly funny Tonight Show Jay-Walking episode: the abject ignorance of civics. Here, it''s the frustrating how-long-have-we-been-talking-about-how beer-is-made ignorance of the current web--beer-cognoscenti.

  3. Most Belgian strong ales of any sort are a bit of a waste drunk young. And yes while plenty of folk love the raw zest of a new IPA time gives a mellowness that is good as well. As another reliable emissary from the beer world, I can assure you that the dimension of time is far more interesting than you suggest. Yes, many lighter beers are best young but many work both ways. A few weeks or months add a tang to brown ales while most barley wines under years of age are insipid. Time is just another factor in understanding beer as much as it is with wine, meat, cheese or any other food.

  4. Alan, I don't know what kind of IPAs and brown ales you're getting in Ontario, but I doubt you're correct. Toasty, nutty brown ales lose their clarity, and IPAs--at least the West Coast variety with lots of post-kettle hopping--are among the most perishable beers on the market. As I said, there's no arguing taste, but yours is definitely idiosyncratic.

    I wonder, could you cite some examples of other people arguing for stale beer? I've quoted pretty broadly from brewers, distributors, and retailers, and I could go on and on finding people talking about the importance of freshness. (Which conforms to my own extensive research.) You have consistently maintained this line that many beers benefit from age. I'd love it if you could find someone else who agrees and explains why this phenomenon benefits beer. I think I've done a pretty good job explaining why I think you're dead wrong.

    Otherwise, it seems you're just arguing personal preference. That's fine, but it puts you at odds with those who actually make the beer and believe it ought to be fresh.

  5. My experience here is that beer is best new - any kind, whether very bitter, or mostly just aroma-hopped. In some cases, prolonged age won't hurt it much but rarely does it improve it. It's a crapshoot with older stuff, and often telltale notes of dam paper oxidation or other faults of age creep in. I find beers which are properly bottle-conditioned last longest, but again usually are better when not long from brewery. An example is Worthington White Shield, a crop newly arrived at LCBO in Toronto was much better than the same batch about 5 months later. Just recently I tasted Ballantine IPA bought 3 months ago and the opened (same day) a bottle bought the day before that the store said just arrived. The older one was starting subtly to go, if you didn't have the fresh one next to compare, you mightn't notice it, but any experienced taster would notice the difference.

    I think some people actually like various tastes of age - of oxidation, basically - but I don't. The "sherried" flavours so often mentioned in old beer are just that - old beer and not very appetizing.

    Still, I am all for well-hopped beers because all things being equal they help the beer to last longer (I mean here bittering hops not aroma hops). One can't control often the age and condition in a which a beer is received, so well-hopped beer tends to last longer and that is good.

    Gary Gillman

  6. Preach on, brother. And it's not even just "born on" dates that are the sole determinant of the level of staling for a particular beer. Cases are left next to heaters and forgotten about, draft systems are left unclean, issues can occur during packaging... It's a wonder anyone gets good tasting beer outside a half-mile radius from the source.

    As an aside, credit should be given where credit is due to the breweries out there that take beer freshness seriously: with proper packaging QC/QA procedures in place and a proactive mindset towards removing stale beer from the shelves. It's an important (albeit unsexy) part of the beer making process that is easy for a small brewery to overlook when they're trying as hard as they can just to keep up with demand.

  7. Good article. My experience is for pale ale, that aged is better than fresh one. I like taste of oxidation. I tried this nice experience at nearby store.