In the past week, you may have caught wind of a popular beer from Escondido, Calif.'s Stone Brewing Co. hitting the shelves in the bay area. The arrival of this beer played like a special event at local beer bars such as the Ale and the Witch and Willard's Tap House, with customers eager to try it. Even though we get most of Stone's full product line, this particular beer has never before been distributed in our area.
Why not? Well, the name of the beer itself partially answers that: it's called Enjoy By 5.17.13. Shipping beer clear across the country takes long enough, and for a beer bottled in mid April, May 17 isn't far away. Practically mandating a consumption date in the name of a beer is a novel approach, sure, but if you try the beer, you'll understand why the hurry to drink the stuff is actually pretty darn important.
As soon as you take the cap off, a huge waft of floral and citrusy hop aromas blast right out of the bottle. Pungent, resiny hop flavors dominate the palate, effortlessly balancing out the otherwise hefty weight of this 9.4 percent alcohol by volume IPA. In short, it tastes really, really fresh.
This is partly due to a process called "hop bursting," wherein brewers add a boatload of hops toward the end of the brewing cycle, thereby preserving the delicate aromatic oils of the hops without contributing much to the overall bitterness of the brew. These oils are quite volatile, and their half-life is short. As a result, they're among the first compounds in a beer to deteriorate. This is why the vast majority of beers, especially hop-forward beers like IPAs, should be consumed as fresh as possible, to ensure that they taste the way their creators intended.
That's right: those born-on and best-before dates promoted by big-name brewing conglomerates are much more than a clever marketing tactic, they're an important factor in how a beer tastes. As a rule of thumb, most lagers, ales below 8 percent ABV and beers with a big hop profile should be consumed within three to four months of their bottling date. Big beers, such as barleywines and imperial stouts, can be aged for a year or two before they start to go stale, while bottle-conditioned beers such as Belgian ales and Lambics can be safely stored for several years in some cases.
While Stone makes it abundantly clear how long its Enjoy By IPA will last, it's not the first to convey such information to the consumer. Sam Adams was among the first to include a best-by date on its beers — nearly 30 years ago!
Sam Adams' date is printed in an easy-to-read manner, so there's no trouble figuring out just how fresh its beer is. However, many freshness declarations are subtle to the point of incomprehensibility. Many breweries use complex alpha-numeric combinations to indicate brewed-on dates, while others print best-by dates instead. Others use Julian calendar dates, making the task of determining freshness even more hopeless for the layman.
If you want to decode the date on your favorite beer, Google "beer freshness codes" and you'll find an extremely handy site called Fresh Beer Only that will help decipher it. A working knowledge of how these freshness codes work will go a long way in making sure you're drinking beer that hasn't aged past its prime.
But in the meantime, I propose an experiment.
Tampa's Cigar City Brewing has been kind enough to print its packaging dates in an easy-to-understand day/month/year format on the bottom of its cans. Pick up a can of Jai Alai IPA and let it sit in the fridge for two or three months. Then locate a fresh can (it's not uncommon to find Jai Alai cans locally that are less than a week old) and try them side by side. You'll understand what the freshness hubbub is all about.