Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Fresh tastes better, even with beer

Wow, didn't realize I'd skipped one. Here it is, just two weeks late.

Pitcher This: Fresh tastes better, even with beer


It was an unexpected phone call, but definitely the welcome kind.

"Can I pick you up some beer?"

That's similar to asking someone if they'd like a free pile of cash, isn't it?

The caller was in a store I don't normally frequent, one that tends to stock brands not found in every local convenience store. Naturally, I accepted the offer and after work stopped by to pick up the gift of hooch.

I carted my haul home, and began stocking the bottles to chill. The next day I pulled one out, and prepared to pour it into a glass. I stopped, noticing the digits inked on the label. The beer was best consumed, it said, by a date that had passed 10 months prior.

My heart sank.

People are sometimes surprised when I mention the freshness of beer. Perhaps they think a tightly sealed, chilled bottle protects its contents indefinitely, especially when the contents contain alcohol.

But yes, beer can go bad.

There's not enough alcohol in most beer to provide a preservative effect for long. Plus, there's a lot more than that in the bottle — any number of chemical compounds resulting from the mixture of water, hops, yeast and malt that can break down over time, or from wild swings in temperature or from the deteriorating effect of sunlight. The beer's taste can turn sour, flat or downright skunky when it's old or not stored properly. Most beer should be consumed within three to six months of being brewed.

In the anecdote above, I don't fault my beer benefactor, whose gesture was as warm as good beer is cold. Instead, the distributor and retailer should have kept a closer eye on the stock, making sure they were offering a fresh product.

Not all brewers make this easy, and some make it downright hard for customers to gauge beer's age. A number of brands use coded dates than can be tough to decipher unless one knows the key. Fortunately, the Internet age is making it easier for those who've cracked the codes to share that knowledge.

But a noble and growing few are printing clearly written dates of each beer's brewing, or even best-consumed-by dates right on the label.

When that information's not available, look for dust on the bottles, a tell-tale sign that beer's been around a tad too long. It also doesn't hurt to get to know whoever's responsible for the beer stock at your regular shopping stops. Besides learning how quickly they move different brands out the door, you could gain an ally or two in your search for a favorite brand or the latest new brews on the market.

And of course, every rule has its exceptions. Some beer styles actually benefit from a few years in storage. Under the right conditions, higher-alcohol and more heavily hopped beers such as Belgian strong ales, imperial stouts, and barleywines add character to their flavor over time, improving with age much like some wines. Sadly, their higher alcohol content makes Alabama one of very few states where such beers are outlawed.