I know, I’m the guy that keeps telling you how much I want to drink old beers, right? Well, the flipside of that coin is the simple fact that some beers are not good past their prime. So while I’m happy to put a sixer of Sierra Nevada Bigfoot in my cellar and let it age for years, I’d probably never try to do the same with their Torpedo IPA. I know what some people will say, they have aged beers that aren’t supposed to be aged and they turned out great. And while I appreciate that experiment (I’m actually in the midst of one myself) I think the safe play is to know how old a beer is before you decide to purchase it.
So, how can we find out how long a beer has been sitting on a store shelf? Well, it’s not as easy as it should be and in some cases, is a total mystery.
I recently visited a couple of shops in Indiana, I go out there every now and then to get my hands on some New Belgium beers, and more importantly, some Three Floyds, which is my favorite brewery. So I get to a liquor store that looks like it excels when it comes to the selling of Crown Royal and Bud Light, but also stocks the aforementioned brands, along with a healthy dose of Stone, Great Divide and Dogfish Head. I see some Stone Double Bastard (2010) and pick it up quickly, some Anchor Our Special Ale (2009) and grab it and cases and cases of Gumballhead and Alpha King, two of my favorites from Three Floyds.
With all the old beer in the place, I was curious as to how old the Gumballhead was, because that is a beer that is better fresh, but alas, Three Floyds does not give any freshness information. I bought a six-pack anyway, and while it’s certainly drinkable, it’s not nearly as excellent as a fresh batch.
Other breweries give you a straight up “Best If Consumed By” date. This to me is a crapshoot as well, maybe I don’t mind an extra 30 days on my Great Lakes Dortmunder, but the brewery says it’s ‘best by’, and that can mean alot, right?
I’m a bigger fan of the bottling date being on the bottle, but even then it can be a ‘Da Vinci Code’ encryption process. Anchor Brewing for example, they use a coded three-character bottling date. The first number is the last digit of the year. The next letter is the month and the last character is the day. The months are coded: J = Jan, F = Feb, M = Mar, A = Apr, Y = May, U = Jun L = Jul, G = Aug, S = Sep, O = Oct, N = Nov, D = Dec. The days 1-26 are coded A-Z while days 27-31 are coded with the last digit of the day. Thus 8JT was bottled on January 20, 2008. For Canada: A best before date is on the label. Ex.: 7-2013. Date is 2 years from bottling. Wait….what?
Thankfully, the same source I pulled that code from has an extensive list of breweries and their codes for freshness or bottling dates. You can view the whole thing right here, and it’s a great bookmark or something to reference at your bottle shop when in doubt.
While searching for some art to go along with this post, I found a great entry (penned just last week) about this topic, so head over to BeerFM.com and get their thoughts as well.