How to Avoid Bad Beer
I believe that everyone deserves fresh beer that is served in a clean glass at an appropriate temperature with no off-flavors. Unfortunately these aspects are often overlooked by both beer sellers and buyers. This is often because of innocent ignorance, but beer quality should be priority number one for everyone involved in beer.
I am going to go over what can make good beer go bad and ways to spot and avoid potentially bad beer. But first, who should care?
Reasons to Care
For the beer drinker
Of course we want the things we eat and drink to taste good, especially the craft beer we love that costs a bit more than your typical red plastic cup beer. Who wants to pay premium prices for spoiled or infected beer (more on infected beer later)? We also want it to be served in a sanitary manner. Who wants their glass to have leftover beer and lip marks from the previous drinker?
For the retailer
Clean, fresh, non-infected beer increases sales while damaged, spoiled beer brings them down. Even if the patrons don't know what is wrong with their beer (infection, oxidation, served in dirty glass, etc), bars and restaurants should only serve/sell quality beer and treat it as they would their food and utensils. They wouldn't want to serve you old damaged food with a dirty fork, would they? If they did, how likely are you to go back?
For the distributor
A beer distributor will lose sales if they are continuously selling expired or infected beer to their accounts. Their account may refuse the order and send it back, costing the distributor a lost sale and extra labor. The account may also accept the order, not knowing it is expired and wonder why it tastes "off" or why their customers aren't buying it, discouraging reorders. With these lost sales, distributors will lose their accounts' faith to supply them with quality beer.
For the brewery
Ask any brewer out there; it is not "brew it and they will come." Breweries spend a lot time, energy, and capital to make their beer and brewery stand out in a crowded and competitive market, so quality preservation is vital.
Breweries will lose big on sales if distributors and retailers aren't helping to make sure that their beer is stored appropriately, only sold within its shelf life, and dispensed through clean draft lines. The consumer is not likely going to order another one if having an off pint, nor are they likely to try more of said brewery's beers. There are seemingly endless options on the market, so beer drinkers aren't going to waste their dollars on bad beer they believe to be at fault by the brewer, even though it may be the retailer's.
As you can see, everyone that is a part of the beer supply chain should have an interest in beer quality preservation. Now let's look at how beer quality may suffer and how to prevent it from happening.
Almost all beer is ready to drink as soon as it leaves the brewery and is best consumed fresh. A few beer styles may be pleasant with some controlled aging, but even then, the brightest, freshest flavors are found in, well.. fresh beer.
As soon as a beer has finished fermenting and is kegged or packaged, it is a race against time to drink it all before it falls outside of its shelf life. This is because no matter the amount of care breweries put into avoiding oxygen contact with finished beer, there will still be some left over. Oxygen contact will inevitably lead to oxidation and give an off-flavor known as trans-2-nonenal (or simply oxidized), which often tastes like wet paper or cardboard.
This papery, stale taste isn't the only thing that happens to beer with time. The first thing to go with age on beer is hop bitterness and hop character. This is especially bad for IPAs since they rely on the flavors, aromas, and bitterness from large amounts of expensive hops. Aging a beer may also increase the perceived maltiness and make it taste more caramelly and sweet with an old, bruised green apple flavor or stale melted gushers, at least to me.
How can you avoid old beer?
My rule of thumb is to buy beer that is under three months old. There are some exceptions to the rule, but I think this rule is a safe bet until you are more familiar with specific beers and beer styles. For example, I have had a six month-old Sierra Nevada Pale Ale that, even though noticeably different, was still wonderful. There are also beer styles that can prove to remain quite exceptional years after bottling, like gueuze. I also don't mind a barleywine or imperial stout with a couple years, but I still think they taste better if consumed within a year. Also keep in mind that keeping a beer cold as soon as it is bottled up until it's opened will preserve the quality and slow the effects of oxidation.
There are several ways breweries can date their beers and in my opinion, the best ones label them with a clear and easily understandable date. I have put many six-packs and bombers back on the shelf because either I couldn't find a date code or I saw they were out of date. That has saved me a lot of money and headaches. Save yourself the same and check the dates.
How to read date codes
1) The simplest to read are "best by" dates that inform you of when the brewery thinks that beer will no longer be in optimum quality. Some breweries have different lengths of shelf life for individual beers and some use a standard three or six months from packaging date. This format saves you from doing some mental math, but you may have to buy with faith that the beer is still in what you consider to a quality condition.
Keep in mind that the "best by" date might assume the beer was stored in the best way, which often it isn't. Warm storage will significantly speed up the effects of oxidation and result in a more aggressively stale beer (more on temperature below). This means a beer that has a shelf life of six months at the brewery might only taste as good through three months at your favorite beer bar or liquor store if stored outside of refrigeration. Be weary of buying beer that is stored at room temperature as its shelf life and quality will often be considerably diminished.
2) My favorite date code is a "bottled/canned/packaged on" date. This easily shows me how old the beer actually is and helps me decide if it is still in good condition. I have almost never gone wrong with the three month rule (two months for IPAs), especially if the beer has been kept refrigerated.
We can't always tell if the distributor keeps their inventory cold, so there is a possibility that the beer has already spent some time in warm storage before it hits the shelf. If the retailer then stocks their shelves with warm beer at room temperature, the beer is encouraged to continue to rapidly degrade.
3) Then there is the awful brewery-specific code and Julian dating. I just don't understand why the brewery has an interest in making the age of their beer difficult to find or decipher.
When breweries use a unique code for their products, there is no simple way to tell the beer's age or state of quality. You might be able to search for it at www.freshbeeronly.com (a very useful website that explains many breweries' date code format) or you can call the brewery and ask them to share their top secret code.
Julian dating, although helpful, is just sort of annoying to me and is the beer's packaging date in a less obvious format, usually as YYDDD. For example, 19365 means the beer was packaged on December 31 (365th day), 2019. Maybe I'm the only one who doesn't know what the 187th day of the year is on the top of my head, but at least there is a date on it.
Storage and Serving Temperature
Beer is best kept under refrigeration and should be kept cold until ready to serve. Beer that is stored at room temperature or warmer will notice quicker and greater results of staling and oxidation.
Not all liquor stores and bottle shops have enough coolers to keep all of their inventory cold, but the condition of storage should be taken into account if you are (and should be) concerned about the quality of your beer.
Beer that is served too cold can be a problem, too. Serving beer at mouth-numbingly cold temperatures takes away from the overall experience as it hides most of the flavor and aroma. This is one reason red plastic cup beer needs to be ice cold- it tastes better when you can't really taste it as much.
What about frozen mugs?
Nope! Even though you may think that the bartender is doing you a favor by using a frozen mug, it is really just a sign that they don't know how to keep and serve quality beer.
First, a frozen mug might make your beer too cold (if it even cools it down much to begin with) as it should already be coming out of the faucet at the right drinking temperature. Secondly and more importantly, what is frozen on the glass could be residual sanitizer and will melt into your beer. Even if it's just frozen water melting, you're still diluting your lovely beer. Lastly, most bars and restaurants that are serving beer in frozen mugs are dunking everyone's beer in the faucet to prevent inevitable foaming caused by drastic temperature differences. Spare me. This is a great way to spread germs and potentially lead to infected beer lines (more below).
The exception is a chilled glass- one that is properly cleaned and allowed to completely dry before cooling it in a refrigerator. These types of glasses are more sanitary, will help keep the beer cold, and won't cause as much foaming issues, saving the serving establishment a lot of waste.
How can you tell if your beer glass is clean?
A "beer-clean" glass starts with it being free of any visible impurities like lip marks, fingerprints, residual beer, or anything else on or in the glass. If you do see a bunch of tiny bubbles stuck to the side of the glass when filled with beer, those are clear signs of impurities called nucleation sites. This is where rising hydrophobic CO2 bubbles are getting stuck to as they ascend to the head of the beer. Your beer glass should be free of any nucleation site not etched into the glass itself (some glasses like Duvel's have small etchings in the bottom of the glass to promote a continuous stream of bubbles to resupply the head of foam).
As you drink a well-made beer in a beer-clean glass, rings of foam will adhere to the walls of the glass often referred to as lacing and is a beautiful tally of each delicious sip you took. Beer-clean glasses also promote and maintain a large, strong head of foam. If there was any residual sanitizer or other impurity in the glass, it would diminish the head and make the beer look and feel flat and dull, not to mention kill most of the volatile aromatics found in the foam.
Does that fancy glass rinser clean your pint glass?
You might see your bartender rinse a glass with cool water before filling it with beer. This is not to clean or rinse a dirty glass. Those rinsers are only used for clean glasses and help in these three ways: 1) It cools the glass to a closer temperature to the beer, preventing foaming issues and warming the beer . 2) It makes sure there is no residual sanitizer left inside the glass. 3) It acts as sort of a lubricant for the beer to be poured more gracefully and build the appropriate amount of foam.
Using the rinser to wash out the previous beer in a glass is simply lazy and it tosses around more germs than anything. It will lead to a bunch of nasty bacteria build up that will be transferred into your beer. Trust me, it is quite a disgusting sight to see. Don't let your bartender serve your beer in a nasty glass.
This is a big problem in way too many bars and restaurants that either don't know any better
or trust their draft beer system's health in the hands of lazy distributors. There may be some great distributors out there that really take care of their accounts' beer lines, but I have seen first hand how they might come in and flush their beer line with water, repack it with beer, and call it clean. That does nothing more than waste precious product.
Draft beer lines and faucets must be cleaned a minimum of twice a month with caustic and once per quarter with acid. Failing to do this will eventually lead to infected beer lines, off-flavors in beer, and a drop in sales. It could also cause problems in pouring beer as beer stone and gunk builds up in the lines and faucet.
At least where I go, it seems like the less focused on beer a bar or restaurant is, the more likely it is to have dirty lines. I suggest if you are hesitant about the cleanliness of their beer lines that you ask for a sample of beer before you hand over the dough. If it is not right, maybe just stick to their bottles if they have them.
What does infected beer taste like?
Have you ever had a familiar draft beer that tasted "off" or one that seemed kind of slick on the palate, buttery, or sour (not intentionally sour beers)? Lactobacillus and pediococcus are the usual culprit bacteria that infect beer lines and create diacetyl and lactic acid. Although
not dangerous, these byproducts resemble unwanted flavors of melted butter or butterscotch (diacetyl) and a sour taste (lactic acid). Your beer should never taste like rancid butter and only a few beer styles allow for quite low levels of diacetyl that doesn't derive from dirty beer lines (diacetyl is a natural byproduct of normal beer fermentation). If you get served one, respectfully send back infected beer. You deserve quality beer free of infection.
Why shouldn't bartenders dunk beer in faucets?
When your bartenders dunk your beer in the faucet to prevent it from foaming too much, they are essentially creating an all-you-can-eat buffet for wild yeast and bacteria to gather and grow. This collection of bacteria and germs can then spread through the draft line and cause some big and often costly problems. The bacteria is also transferred into everyone's beer as the bartender submerges the faucet into each glass of suds like a dunk competition. It is even worse when a dirty glass is reused and contacts the faucet. It is much easier and cheaper to prevent draft beer line infections than it is to fix them, so bars need to keep their beer lines clean and teach their staff proper pouring techniques.
If you have a home kegerator or own a draft system at your business, all you need to know about taking care of your system can be downloaded for free at https://www.brewersassociation.org/educational-publications/draught-beer-quality-manual/. Having a hard copy as a quick reference or for staff training is highly recommended.
So What About Stave?
We make sure that every product we offer is delivered in its best condition, we take the utmost care to preserve its quality, and we only serve beer, wine and food that fit our standard of condition. We order fresh beer, keep it cold, serve it in a clean glass, and regularly clean our draft lines.
If we find a beer has developed an off-flavor or has oxidized, we remove it from our menu and cry as we throw it away. However, if a dirty glass or old beer gets past us, please let us know either at Stave or through email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will fix the problem.
We do all of this because everyone deserves fresh beer that is served in a clean glass at an appropriate temperature with no off-flavors.
Read the dates on beer and remember the three month rule of thumb for fresh beer.
Store beer cold and purchase it cold if you can.
Make sure you get served a fresh, clean, non-frozen glass every time.
Kindly refuse abused and contaminated beer. You deserve the best of beer.