Drink it fresh. The phrase is used frequently in the beer world and is often printed on the label. This isn’t a new idea: Anheuser-Busch made a massive announcement about “born on” dates over two decades back. As beers have gotten more hopped, with pronounced flavors fueled by compounds with a short shelf-life, drinking beer as close to its brewing date is now more important than ever to ensure they’re at their best.
In the end, beer enthusiasts are more likely to search to find “best before” dates on packages. For instance, in Stone Brewing’s Enjoy By IPA series, the date by which the beer is supposed to be consumed is the beer’s name. What happens if you need to remember the dates? Can you determine if a drink is one day, one week, or even a month old? If you consume many IPAs, You’ve experienced one that’s not at its peak. The flavor can be caramel-y or even a little more sour. But these are beers that are long gone. Are regular drinkers aware of the different tastes in a drink between weeks?
The Set Up
To discover how I could tell, I did a tasting test. I purchased four cans of two extremely hoppy, however somewhat different beers, then drank them every week for four weeks to determine if I could discern any modifications. My thought was that I would not detect anything, but my assumption needed to be corrected.
I opted for the beers of two English brewery companies close to me, and both create premium hoppy brews – and I also picked two distinct styles to compare them to one another. If you’re looking for a low-ABV beer, I chose Northern Rising from Northern Monk Brew Co located in Leeds, which is a 5.5 percent ABV “triple dry hopped” pale ale that is made using five varieties of hops (Ekuanot, Simcoe, Citra, Mosaic, and Columbus). And, for the Imperial end, I picked Birthday Balloon from Manchester’s Cloudwater Brew Co which is Cloudwater Brew Co – an 8.5 percentage ABV double IPA beast that made use of Citra, Simcoe, Mosaic, and Nelson Sauvin hops that were split between dry-hopping and whirlpool in the early stages of the fermentation.
Both beers were printed dates that were best before, and I was able to get dates for canning. (For Cloudwater, it was also published on the can.) Northern Rising was canned on February 26 and was given the best before the deadline of June 26, four months. Birthday Balloon was released slightly earlier on February 13, with a shorter period of best before, only two months. It was labeled with “BBE” on April 13.
How did they create these distinct best-before dates? Colin Peter Stronge, Northern Monk’s producer manager, led me through the procedure. “We conduct flavor tests with trained tasting panels to guide our best before dates,” the producer explained in an email. “We keep four months with our double dry hopped beers as we’ve found that in that period of time, our beers are like they’re fresh from the brewery as they can. And after that the hop flavor profile starts to diminish. More hops we add and the more flavor loss is evident in the beer. This is why double dry hopped beers have shorter shelf-life than the single dry hops.”
What are we to be expecting after the best-before date?
“The flavor break down will happen slowly, but surely, and the flavors begin to morph into others,” Stronge added. “Fresh flavors such as floral or citrus will fade, and may be replaced by flavors like cheese rind and cardboard and start to smell tired and less enticing as they used to be. These changes could be subtle, but they will not be able to replicate the aromas and tastes we enjoy so much after leaving in the beers.”
My first taste was on March 20. It was a great beer. North Rising was less than a month old and had plenty of time to be at its peak before the window. But Birthday Balloon would find it more challenging because the beer was barely a month old. And when I finished my last can, it would have completed its very brief best before time. The approaching date was what made the Cloudwater beer particularly interesting.
The Taste Test
From the beginning, the two beers were both excellent. Northern Rising had a substantial fresh, robust aroma of tropical fruits such as mango and an earthy, dank edge. The flavors were less intense than the aroma and carried forward by a hint of sweet sweetness. Then, when I swallowed the sour dry-hopping, it was absorbed into my esophagus and tongue but not in a harmful way ins; and it did tingle.
Birthday Balloon, meanwhile, was quite distinct. The aroma was sour and earthy, with notes often described as oniony or garlic-like; however, underneath was a mixture of ripe and unripe fruit like orange, green papaya, and pineapple. It was abundantly fruity on the palate and accompanied by plenty of malty sweetness and alcohol around the edges.
The following week I was back in the saddle yet again. However, I realized that comparing my thoughts from the week to the previous week was more complex than I had imagined. Did the Northern Rising lose some of its sparks, or was I rushing to find an improvement? Then, for Birthday Balloon, though the flavor was similar, the aroma was more extensive than I had previously thought.
The third time I tried it, I got more of an understanding of where I believed things were heading. “Oddly, I feel like this can is more like the first one than the second one was,” I noted in my notes on Northern Rising. “This is still a very good beer.” And, even more bizarrely is that the Cloudwater beer appeared to be improving. Perhaps I was getting used to all its pleasures?
However, by the time I had my final taste on April 11, I was able to settle on a result. While still drinkable, the Northern Monk brew was less potent than when I first tasted it. One evident thing was that the tingling hops in my throat slightly decreased. My esophagus was expressing gratitude to me, and something had changed. In the case of the Birthday Balloon, I was more impressed on the fourth occasion. It was as if this 8.5-percent monster had mellowed out slightly. Maybe I’d got used to it. Whatever the reason, one thing was sure. I was only two days from “expiring” (for lack of an appropriate word), and this brew was not “bad” yet.
In the end, I’m sure that hoppy beers can go wrong. I’ve had them. I’ve sat on one I enjoyed to the point of waiting too long for an occasion to celebrate and was able to get it out on the other side tasting like an empty shell of its former self.
However, if these two ales are indicative that changes are slow. Anyone who claims something like “I won’t even drink a beer that’s over X weeks old” is probably over-dramatic. If age is sensible initially, it’s best to avoid dates because they are, as we’ve learned, only guidelines. Drinking a beverage a couple of weeks past the date is okay.
In truth, Cloudwater and Northern Monk are both Cloudwater, as well as Northern Monk, are incredibly diligent in using proper Best Before dates. “Best before” means nothing as the brewer did not take any thought into the process, and I’ve had dates set for one year after the packaging of a brew that I’m sure isn’t as good long. But it’s a good idea to drink an IPA that is as fresh as possible. Unlike other styles, such as imperial stouts or sours pale ales, IPAs aren’t designed for aging. They are best enjoyed the first day, and even though saving your favorite double dry-hopped beer to drink when you meet your brother-in-law in the next few weeks is admirable, securing one for your child’s 21st birthday isn’t.
The main takeaway is that, just like making beer itself, brewing best before dates may not be an exact scientific method. Follow their instructions; however, do not let them consume you. Drink the beer instead. If you keep thinking about this, the more old it becomes.