"Best before" dates are important for a beer, but they aren’t an exact science.
Drink fresh. The phrase is seen a lot in the beer industry, sometimes literally printed on the packaging. The sentiment isn’t new: Anheuser-Busch made a huge deal about “born on” dates over two decades ago. But as beers have become hoppier, with intense flavor profiles driven by compounds with a limited shelf life, drinking beers as close to their brew date has become more important than ever to capture them at their peak.
As a result, serious beer fans are spending more time looking for "best before" dates on packages. In the case of Stone Brewing’s Enjoy By IPA series, the date the beer should be consumed by is literally its name. But what if you miss those dates? Can you really tell if a beer is a day or a week or even a month too old? If you drink a lot of IPAs, you’ve likely had one that’s past its prime: The flavor tends to pick up caramel notes or turn a bit sour. But we’re talking about beers that are way gone. Can an average drinker really notice the changes in a beer from week to week?
The Set Up
To find out, I tried a simple taste test. I bought four cans each of two very hoppy, but also somewhat different beers and drank both a week apart over four weeks to see if I could pick up on any changes. My hypothesis was that I probably wouldn’t notice anything, and surprisingly, my hypothesis wasn’t quite right.
I settled on beers from two English breweries that are both relatively local to me and both make amazing world-class hoppy beers – and I also chose two slightly different styles to see how they compared to each other. For a lower ABV beer, I went with Northern Rising from Northern Monk Brew Co in Leeds – a 5.5 percent ABV “triple dry hopped” pale ale produced with five hop varieties (Ekuanot, Simcoe, Citra, Mosaic and Columbus). Then, on the imperial end, I chose Birthday Balloon from Manchester’s Cloudwater Brew Co – an 8.5 percent ABV double IPA monster that used Citra, Simcoe, Mosaic and Nelson Sauvin hops split between the whirlpool and dry-hopping at the start of fermentation.
Both beers had printed best before dates, and I was able to obtain canning dates. (For Cloudwater, it was also on the can.) Northern Rising was canned on February 26 and given a best before date of June 26 – a four month period. Birthday Balloon was canned a bit earlier, on February 13, and was given a much shorter best before period of just two months, labeled as “BBE” April 13.
How do they come up with these different best before periods? Colin Peter Stronge, Northern Monk’s production manager, walked me through the process. “We conduct flavor tests with trained tasting panels to guide our best before dates,” he explained via email. “We go for four months on our double dry hopped beers because we find that within that time frame our beers taste as close to brewery fresh as they can and that after this the hop flavor profile begins to fade. The more hops we use, the more the flavor degradation is noticeable in the beer, hence why the double dry hopped beers have a shorter shelf life than the single dry hopped.”
And what can we expect after the best before date?
“The flavor break down will happen slowly, but surely, and the flavors begin to morph into others,” Stronge continued. “Fresh flavors like citrus or floral notes will begin to fade and can change into flavors with notes like cardboard and cheese rind and begin to taste tired and not as expressive as they once were. These changes can be subtle but will not reflect the aromas and flavors that we love so much when they leave the brewery.”
My first tasting was on March 20. The North Rising was less than a month old and still had plenty of time in its best before window. However, Birthday Balloon would find itself in a trickier position: The beer was already slightly over a month old, and by my final can, it would essentially have reached the end of its very short best before period. Frankly, that looming date made the Cloudwater beer particularly intriguing.
The Taste Test
Out the gate, both beers were excellent. Northern Rising offered a big, strong nose of juicy tropical fruits like mango with a bit of a dank, earthy edge. The flavors were actually a bit lighter than the scent, carried forward by a touch of sugary sweetness. Then, after swallowing, the intense dry-hopping settled into my tongue and esophagus, not in a bad way, but it tingled.
Birthday Balloon, meanwhile, was very different. The nose opened dank and earthy, with notes sometimes described as garlicky or oniony, but beneath that was a mix of ripe and unripe fruits like green papaya, orange and pineapple. On the tongue, the beer was rather indiscriminately fruity, buoyed by a lot of malty sweetness with plenty of alcoholic punch around the edge.
A week later, I was back at it again, but I found comparing my thoughts week to week wasn’t as easy as I had hoped. Had the Northern Rising really lost a bit of its zing or was I just biased towards looking for a downgrade? Then for Birthday Balloon, though the taste seemed nearly identical, the nose was actually bigger than I remembered.
By my third tasting, I had gotten a better sense of where I thought things were going. “Oddly, I feel like this can is more like the first one than the second one was,” I wrote in my notes about Northern Rising. “This is still a very good beer.” Even stranger, the Cloudwater beer seemed to be getting better. Was I just getting accustomed to all its charms?
But by my final tasting on April 11, I’d settled on an outcome. Though clearly still drinkable, Northern Monk’s brew didn’t seem quite as intense as when I first tried it. One major factor stood out: That tingling hop intensity on the throat had somewhat diminished. My esophagus was actually thanking me, so I was pretty sure something has changed. As for Birthday Balloon, I swear I liked it better the fourth time, as if this intense 8.5-percent monster was mellowing out a bit. Or maybe I had just gotten used to it. Either way, one thing was certain, just two days away from “expiring” (for lack of a better word) and this beer was nowhere near going “bad” yet.
Overall, I know hoppy beers do go bad. I’ve drank them. I’ve held on to a beer I loved for too long waiting for a special occasion and had it come out the other end tasting like a shell of its former self.
But if these two beers are any indication, the changes are very gradual. Any beer snob who says something to the effect of “I won’t even drink a beer that’s over X weeks old” is probably being a bit overdramatic. And assuming a date is sensible to start with, best before dates are, as we know, just guidelines. You don’t necessarily have to dump a beer that’s a week or two past its date.
Admittedly, both Cloudwater and Northern Monk are extremely diligent about using good best before dates. “Best before” means nothing it the brewer didn’t put any consideration into it, and I’ve certainly seen dates set a year after packaging on a style I know won’t be any good that far down the road. At the same time, if you can drink a hoppy beer as fresh as possible, by all means, do it. Unlike other styles like sours or imperial stouts, pale ales and IPAs aren’t meant to be aged. They taste best on day one, and while saving your favorite double dry-hopped beer for when you see your brother-in-law next week is admirable, saving one for your child’s 21st birthday is not.
But the grand takeaway here is that, like brewing itself, beer best before dates aren’t always an exact science. Heed their warning, but don’t let them consume you. Consume the beer instead. The more you think about it, the older its getting.