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Jonathan Ingram's picture

Craft Beers Need "Packaged On" Dates

I recently completed a beer trade with a couple of friends and ended up with the equivalent of two mixed six-packs after the swap. Once home, I put the 12 beers, which reflected the eclectic tastes of my fellow craft enthusiasts, into two separate camps on my kitchen table. One had either "bottled on," or "canned on," or "best by" dates and the other side had none. As it turned out, it was a 50-50 split when it came to identifying the age of the beer – or not – among this far-reaching sample of American craft.

I was disappointed but not necessarily surprised. But isn't it time that all craft brewers come to the aid of the consumers that keep them in business by adding notice of when their beers were put into bottles or cans?

Craft's calling card has always been fresh in the sense of being unique, whether it be a creative approach to styles, names of beers, labels and can design, marketing via social media and on and on. So why can't craft brewers commit to providing notice on when its beer was freshly packaged?

I tend to not think this is a make-or-break industry issue. It's a little like the mythical argument that poor-quality craft beer that tastes sub-par hurts the entire independent brewing industry. Doesn't the marketplace, which now has plenty of competition in all 50 states, sort the quality issue out pretty quickly?

When it comes to stale beer on the shelves, I don't think anybody interested in craft is going to stop buying beer from independent brewers due to one bad experience with a six-pack. It's more of an identity question. How do craft brewers want to present themselves to the community they participate in? Do they want a community where the beer drinker continues to feel a direct kinship to the brewer?

If distributors and retailers do their jobs, which means watching dates on packaging like hawks, then everybody comes out ahead in a way that's palpable when all packages carry dates. Absent this, things can get murky, possibly raising issues of trustworthiness and kinship, two values highly prized in any industry and often enjoyed by independent brewers. One could suggest that these two values are key points of differentiation in the minds of many between craft and macro brewers.

When it comes to what info to put on labels to help buyers, I think it would be more worthwhile for craft brewers to embrace a canned or bottled-on date instead of a "best by" notice. The latter puts a lot of pressure on distributors and retailers. The vagaries of transportation, stocking and even unpredictable consumer response may result in a beer staying in the cooler or on the shelf longer than anticipated. If it's past the "best by" date, then it's tough to move, even if the beer can sustain its quality beyond the recommended date.

It was in the mid-1990s that August Busch IV launched his "born on" campaign for Budweiser, which did a pretty good job of scaring some buyers away from craft and helped popularize the phrase "skunk beer." In my case, I began carefully inspecting my favorite and generally available bottles of Anchor Steam for color and taste. As it turned out, California Common is not a style that travels well if mishandled or left on the shelf too long and I ended up straying elsewhere to consistently reliable Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Guinness and other imports during this period when craft was not jumping off shelves and retailers didn't particularly pay attention to it.

In general, the macros have not been big on "born on" dates other than Budweiser. Instead, big brewer salesmen and their distributors have been keeping up with the freshness of their beers via the product identification codes required by federal mandate. It's more or less a "trust us" approach since consumers can't interpret these codes. In general, the macros do a very good job of delivering fresh beer. It's been an important element of their past success.

The lack of consumer information on macro brews is about to change at the behest of the Beer Institute, which is the Washington, D.C.-based advocate for major brewers. The BI has announced virtually all of its major brewers will begin using "freshness dating." This is part of a larger initiative to include nutrition information and ingredients on packaging or via websites and QR codes.

One imagines this move by the BI membership to be yet another foray in the age-old shelf space wars. Craft brewers already do an excellent job, for the most part, of making ingredients available. Nutrition values are nice enough – and might help more drinkers recognize that dark beer does not mean more calories – but when it comes to packaging, can craft brewers afford to fall behind in making sure consumers know the beer is fresh?

"Skunk beer" is no longer a vogue term or something to be feared when buying craft or imports. On the other hand, I routinely check for dates, because aged beer is only best when that's what you intend to buy. I rarely, if ever, go the "make your own six-pack" route at some of the larger retailers, if only because it's a system that is most likely to result in a beer well past its drinkable date being carried home. Too often, you end up wondering, “Is this what the beer is really supposed to taste like?”

So what then happens to the "shelf turds" as they are known in the vernacular? Generally, a retailer can ship beer back to the distributor, who then usually suffers the loss – even if the retailer has not kept up with stock rotation. On the other hand, if a craft consumer buys a really old beer that shouldn't be on the shelf, it’s the craft beer lover who ends up holding the, well, you know. In neither case does the brewer directly suffer in the short run, raising the specter of passing the buck in order to avoid additional cost and to make a profit.

How difficult is it to mark cans or bottles? For starters, all consumer products must carry the identification codes required by federal standards. So getting the date of origin on the package is not a major challenge. Every portable canning company can add data lines. If cost is a consideration, then the plastic can holders can be imprinted so that at least a six-pack can be identified by its packaging date.

A "packaged on" date would not only help at the point of purchase. If, as with many craft aficionados, there's always a mix in the fridge, it can help keep in-home rotation working better. It is, without much debate, a better mousetrap for consumers, no matter where they choose to buy packaged beer.

Another reason I like the "bottled on" or "canned on" is the involvement of the consumer. It puts some onus on the buyer to know his or her beer styles and why an Imperial Stout from a year ago may still be on the shelf – and might be better than when it first arrived (depending on the store's lighting and assuming a consistent, relatively moderate temperature). That's one reason why you find so many bomber bottles of dark, high-ABV beers in stores, some with dust on them, including at craft-centric emporiums. Even with year-old packaging dates, consumers can have at it.

I follow a lot of brewers' recommendation to avoid keeping an IPA longer than 90 days from its packaging date, which can also apply to other hoppy brews. I don't think there's much room for debate on this, although some might disagree. It is almost certain the drinker does not get the brewer's intended taste of an IPA beyond 90 days from packaging.

Of course growlers and crowlers go a long way toward guaranteeing fresh beer at home, the beach or mountains, although one generally chooses not to store them for longer periods like packaged beer.

At a time when there's more good beers being brewed than there is shelf space in some outlets, one would think that it's just common sense for brewers to not leave themselves open to disappointing a consumer or confusing distributors and retailers.

Man up, I say. If you believe in your beer and the consumers who buy it as well as your retailers and distributors, there isn't really a choice. Besides, the macro brewers will soon be setting "freshness dating" standard for all their brands, including those recently acquired from the ranks of independent brewers.


Vinnie's picture
I hope all craft beer breweries adopt this. They've convinced me to buy their beer, and I do, at a rate of 2-4 cases a month. Recently (mid-09/16), while making some purchases in one of my favorite craft beer stores, I came across a beer I like that had been canned 05/02/16. Yes, I passed on it. I found some others that I like that had been canned in 08/16 & 09/16. I bought several 6 packs. I'm to the point that if there is no "canned/bottles on" date, I pass it up. I'm done being burned by bad craft beer.
ravenwater's picture
I definitely would like to see "packaged on" dates become an industry standard. I have grown tired of eagerly anticipating savoring a beer I've come to love or of hoping to discover a new beer to love in buying something with which I'm not yet familiar, only to find that the experience is ruined by the beer being stale and/or skunked. I'm not convinced that born on dates would prevent this because I suspect that a good deal of the damage to beers is done through mishandling by retailers or distributors which can degrade the product regardless of age (exposure to light and temperature beyond what my beer is comfortable with). However, I think born on dating would significantly reduce the problem and I could be more of an informed buyer. With some familiarity with style tolerances for aging it could be a bit more of a "buyer beware" situation. The next step would be to have not only domestic craft brewers adopt the standard but importers of foreign beers adopt it as well. As part of my quest for non-staled beers I have become more inclined to buy canned product versus bottles and have been glad to see more craft brewers move toward canning their beers. I don't know what the cost comparison is for the producer but suspect it may be some effort on the brewers part to better ensure freshness by the time their beer gets in the consumer's hands by eliminating the concerns of light exposure that come with glass.
BKRaiderAce's picture
I tend to feel it will only help the brewery anyway. Say I absent mindedly pick up a 4 or 5 month old IPA. I open it up and it tastes like a malty mess. Look at the brew by date, "Oh it's not that this brewery is bad. I just bought old beer." In the event of that happening I'd be more likely to try their brews again, when I can find it fresh, rather than be under the assumption that they are making an inferior product.
EvDu's picture
Thank you for this article. I hope brewers read it and heed its advice. Its good for the consumer and brewer alike. I usually do not even consider buying a beer unless I know how old it is. If I do for some reason decide to gamble, and I get a stale beer, I will immediately eliminate that particular brewery from all future purchases (and let everyone know about it). Doesn't matter if I see a completely different beer from them, their reputation is indefinitely marred. Until of course they MAN UP and stand behind their beer with proper dating. Also, can we get beer stores to keep beer cold that boldly states on its packaging to KEEP COLD?