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...