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How to Buy Beer Like a Pro

It’s not hard to walk into your favorite bottle shop, grocery store, or gas station to pick up some beer. But, what shape is that beer in? Is it fresh or has it been sitting there for six months, two years, or since before prohibition? Does the age make a significant difference? Here are some tips on how to buy beer like a pro — with some advice from the pros.

What Are You Buying?

I won’t go into a long diatribe about various styles of beers and how they may age. A basic rule of thumb is that the more hop forward the taste and aroma, the fresher it should be consumed before those delicate hop oils break down. Those with a stronger malt profile will be fine if you don’t get to them right away. That being said, I nearly always try to drink my beers fresh as that’s why a brewer sells them — to be drank, now. Most times the beer in its fresh state represents the brewers intention. Some breweries may suggest, or even encourage, you to age their beer but that is so it develops a different flavor profile. Not necessarily a better profile but a different one. I recommend you experiment to determine what you like.

Where You Shop

This may seem like a kind of obvious answer, but where you buy your beer makes a big difference.  Some retailers are better than others about rotating their stock – either because their business is brisk or they take pride in ensuring they only sell beer in its best shape.  Sadly, you sometimes find stores will give this whole “craft beer thing” a try and over-order on beers with shorter shelf lives only to sit on that wet hop beer through April of the next year. This is fine but just beware that the hop aroma and flavors have likely faded pretty significantly and the malt will take a more prominent role.  It won’t kill but it may not be what you had expected or the brewer intended.

Other factors you may overlook are the temperature and lighting in the store. That green or clear bottled beer sitting six inches under a fluorescent light on an end cap isn’t going to hold up very well. The canned beer in the cooler has a much better chance of retaining its original characteristics for far longer. Danny Gold, head beer buyer at The Party Source, says “Light and heat are the worst enemy of craft and commercial beer as well as fine wine. Our store has taken the special means necessary. In our expansion we have included correct lighting that will not effect or spoil liquid in bottle. I feel strongly that our huge store is always carries a nice and comfortable temp.”

Guide: Best local bottle shops


PRO TIP

Use a site like DrinkingFresh or Fresh Beer Only to help you decipher the date coding used on a bottle, can, or carton.


Distributors’ Approach

Some distributors are better than others are making the rounds at their retailers to pull old stock but the craft beer focused ones tend to make it more of a priority. Justin Hue of Cavalier Distributing states, “We try and order product to have no more than 30 days inventory on our floor and take efforts to make sure product is rotated in our warehouse as it comes in. In the field, our sales reps are responsible for rotating beer and checking dates in their stores. Any out of date product we will pick up. Many breweries put an added pressure on us to make sure no out of date beer is reaching our customers.”

Rhinegeist is a bit unique in that they are the distributor and the brewer.  Rhinegeist’s Bob Bonder says, “We self-distribute, which allows us to keep a close eye on this. In most markets, we double-check to ensure that product is rotated when we drop off.”

Breweries Role

Locally, both MadTree and Rhinegeist share great concern for the freshness and stability of their product. Generally, it is not an issue as they struggle to merely meet the demand for their beers. However, MadTree does date stamp their six packs with a sticker to help the consumer and retailer.  Rhinegeist feels similarly strong about tracking the age of their and they are adding a date coder to their canning line very soon.

These breweries have also implemented rigorous quality control programs where they regularly sample different products of different ages and different storage conditions.  MadTree’s Dan Shatto explains, “We also taste beers that have been aging in a triangular test. A triangular test is where we take three different samples of the same style of beer. Two of the samples are aged for a certain period of time and the third sample is a fresh batch. This way we can tell how the beer changes over time.”

You can also read my post on Bell’s Brewery which has some of the most rigorous quality and testing standards in the industry.

Now What

Follow these simple steps to make sure the beer you drink is in optimal condition.

  • Shop at reputable retailers with owners that show a passion in pride for what they sell.
  • If you’re unsure, look for a packaging date on the bottle, can, or carton to find out the beer’s age.
  • Support breweries that take the quality of their product very seriously.

Mike Stuart

Craft beer enthusiast and hombrew dabbler. Part-time writer, sometimes funny.

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