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The Lifespan of Beer

 

I think most brewers would agree, a beer’s life begins the moment the yeast are finished with fermentation.

Ergo, the moment yeast have finished fermentation, the beer begins its inevitable march toward death. Yes, beer has a finite lifespan and everyone who handles the beer has an impact on when that death occurs. 

As I write this I’m sitting at a bar with at least 120 draft beers on at all times and it worries me. Every time I see a large number of handles I worry about how quickly they turn each beer. I don’t want to drink something that has already died or is on its last legs, so I start out safe, ordering a Firestone Union Jack (from Firestone Brewing Company in Paso Robles, California). The Firestone brewery is relatively close by and I know their beer sells quickly wherever it is served. Yes, as expected it was fresh, hoppy, and wonderful. No signs of “old age.” But I can’t imagine that is true of all the beers they are serving. The slow movers are on a ticking clock, marching toward an inevitable death. As consumers, we don’t know until we taste it if a pint is a youngster, in the prime of life, or a doddering old coot ready to collapse at any moment. Most bartenders have no idea how old a keg might be, let alone the conditions the keg was subjected to before it got to their location.

Many consumers also don’t know if what they are drinking is stale either. Some try to give the brewer and retailer the benefit of the doubt and accept the beer as, “the way it is.” Others just can’t differentiate between a stale beer and a fresh one. And even those who do have the ability to detect a flawed beer sometimes mistake the beginnings of staling as “complex maltiness.” I have to admit, I have fallen victim to all of those behaviors in the past, sometimes not realizing that what I bought was really a beer on its last legs, not a sweet, caramel-heavy beer.

I’m not sure that there is any one group to blame in all of this. Yes, the brewer should be trying to minimize oxygen pick-up and the distributor should be transporting the beer cold. Both should work to pull back old product before it can get to the consumer. The retailer needs to do their part as well. They should maintain the beer at proper temperatures and should pull slow moving product when it is no longer fresh. I was at the Stone Brewing Bistro and Gardens in Escondido, California several months ago and was told that the staff is asked to sample all of the beers regularly, to ensure that the beer being served meets their standards. That is a great attitude to have and I am sure there are a good number of other places that uphold such standards, but many more could. And, let me toss out a wild thought here: perhaps the consumer should share some of the responsibility for bad beer. Yes, as consumers we are all to blame for the behavior of those who provide what we consume. If consumers do not develop a knowledge of what they consume and fail to notice when a beer isn’t right, then there are some retailers, distributors, and brewers that won’t take action.

What does this all have to do with Heretic? Right now our beer is moving too quickly to become stale, but as we expand we are not immune to ending up with stale beer out in the market. We are not immune to the laws of the universe that make beer stale. As a new brewery, my concern is that consumers won’t know what our beer should taste like. Mistaking stale beer for “that brewery character” would be terrible for us and the consumer.

One Comment

  1. Scott Pointon says:

    When I was first discovering craft beer I regularly sought out the places with fantastical amounts of taps thinking they were beer nirvana. After reading about and sampling everything I could get my hands on and learning to make decently good home brew, I now feel as you do that these sorts of places cannot possibly turn over all of those kegs often enough, even if they are the smaller “sixtel” kegs. These days I much prefer a smaller craft beer bar with 8-16 good taps and a long bottle list of Belgians, strong ales, and sours. Cheers and keep up the good work and interesting posts!

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