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January 30, 2006

'The Search for Fresh Beer'

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"Nearly all beer begins to deteriorate before it even leaves the plant, partly due to oxygen in the bottle, and many experts say most brews are well past their prime after six months."

So wrote G. Bruce Knecht in a superb front–page article for last Saturday's Wall Street Journal Pursuits section.

Predictably, beer makers have dealt with this problem the profitable way: they've so encoded and buried their products' "Born On" dates that no one without a secret decoder ring or its equivalent has a chance of figuring out if the beer they're about to buy is fresh or decayed.

Until now.

Because along with Knecht's story lifting the cap on this dark secret of the brewmasters, there also appeared a sidebar graphic (top) exposing to the light — as it were — the secret and unbelievably arcane codes used to hide the bad news from you.

Note: Don't leave home without a printout of the graphic 'cause there's no way, unless you've got Aspergers, you'll be able to decipher the beer code without it.

Here's Knecht's article.

    The Search for Fresh Beer

    Beer starts losing flavor as soon as it's bottled – but cryptic labels make it impossible to know how old your brew is. We crack the code

    A loaf of bread has it.

    So does a carton of milk.

    But if you're looking for the expiration date on a bottle of beer, forget about it -- for many brewers, that information is a closely guarded secret.

    There are now more bottles of beer on the store wall than ever -- more than 2,000 domestic brands alone -- making it harder for both stores and consumers to steer clear of the stale stuff.

    Age is critical: Nearly all beer begins to deteriorate before it even leaves the plant, partly due to oxygen in the bottle, and many experts say most brews are well past their prime after six months.

    We asked industry insiders to help us decipher the codes on more than a dozen bottles of beer in six cities.

    To identify when bottles and cans need to be yanked from the shelves, many brewers imprint them with cryptic letters and numbers that distributors can translate.

    The trouble is they look more like hieroglyphics to beer drinkers, and most makers don't decipher them for consumers.

    But with the help of industry insiders and analysts, we cracked the codes, studying bottles purchased across the country to determine the key dates for 18 big brews.

    It turns out there's some pretty old beer out there.

    The suspect suds reared their not-so-foamy heads at a wide variety of stores.

    We decoded an Anchor Steam bought in New York and found it to be 10 months old -- the same age as a Bass Ale we purchased in Salem, Ore.

    In Phoenix, though, we picked up a Dos Equis barely two weeks from the brewery.

    Not that beer shoppers would be able to tell.

    Take Sapporo, a Japanese beer we purchased in Los Angeles, which was imprinted with "K1205FL" on the bottom. Lost in translation?

    Well, the code indicates the beer was made Oct. 12, 2005.

    In the case of Sapporo, the first letter represents the month of manufacture: "A" for January, "B" for February and so on, through "M" for December. (As if the system weren't complicated enough, this one, like many of these codes, has an extra twist: The month code skips over the letter "I" and uses "J" for September.)

    The next two digits, "12," refer to the day of the month, and the two numbers after that, "05," are the last two digits of the year.

    Finding out how old a bottle really is can be a chore.

    Corona uses two different alphabetical codes.

    The year, the first character, is coded from A for 2001 to F for 2006, while the months go from L for January to A for December.

    The day of the month is expressed numerically.

    So the bottle we bought with the code "EE08" was made Aug. 8, 2005.

    The company doesn't publicly disclose its code, but people familiar with the company's practice confirm our translation.

    Why make it so complicated?

    Most brewers don't really want consumers to know when their beer was made.

    "We believe in competing on the basis of the taste of our beer, not its age," says Fritz Maytag, owner of Anchor Brewing in San Francisco.

    The Anchor Steam brewer, which uses cryptic three-character codes like "5NV," says consumers can look for the key on the Web.

    "We don't go out of our way to tell everyone how old it is."

    As for the older beers we found, brewers say it's the distributors' responsibility to ensure that stocks are fresh.

    When it comes to that 10-month-old Bass, the company says its beer is good for a year. Anchor's Mr. Maytag says his beer is also fine to drink after 10 months.

    Clearly marking the date of manufacture on bottles is so unusual, in fact, that Anheuser-Busch turned date-labeling into a massive marketing campaign.

    In 1996, the giant brewer began putting plain-English "born on dates" on bottles and cans of Budweiser.

    Ads for Bud touted the beer's freshness.

    As anyone who's ever popped open a "skunky" beer knows, brews do go bad.

    The primary culprit: oxygen, which binds to the raw materials in beer and alters them, producing off flavors.

    "It's the same thing you see when you slice open an apple and it's exposed to the air," says William Quilliam, the brewmaster at Coors Brewing, which marks its bottles with a clear expiration date, generally 112 days from the manufacture date.

    Brewers take elaborate steps to minimize the amount of oxygen left in their bottles before they get sealed up.

    At least one, Anchor Steam, deliberately vibrates the bottles as they roll off the assembly line to cause oxygen to flow away as part of a thick stream of foam.

    Another technique: pumping carbon dioxide into the fermentation tanks to displace any air as the beer is removed.

    Because temperature and motion can also affect the rate of oxidation, there's no simple answer to how long it takes a beer to go stale.

    Some makers, like Asahi, say their beer tastes just fine for up to a year.

    Sierra Nevada, on the other hand, recommends drinking it within 90 days of bottling.

    Most work with a range of four to six months, and few go beyond nine.

    Some beer-industry experts say this is especially challenging for imported beers, many of which travel to the U.S. market on ships on which cargo is not refrigerated.

    Each brewery specifies when its beers should be pulled from the shelves.

    Most retailers, such as grocery stores and liquor stores, actually have little to do with this.

    The job falls to locally based distributors, which usually fall into two categories -- companies that carry Anheuser-Busch products and those that don't.

    Too many brews?

    Goebel Liquor Store in Wichita carries more than 700 beers.

    For these distributors, pulling old beers off store shelves is a big job.

    Makers say they require these distributors to follow strict procedures, and have their own inspectors to spot-check the work.

    Distribution-company employees are taught how to translate the codes into dates.

    Most cases of beer carry the same information that appears on individual cans and bottles, whether it's a code or an explicit date.

    Beers that are too old are to be removed from the shelves and destroyed.

    In 1997, the family of baseball great Roger Maris found itself embroiled in a dispute over these strict requirements.

    Claiming that Maris Distributing had resold beer beyond its 110-day shelf life rather than destroying it, Anheuser-Busch ended its distribution agreement.

    Members of Maris's family, who continued to own the company after his death in 1985, then sued the brewer.

    The suit was settled out of court last year.

    Distributors say their job is getting harder all the time as the microbrew phenomenon continues to spread and big makers add specialty and even low-carb versions of their beers.

    In Summit, N.J., King's Fine Wines and Spirits, inside a King's grocery store, carries more than 200 beers, up from about 100 a decade ago and fewer than 20 a decade before that.

    The number of American breweries, about 50 a quarter-century ago, has ballooned to more than 1,400, including 300 craft brewers that produce some 2,000 domestic brands.

    The number of imported beers has also risen.

    In Los Angeles, Harbor Distributing carries 100 imports, double what it had a decade ago.

    Even some of Anheuser-Busch's competitors agree that its freshness campaign has had an impact.

    "We used to have almost a month's worth of Miller and Coors in the warehouse sometimes," says Don Faust Jr., the chief executive of Faust Distributing Company, which distributes products for Anheuser-Busch's archrival, SABMiller, and other companies in Texas.

    "Now we never have more than 10 to 15 days of inventory."

    As our own beer hunt found, the system isn't perfect -- even when there's no code involved.

    Boston Brewing, the maker of Samuel Adams beers, is among the few that prints clear best-by dates on its labels. (Others that do so include Brooklyn Brewery, Grolsch and St. Pauli Girl.)

    But one store we visited carried Sam Adams bottles beyond the expiration date.

    Jim Koch, the company's founder, says that's the whole point of labels anyone can read.

    "No store is going to always have nothing but fresh beer," he says.

    "The last line of defense is consumers."

January 30, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Comments

Memorial Day I will be retrieving 4 cans of Miller Beer from a rock cache atop Mt San Jacinto, 10,800', in So. CA for a hiking group celebration. They have been there 30 years. The cans are still perfectly sealed. Can I assume they are free from contamination?

Posted by: SanJack | May 7, 2007 7:06:16 PM

No, Nobody, as I´ve understood it it´s much more than that. I noticed my link didn´t work, so I´ll copy the most important bit:

"As I rule, I don't believe in storing beer indefinitely. Most beer, especially the mass-produced, filtered types, are meant to be consumed young. No doubt you've seen the "Born on" and "Best if served by" dating on so many bottles. Rather, I am referring to a process known as "bottle conditioning," in which the beer is bottled without any yeast removed. Beer packaged in this way tends to last longer, even years, continuing to age and mellow as it grows in complexity. Unfortunately, many packaged goods store owners negate the work of the brewer by refrigerating the beer upon receipt of the inventory. Chilling it ends the maturation process of the beer and ceases development. But that is a topic for a future article.

If we go back in time, most beers were nonfiltered and bottle conditioned. The movement back to this style, referred to as "cask conditioning," is alive in the United Kingdom and is making a resurgence here in the U.S.

Looking at, then drinking a bottle conditioned beer isn't for the faint of heart. You will notice a sediment at the bottom of the bottle. Don't fret, it is nothing more than yeast which has flocculated (clumped) and settled from the solution. There are two schools of thought on that.

Many people try to pour these beers gently so as not to disturb the layer of yeast. In actuality, there is yeast throughout the bottle, in amounts too small to be noticed by the naked eye. The fact that the beer in your glass may appear cloudy is not reason to toss it. The cloudiness is, in fact, that minute amount of yeast.

Other people allow the yeast to pour. Though this can darken the beer, it also adds significant amounts of B vitamins to the mix. Personally, I opt for the latter but it is a matter of personal preference."

Posted by: Sven Cahling | Jan 31, 2006 2:28:23 PM

Bottle conditioned beer is just beer with artificially or naturally added carbon dioxide.

Posted by: Nobody | Jan 31, 2006 12:44:44 PM

However, there is also bottle-conditioned beer, that STAYS fresh and ADDS flavor while bottled.
See for example (quick googling) http://www.realbeer.com/library/authors/monterosso-g/bottle-conditioning.php, or www.livingbeer.com.

Posted by: Sven Cahling | Jan 30, 2006 5:36:06 PM

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