One of the strange dichotomies in the beer world is how people treat the freshness of a beer. It is a subject that has been talked about here before in many different ways – check the bottling date of your lighter beers before purchasing, store cool or refrigerated, etc. In my quest to find bottles of Pliny the Elder to bring home from San Francisco, I found myself in an interesting conversation with the owner of a beer store. The crux of our talk, a topic that gets too much electronic ink on the Bar Towel/Ratebeer/Beer Advocate, was concerning the desire to drink a fresh IPA. It wasn’t clear if he was stating his opinion, that of is customers or both, but it concerned the almost devout subsection of beer geeks who get rather anal about the freshness of their hoppy beers. He explained that his store gets the beers directly from Russian River, are constantly refrigerated and only stay in the store about a week. They were expecting a delivery in a couple of hours – until then all he had to sell me was his last bottle, which was about eight days old. This last point he said with a sad look in his eyes, as if this was a $20 bottle of beer that had spoiled under his watch. It was clear that to most of his customers this week-old IPA had spoiled.
Yes, a hoppy IPA is best consumed as soon as possible, as are most lighter beers. Hop presence deteriorates the longer a beer sits around whether the bottle is in a fridge or not. I’m not dismissing these points as invalid. But I’m getting annoyed by all the people insisting on the freshest possible beers at any given time, the ones who insist that their IPAs be brewed within the past two weeks or else they’ve gone bad. This is partially because I believe that the freshest IPA isn’t necessarily the best and it is false to assume so. Sometimes you get a super fresh IPA and all you can taste are the hops – it overwhelms the malts and can be unbalanced. Some people enjoy this, some may enjoy the same beer two weeks or a month later when the hops don’t dominate all flavours. The malts start interacting with the hops and the beer is a more well-rounded.
One of the reasons I rarely read the Bar Towel anymore is the fuss people created over the LCBO delaying beers such as Smash Bomb and the Green Flash West Coast IPA, the people inadvertently creating Gose-IPAs by crying into their hop bombs. To me there are larger concerns than a beer getting a little held up for testing or whatever the LCBO does. (Okay, the Green Flash delay was excessive but clearly people still bought the beer. Might not have looked the best, but people still found it tasty.) It also struck me as odd because all imports have to go through this process at first, meaning a beer like the Thornbridge Kipling was likely held up at some point. Plus it had to cross an ocean. And it’s best before date was early September! Yet no one batted an eye at that one. In fact, I think most people thought it was a damn tasty beer, even if it hadn’t been brewed the week before.
The other side of the freshness spectrum is the big, bold beers like imperial stouts, barley wines and strong Belgian ales. These beers can seem brash, unbalanced and hot when very young – it can take some time for the flavours to come together. It’s common to hear people say, “It takes two/four/five years before that beer is at its best.” This brings me to the dichotomy mentioned at the beginning of the post – it is possible for a brewery to release a strong beer too soon. I don’t mean that they should age beers for years, but these are often beers that need some time conditioning to mellow a bit and let the flavours come together. It is understandable why breweries release there beer as soon as possible, because they need money coming in to make more beers and pay their bills. But I also think that any beer being sold to the public should be ready to drink now. A lot of breweries do this – Amsterdam, for instance, cellars the Tempest imperial stout for three months so that the beer is ready to drink when it gets released – but there are still breweries that sell a beer that isn’t. Those of us that choose to age beers are a minority and it should really be a choice. Don’t put the onus on the consumer – let us have the option to age, but don’t make it mandatory in order to have an enjoyable drinking experience.
Of course, beers that have been cellared for years come with a premium price tag, which is funny when you think that the freshness of an IPA is so valued. I know they’re different styles with vary different attributes, but it just seems funny that the age of a beer can either be an extremely positive or negative depending on the style. It’s a quirk of the beer world, one that you can either be super-serious about or not be too concerned. After all, how many of us know how old a draught or cask beer is when we go to a bar?