If you’re a brewmaster, you are very picky about how you make your beer. And you’re especially picky about the beer you buy, because, well . . . you’re an expert.
If you’re not a brewmaster, you can still buy a bottle of beer like an expert. Use these tips to get the freshest, most wonderful bottled beer on the planet, anytime you go to the store. First, though, let’s talk about beer’s enemies.
Be afraid, be very afraid. Let’s talk about when bad things happen to good beer. Beer is meant to be consumed fresh. Sure, you can cellar your beers like fine wine, but beers meant for cellaring are the exception. And that’s off topic today.
What you want is the freshest beer possible. Bottled beer has four silent killers: light, heat, oxygen and time. When shopping for a bottle of beer, we’re looking to avoid these problems. Here’s how.
Tip #1: Shop at a Busy Bottle Shop or Liquor Store
Shop for your beer where you know there’s a brisk turnaround. Beer that’s been sitting around for months — or years — is only getting worse over time. This is especially true for hop-forward beers like that IPA you love. Of course, there are exceptions. In any case, you want to buy from a bottle shop that treats beer with respect. Shops like that are generally the busy ones. Generally, the more fortified the beer — the higher the alcohol by volume (ABV) — the longer it will last on the shelf.
Tip #2: Look in the Refrigerated Section
What you’re looking for is a cold chain of custody: beer that left the brewery cold and stayed cold in transport and distribution and, finally, at the bottle shop. Of course, you can’t see what happened prior to the store you’re in, but you surely don’t want to buy beer that is sitting at room temperature — or worse — warm.
Tip #3: Look for Dark Bottles or, Better Yet, Cans
If ultraviolet light (bright sun or florescent light) strikes a bottle of beer, it causes “skunking.” This leaves the beer tasting like cardboard, cooking sherry or even like the scent of a skunk. If you see bottles of beer stored near a window, shop somewhere else. That beer may not only be skunked, it may have been boiled by the sun. Think about this: When you drink your beer outside in a clear vessel, skunking can happen in as little as 15 seconds.
Brown glass blocks 98% of the wavelengths of light that cause skunking.
Green glass blocks 20%.
Clear glass: 0%.
Best: Cans, ceramic bottles, and bottles in closed cases that completely block light.
Tip #4: Look for a Bottling Date
There’s either a bottling date or a best buy date on an increasing number of quality beers. You don’t know how long the beer has been sitting on the shelf at the bottle shop; the bottles may also have been sitting at the wholesaler or distributor’s location. Generally, a beer is tastiest within a month of being bottled. It may taste good for a few more months, but why not drink the freshest beer possible? Brewers release a beer when it’s ready for drinking — wine makers do the same, by the way. There are exceptions, but that’s what they are: exceptions.
Tip #5: Drink Local Beers
Many of your local breweries make bottled beers available, either at the brewery or local bottle shops. When you buy bottles crafted by local breweries, you are minimizing your risk of spoilage because there’s likely no long-distance travel and no long storage at the wholesaler or distributor. When you support your local breweries, you encourage the brewing community to start additional breweries nearby, and this results in a vibrant beer scene. The outcome: more beer for you and an improved local economy. Besides, you want to support your local brewery, right?
Bonus Tip: Seek the Unusual
As a brewmaster — or a beer aficionado — you are constantly on the search for something new, something you can’t get every day. True beer lovers look to expand their understanding of beer and to gain a more experienced palate. With that quest in mind, look for something like a Kellerbier or an Oud Bruin. You’ll have more fun and you’ll learn something new to share with friends.
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