10 Feb Keeping It Bottled Up: Tips On Buying Craft Beer in Glass
Buying beer seems like a fairly straight forward thing to do. We all do it often, and there doesn’t seem to be much to it. Draft, cans, bottles, growlers, crowlers, it’s all about the same – right? Well no, not really, and buying packaged beer that is still good can be tough – mostly because of what happens to the beer after it leaves the brewery. I started this out by thinking about a piece on bottle shares, but it quickly came to me that bottle shares don’t always have bottles now – a lot of beer is put out in cans; more all the time, and crowlers can be considered a sort of can even if they have some additional issues.
But I kept coming back to the issues of beer in bottles. For a good long time, bottled beer was king, at least in craft. Most mega beers don’t taste like anything, so who cares if you got a bit of a can taste in them. But in the last few years, can technology has improved, especially with respect to can liners that prevent off flavors from creeping into the beer. That’s a lot of the reason for the big surge in craft beer canning in the last decade. Started by Oskar Blues and quickly picked up on by other breweries that sold regionally or nationally, now can releases are an everyday occurrence in craft.
Cans seal very nicely, and tend to stay that way if the beer is produced soundly. Crowler sealing can have issues, but most taprooms do it fairly well and relatively consistently. Cans, if not under filled, eliminate most of the oxygen, so oxidation is less of a potential problem – you remember oxidative formation of trans-2-nonenal? We talked about that recently (here). The downside is that canning lines are generally more expensive than bottling, and this keeps some people working in bottles, especially for one off releases. Bottling takes more time, so it comes down to whether you’ve got too much time or too much money.
Data from IRI Research in 2018 showed that this was the first year that canning actually cut into the volume of beer that was bottled, indicating that canning may become the package of choice very soon. But there is still a place for the bottle. It feels good in your hand, and the shape and color are artistic in and of themselves. I like that you need a bottle opener, although the wax (when used) can a bit annoying sometimes. And yet, there are issues that have to be dealt with when buying craft beer in bottles, so here is a bit of a primer on things to look for and to avoid. Some of these issues apply to cans as well, but most are bottle specific.
Bottle Dating. The age of beer does matter, and the packaging choice for that beer does influence how long it can stick around for. There are issues that have to do with the packaging choice (can or bottle), but also how consistent and OCD the brewery happens to be. What is needed is an indication for the purchaser as to how long the beer has been in the package. This might be a package date (bottled on/canned on), or it could be a “best by” date, although there are issues with best by – mostly with how a brewery has determined optimum age for different styles and how package stores sometimes have issues replacing stock.
The problem – breweries aren’t required to packing dates on their beer, and if they do put them on the bottle, it could be in code. That’s cool – a code, like Ralphie’s Ovaltine code for Little Orphan Annie. But sometimes this code is tougher to break. It might be as easy as the date (MM/DD/YY), but it could be a Julian date, so 9 or 19 for this year, followed by a number 1-365 for the day of the year (366 if a leap year).
Some codes are even more obtuse. They might include the bottling plant in the string of numbers like Sierra Nevada might do, or some brewery-specific code. A website called Mr. Beerjangle published a primer on several different breweries’ codes, some of which are logical and some of which are like RSA encryption keys.
Many breweries choose not to post packaging dates or best by dates on their beer or perhaps they hide them. St. Somewhere Brewery in Florida puts the year that beer was bottled on the cork UNDER the cage. You can’t know how old the beer is until you buy it, take it home, and open it. However, for cases like this, there can be a few clues – look for dust on the bottle, look for how fast the line of bottles shrinks from visit to visit, or just ask when those bottles arrived.
It would be nice if the retailer, distributor, or brewer took the time to go through their product on the shelves and take out beers that are too old (see next section), but it doesn’t really happen. Distributors and breweries don’t really have the manpower or time to check the product. On the other hand, the retailer bought this beer, so unless the brewery/distributor is going to buy back what doesn’t sell, it is in the best interest of the retailer to leave it on the shelf.
Fresh vs. Aged. If you can determine the age of the bottles you are considering, the next issue is determining if the bottle has been on the shelf too long. Well, it depends on the beer. In general, hoppy beers should be drunk fresh – some suggest that NE IPAs and other pales/IPAs should be consumed no more than 1 month after a packaging date (and from the beer cooler rather than room temp.). Hop oils degrade quickly, so aromas and flavors can be lost if bottles or cans are allowed to linger on shelves.
Other beer styles might last longer, but four months is a good rule of outdating. Certain styles, like barleywines and stouts can last even longer. In general cans are better for this than bottles, as there is very little air leak in and out of cans. While bottles are capped, and those caps have a rubber seal on the bottom, there is definitely air movement in and out of a bottle. More air, means more oxygen, and more oxygen leads to oxidized beer as discussed above.
This is one of the reasons that breweries will wax bottles after they are crowned. One paper does show that wax reduces oxygen permeation across the layer, but this isn’t widely known or accepted. It is mostly about looking good and putting across the idea that these bottles are special. It’s fine if breweries want to wax the bottles, but there will always be that percentage of the population that is just annoyed with trying to get into one of these bottles.
Where the Bottle is Located. When you are out looking for packaged beer to purchase and you are considering bottles, be sure to take a look at where these bottles are, both in the small environment and the big environment. Primarily, how much light hits this bottle? If it’s a decent amount, the beer might be skunked. Green and clear bottles are very susceptible to letting UV through, but even brown glass bottles permit UV transference. Sooner or later, that beer is going to be light struck.
Being next to a window is one thing, but even if the bottle is more centrally located, does the Sun pass across this bottle daily from a door or window further away? If yes, then this beer will age faster than what would be expected. The light is one aspect here, but the change in temperature will also age the beer faster. Therefore the package date or best by date may not be a good indicator for the drinkability of this beer.
In a larger sense, in what store is the bottle located? If the beer is a flagship – something that moves fast, then chances are it will be fresher from a big box store, like a grocery store or large drug store. Since these stores sell more beer and have fewer choices, it is likely that a popular beer will turn over faster and therefore be fresher on the shelves.
For stores with many more brew choices, like craft beer stores, the turnover is slower, and individual beers might be older. However, in both large and small stores, look out for the mix-and-match six pack bottles. These are often the oldest bottles in the store, and even if every bottle is old, you won’t be able to get a six-pack of similarly aged beers unless each individual bottle is dated. And these bottles are more likely to have been treated poorly (changes in temperature, in the light, etc). If a store allows you to put any packaged beer into a mixed six pack – this is a better sign.
Fill Level. Cans are usually filled to the brim as they go down the line, so the lids slide straight over the top. But bottles are filled from the bottom. Filling bottles is a more inconsistent process, even though bottlers do their utmost to fill at a regular rate and to a consistent level.
Consistency in fill rate and fill level does two things – maintains proper carbonation and reduces headspace to minimize trapped oxygen. Both of these lengthen the life of the beer. With cans, you have no idea about the fill level unless you shake each one and know what a full one sounds like. Luckily, you can see the fill level in most bottles. Check out all the bottles and look at the fill levels. The smaller the brewery, the more likely the fill levels will vary.
You are looking for about 1” to 1.5” of head space in the bottle. Too much room – you increase rate of oxidation and might have too little carbonation. Too little space – you might have too much carbonation and risk pressure blows. The 1-1.5” number comes straight from Charlie Papazian, so trust it. An under fill may not ruin your experience, but we’ve been talking in terms of best case scenarios for this entire article, so why not go for the best you can get.
Trust. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there is the strategy of finding a place and people you trust. This can circumvent many of the problems we noted above, and you get to make a connection with another living person. Make several visits to different craft beer stores and then determine which one or ones with whom you have had the best experiences.
Most stores are good, but some do bottles better than others, some carry more brands – find the one you like. What’s more, find a beer buyer or set of staff that you can trust. No matter how much you know about craft beer, it’s likely that the people who work in the store know more about their delivery schedule, when certain beers arrived, what has been moving fast, etc. Use their expertise and knowledge to help you find a great beer in a can or bottle, something you have the best chance to be happy with.
The take home message – it’s great to like beer in bottles. I also like beer in cans, but I will most likely continue to bring bottles to bottle shares. I feel like bottles, especially bombers and British bottles, are more social because opening one of these almost requires a friend to drink with. Find a good friend, find a good bottle, and enjoy a good beer.
banner image credit: npr.org