As I assume many people’s drinking and buying habits have changed throughout the pandemic, so have my own. In the “before times,” I purchased a good majority of my beers at the conclusion of a few rounds with friends at a taproom. Other times, I’d swing by a brewery on the way home from work. Now, with a combination of less drinking at home and far fewer trips to taprooms, I find myself popping into a local packie (or liquor store for those of you outside of New England) for a four-pack more often than I used to.
While there’s greater convenience, there’s also been greater frustration. A few of my go-to shops have increased their craft beer offerings. However, what was once a pleasant selection of cans to fill my fridge became a game of Minesweeper as I try to find good beer. Pacing back and forth from the shelves in the corner to the cooler at the other end of the wall feverishly flipping cans over and juggling them in my hands looking for that secret code.
The issue comes down to two issues that touch all levels of the “three tier system.” Some breweries aren’t placing any form of date codes on their product while store and distributor staff aren’t making sure to rotate outdated product off of the shelves.
Take a scroll through #BeerTwitter and you’ll find countless cries for breweries to not only mark their cans and bottles with dates but to standardize those markings so everyone can easily tell what’s fresh and what to avoid. For IPAs and other hop-focused beers, you’re looking for something less than six weeks old. Other styles like lagers, stouts, and porters will last longer, but it’s still nice to know how long a beer’s been sitting on the shelf before shelling out your hard-earned cash.
Currently, some breweries will mark somewhere on the can or bottle the date it was packaged. Despite a variety of names – “born on,” “packaged,” “canned,” or “bottled” dates – these all tell you when the beer was packaged.
Other breweries simply stamp a date and call it a day. This in itself wouldn’t be too confusing, except other breweries choose to list “best by” dates. So, as you stand in the middle of the aisle on Jan. 20, 2021, and read 01/17/2021 on the bottom of a can, it’s fair to wonder if that DIPA is super fresh or well past its prime. There are, of course, other types of codes used to denote freshness, but we’ll leave those be for now.
Distributors and retailers
On the other side of the coin are the distributor’s and retailer’s responsibility to make sure only the best product is available to consumers. While the “official” responsibility may fall on one party over the other, both have a vested interest in making sure consumers are getting what they want. Happy customers means more money for everybody. But more importantly, the reputations of stores, distributors, and the breweries themselves are at stake when bad beer is carelessly left on the shelves.
This is the greatest cause of my frustration. I can shrug off a brewery’s choice to not date their product. It’s a tad annoying, but I get it. But for a business to knowingly attempt to sell me an eight-month-old IPA for nearly $20 is unacceptable!
Some shoppers won’t know or care to check the freshness of the beer on the shelves. But others will – and that number is growing. While many may express their frustration without naming names publicly (as we’ll see below), word of mouth can be a business’ best friend or worst enemy. I personally know when I get burned, I tell my friends where I made my purchase.
What can you, the consumer, do about this?
Whether the beer in question is out of date or missing a date completely, it’s best to first reach out to the guilty party. If it’s an old beer sitting on a shelf, let a store employee know. If you’d really like a brewery to date their beers, reach out to them and let them know. It’s best not to drag any of them through the mud on social media – at least at first. In most cases, I’d like to think anybody would like to know privately that things could be improved. And in most instances where I’ve reached out, the folks on the other side have been appreciative and receptive.
Of course, if there are those that don’t step up their customer service and keep inventory fresh – you can always just rant about the whole topic on the internet.