By Gary Glancy
Craft beer’s popularity has soared both locally and nationally in the past decade-plus, as consumers continue to seek out fresh, bold and complex aromas and flavors. However, those very qualities that draw us in are what also make craft beer a delicate delicacy and ultimately can lead to its downfall if not handled properly.
Beer is a perishable product, some styles more so than others. The freshness and quality of ingredients, coupled with the absence of unnatural preservatives in craft beer, make it a beverage that should be consumed relatively soon after packaging.
Of course, it’s not reasonable to expect every bottle or can of beer to be enjoyed within days or a few weeks once it leaves the brewery. Most beers have a shelf life of about six months on store shelves before the effects of oxidation lead to their deterioration, but the duration of optimal freshness depends largely on how they are stored. Namely, beer should be kept cold for as much of its life as possible.
“The main reason for keeping a beer cold is to slow oxidation,” says Jo Doyle, a certified cicerone who works in multiple capacities at White Labs, a San Diegobased yeast manufacturer that recently opened an expansion facility in Asheville. A certified cicerone is the beer equivalent of a sommelier for wine. “At warm temperatures, hop compounds will oxidize more quickly, as well as possibly having instability for any yeast or proteins in the beer if it’s unfiltered.”
Oxidation leads to stale, cardboard-like flavors in beer, which is more noticeable in fuller-flavored craft brews versus mainstream light lagers.
Beer also should avoid light exposure if possible, especially hoppy beers such as India Pale Ales (IPAs). Sunlight and store lighting cause a chemical reaction with hops that produces ‘skunky’ aromas (yes, that is an actual term in beer judging).
“In a perfect world, beer would go straight from bright (conditioning) tanks to consumers without contact to any oxygen, light or temperature change,” says brewer Katie Smith of Highland Brewing, which pioneered Asheville’s beer renaissance when it opened back in 1994. “Luckily, most distributors take great care in handling craft beer with the use of refrigerated trucks, warehouses and getting beer on the shelf as quickly as possible.”
Freshness is one of the reasons behind the recent popularity of cans in the craft-beer industry, a trend started by Brevard’s own Oskar Blues Brewery more than a decade ago. While brown bottles offer very good protection against harmful ultraviolet rays, cans are foolproof. They also form a 100 percent seal, thus slowing the process of oxidation.
Doyle says she prefers cans over bottles, referring to cans as essentially “mini kegs.” And with a safe, food-grade liner now applied to the inside of cans during packaging, today’s canning technology eliminates the aluminum taste of beer that many consumers still associate with cans. The key is pouring canned beer into a glass. Our sense of smell affects up to 70 to 90 percent of our taste experience, so drinking straight from a can is one possible reason why people often experience metallic flavors in canned beer.
Whether it’s cans or bottles, however, storing beer cold for as long as possible will always improve your chances of enjoying optimal freshness in craft beer.
Gary Glancy is a freelance writer, tour guide, bartender and certified cicerone® living in Hendersonville.