beer business

The strange thing about best-before dates

UPDATE: John Latta from importer Experienceit has provided a detailed response to this post. It appears in the comments below.


Australia is a magic place when it comes to hoppy beers – when US brewers send them here they suddenly last more than twice as long as they would in America.

Seems totally counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Hops are supposed to degrade over time, not actually extend their life. But, judging by the alterations to the use-by dates on some US beers we get here, hops get a new lease on life when they’re sent here.

Luke at Ale of a Time opened my eyes to this in a Twitter conversation about the apparent life-span extension Ballast Point’s Pineapple Sculpin – and maybe other US beers – gets when it hits our shores.

So I decided to do some research. The Ballast Point dates were a bit confusing to decipher, so I picked up a can of Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo from my local Dan Murphy’s. According to this information from the Sierra Nevada site, the domestic (ie United States) expiration date for Torpedo is 150 days “if kept cool or dark” (ie not in a brightly lit bottle shop). That’s around five months.

Now, here’s are two photos of that can of Torpedo I picked up.

As you can see from the photo on the left, the can was filled with beer on November 7, 2016. But on the last line of that sticker in the pic on the right says the best before date is November 7, 2017. That’s a whole seven months more shelf life than the same beer gets in the United States. And that info from the Sierra Nevada site bluntly states the export best by date is “one year from packaged on date”, so it’s not an oversight from the Australian distributor.

But Sierra Nevada is not alone. Stone Brewing does it too, which is quite bizarre given Greg Koch’s stink-kicking a few years ago about how he wouldn’t send beer here because he couldn’t guarantee the quality. In fact, the Stone website states “To ensure that you know your beer is fresh, we’ve set shelf life limitations, or ‘code lengths’, for each of our core beers that are 120 days or less, which is among the shortest in the industry”.

I picked up a can of their Go To IPA – from Uncle Dan’s rival First Choice Liquor. This is one of their “core beers” which, in the US has a best before date of no more than three months. Now here’s a photo of the best before date on the bottom of the can I bought.

This appears to be in the US month/day dating style. And it clearly says the Go To IPA I bought in Wollongong has a one-year shelf life – or nine months longer than they’ll give it in the country in which it’s made.

Yes, it takes a month or so for the beers to get here from the US, which cuts into the three-month window. But that doesn’t justify tacking on an extra seven months to the best before date.

To me, it’s a bit rich for US brewers to complain about improper shipping affects the flavour of their beer when they seem quite happy to grossly inflate their shelf life for the Australian market – which had a similar detrimental effect on flavour.

If you’re wondering, both these beers were underwhelming. They’d lost their shape and, while all the bits and pieces were there, they were in the wrong places.

Which is exactly what you’d expect from an out-of-date IPA.

 

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20 replies »

      • It’s disappointing though that many local brewers do not print the BB date on the bottle. Bought a few local “oldies” with no date marked already…

    • Not the ones i want from the states or anywhere else.

      Just like the man says: I have no problem slugging a beer within a specific window. even if an arrogant bastard does take one month to get here. so what? it wont make it past eight weeks in my stinking paws. these yanks should be playing to that fact, not shooting theyselves in the foot.

  1. In regards to Stone, the importers; ExperienceIT, insisted on the extension to the BB date or they would drop the product from their portfolio. I believe they were the only importer that would ship the Stone line in refrigerated containers.
    Another concern with the imported beers is the fact that many are not kept cold at the retailer​, hastening the degradation of the product.
    Drink fresh, drink local

  2. For the record, Experienceit did not insist on 12 month BBF dates at all!!, We provide our partners with facts on the market and volume potentials based on those facts. Experienceit are the exclusive importer for Stone from San Diego and many other US beers, plus UK, Europe, NZ as well as distributors for other Australian beers. We see started importing Stone beers with 90 day shelf dates 2 years ago, and on occasion still do for limited San Diego release only beers that we get offered. Australian retailers and most other international retailer markets are not geared to manage short shelf dates and Australian consumers naturally think that a BBF date on a product like beer would be at least 9 to 12 months, (which is what most Australian brewers use for exactly the same beer styles), so when they see something close to code that only had a 90 day code, they think its old. The short international codes created a lot of confusion, miss information and made life difficult for retailers that wanted to support the ranges, but had to keep explaining why the code was shorter than local codes and even though it had a week left on code for example that it was still super fresh if not fresher than some of the local beer on shelf. (many retailers will now refuse to buy beer from us with less than 150 day shelf codes). US or any other international brewers are not making compromises and posts like this are not taking into account the broader / real facts and unfortunately adding further confusion. Like any consumer product companies, be it food or beverage, they have different labelling and different approach to their product in each export market they enter, and also need to adapt as they grow and increase volumes. Beer is no different and even Australian brewers exporting need to do the same thing. As Craft beer expands and brewers start to export to new markets (which includes Australian brewers exporting), they need to understand how that market operates, e.g. shelf dates, supply chain, shelf pricing etc, and need to adapt their message to that market if they wish to sell their product, while at the same time ensuring their product is sold in the best possible condition and delivering the experience they intended. They are simply adapting to different markets and changing trends and adapting their product message to that market. We regularly have the brewers from some of the brewers mentioned in the article visit Australia, and every time they arrive, they test their beers and every single time they are happy with the overall result and the taste of their product locally. In the US they use short shelf dates as retailers are used to regular rotation of their shelves, something which does not happen a lot on Oz or other markets, consumers have also been educated now that beer has short shelf dates (This education has not happened in Oz on a broad scale), plus the important point, is they have a massive population to pull the beers through quicker. The other miss-leading point I keep seeing is people blaming the fact its imported for over carbonation, or hop drop off, so whats the reason when the same thing happens to local beers? The same issues being reported on imports via posts, is no different to what happens to some local brands at times. I am confident that we have some of the freshest imported beers in the market, and we land beers like Stone IPA and Go To IPA ever 4 weeks. Each shipment has been packed for us from the line, so its landing super fresh, and in many cases will be fresher than some local beers on-shelf. We also guarantee ever single beer we land, if anything is wrong with the beer we will fix it and have done this on a number of cases from group posts we have seen. My question is, “Do Australian brewers brew differently to US brewers?” “No”, so why are we focused on the fact that when a US brewer exports their product they have an export label that has a date code identical to most Australian brewers or other imported brewers? Plus even though the US brewers have an export date code longer than their local market date code, the export date code in many cases is still shorter than exactly the same beer styles brewed locally by local brewers. Stone and many other US and EU brewers are using different export labels and date codes on the product, (which reflects their focus on export and knowledge of export markets), when they ship all over the world (Not just Oz). With all our brewers and Stone in particular our commitment contractually is to ensure we rotate our stock regularly and keep product fresh in the market, hence why we do shipments every 4 weeks and hence why we often run out of some of our core beers (which often annoys retailers because we are out of stock). The biggest issue I see is the continued influx of grey/black market craft beers from brewers like Dog Fish Head, FireStone Walker, Bells and others that have not officially nominated an Australian importer and have their beers being purchased on the black market but importers looking to cash in on their demand. Bottom line, if the product is still in code and tastes good, then drink it, if its in code and not tasting great, then report it to the distributor so they can check the product for quality, this goes for any beer, import or local.

      • “so why are we focused on the fact that when a US brewer exports their product they have an export label that has a date code identical to most Australian brewers or other imported brewers?”

        because they say one thing in their local market: if it’s more than 150 days old, it’s not fresh.
        and then in export markets, they say a year.
        i understand WHY they do that, but it is a bit odd, as they are both champions of ‘fresh is best’ when it comes to hoppy beers.

        i didn’t think that was hard to understand, as that is basically the topic of this blog post. is that hard for you to understand?

        as for ‘why does how they date their matter if it’s fresher than local beer’………
        well, if local breweries start putting (for arguments sake) 12 months on their domestic product while concurrently putting 18-24 months on the same beer for export, then that would be deserving of some scrutiny and comment as well. if you’re aware of some examples, please do tell.

    • “so why are we focused on the fact that when a US brewer exports their product they have an export label that has a date code identical to most Australian brewers or other imported brewers?”

      because they say one thing in their local market: if it’s more than 150 days old, it’s not fresh.
      and then in export markets, they say a year.
      i understand WHY they do that, but it is a bit odd, as they are both champions of ‘fresh is best’ when it comes to hoppy beers.

      i didn’t think that was hard to understand, as that is basically the topic of this blog post. is that hard for you to understand?

      as for ‘why does how they date their matter if it’s fresher than local beer’………
      well, if local breweries start putting (for arguments sake) 12 months on their domestic product while concurrently putting 18-24 months on the same beer for export, then that would be deserving of some scrutiny and comment as well. if you’re aware of some examples, please do tell.

      • You’re referring to a local marketing message, which like any company that operates in multiple markets, has different messages targeting the local consumer in that market and has nothing to do with Australian drinkers being fooled or doggy practices. The topic of the blog was initially accusing brewers and their importers of being doggy, how US brewers changing their export labels, almost saying they are misleading consumers and offering them a sub standard product, and then linking that to the quality of their beers. For one, its quoting a US focused website and it never once actually talked about what local brewers do with codes for the same styles and beers, giving drinkers the real facts, or looked at how fresh most of the beer is that both ourselves and importers like Pheonix import. I know our Stone beer lands with max 30 days from packaging date, we even airfreight in Stone “Enjoy By” 30 day codes product at times, releasing it the day before the US. So is the article also basically saying that local brewers operate on much lower standards to US brewers? How are they being misleading, if its the same standard that local brewers operate by?,
        I’d be happy to bet that a lot of the beer we land and sell is as fresh if not fresher than a lot of locally brewed beers on-shelf in large bottle shops (indep and majors), and if you know and talked about all the facts, you’d also know that even with the different export date codes used, its still shorter than local brewer codes, so in effect they are still holding a higher standard to the quality of their beers, but like any consumer goods company adapt their labels and message to be in-line with local standards. Australian brewers are going to have to do the same things when they export. Articles like this should list all the facts and help consumers, not confuse them or spread miss information and bend the truth about what it really means. Help consumers understand what BBF means, how all brewers work with it locally, how retailers handle it, focus on the local market facts, trends and demands and not righting an article thats trying to call people out with sensationalism.

    • Would a ‘packaged on’ date remove all of the confusion then? It’d allow consumers to decide when a beer is still good enough to drink would it not?

      • Hang on a sec guys, can we talk about the more serious issue of “righting articles”….

  3. When it comes to hop driven beers fresh is best there is no argument otherwise. In saying this John is right in the fact that local beers can be just as easily mistreated as imports though import beers will normally have a fairly good head start when it comes to the degradation from travel, age and temperature related effects. Education is the key as always, people need to realize that beer is food and not an inert piece of “something”like a can of Coke. A local brewer will be able to tell the difference in his beer that he bottled today as opposed to 4 weeks ago. A hop driven beer is usually (not always) best the day it leaves the brewery and will degrade every single day before it is drunk.
    The article calls bullshit on having morals about only drinking their beers fresh but if it means extra sales in the form of export then that’s ok to drop our standards a little. I don’t disagree with that but at the same time it would be impossible to for them to export here without doing so and many people would forego the pleasure and allure of imported beer. I think the article also misses the point that it is not only age that effects beer. 3 days at above 35 degrees C and the beer is rooted whether is imported or otherwise. Temperature (or light if not in cans or brown bottles) is the biggest killer of quality beer a constant below 10 degrees temp is needed.

  4. Big deal… Good on the breweries for putting a “PCKGD-on” date or “CANNED-on” date, as well as BB date, on their containers. Then the actual consumer has all the information they need to decide whether to buy the product or not. Or you could just buy from your local brewery, as Ross said.

  5. I listened to a podcast interview with Mitch Steele an ex Stone brewer. He said he taste tested bottled Stone IPA of 1, 30 and 60 days of age with company staff. The bottles had been kept refrigerated and he said the 60 day old bottles had no hop character left.

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