I will be stopping in soon... but I have a question regarding bottled beer that I am hoping someone can answer. I love trying new and different beers but usually do so at the micro brew house. My question is about shelf life and freshness of bottled micro brews. Is there a way to tell the date brewed or bottled? Once bottled how long can it remain on the shelf?
First off, nice article David. Second, @BridgeTroll there are a number of reasons.
To start, what beer(s) are you talking about that are dramatically different from tap and bottle? Just curious.
In general, the "age" of the beer is not going to matter as much in a beer store compared to handling. If the beer is stored in sunlight or in directly heat, this can damage the beer no matter what type of medium it is. Cans, yes, eliminate UV "skunking" of hop isohumulones. But cans will either impart a tinny flavor over time, or if not, will have a special coating inside that some brewers claim absorb hop beta acids (aromatic hops). So, there is really no perfect medium for storing beer. Think of a keg as simply a large can, metal with an interior coating, that is stored prior to serving either correctly or incorrectly.
A better way of serving beer that is catching on is called a KEY keg. They have their own website. It is a plastic PET ball with a "bag" inside that beer goes in. The space between the plastic and the bag is pressurized. They are disposable kegs, super lightweight, and dispense 30 liters of beer. Pretty nifty.
Now to answer your question directly, the best brewery for knowing bottling dates is Bell's Brewing from Kalamazoo MI. Beer:30 and Grassroots, i.a., stock them. Bells does batch numbers and dates. If you don't see a date, the batch number you plug into their beer website, bellsbeer.com, and it tells you when it was bottled. But this is really only necessary for one of their beers, Two Hearted-Ale, which is an IPA that MUST be drunk fresh. After two months, it's just not worth it. But for other styles, it doesn't really matter. If it was stored properly, it will be fine- porters, stouts, lambic, whatever. I would only fret about freshness with IPAs. Double IPAs are even more fragile than IPAs even though that is a bit ironic.
Yes, DIPAs will age but they will lose aromatic hops and because malt forward. Essentially they will become identical to a barleywine overtime. So they age will, but the taste is not what was intended unless very fresh. Bell's makes a few Double IPAs like The Oracle and Hopslam, and these do age well. But I personally think it would be a waste. You will not get a juicy fresh hop resin and pineapple/mango character out of Hopslam when it is old, but physically, yes it will age okay. Two-Hearted, however, old will become thin and astringent. Essentially undrinkable. I would say that about most American IPAs below a certain alcohol level.
Also for aging, a good rule of thumb is that hop-forward styles drink immediately. Malt-forward styles like Belgian Strong Ale, American Strong Ale, Porter, Stout, etc can be aged but depends on why you want to age them. Inside a beer store, I highly doubt they are "aging" the beer to get a specific character out of it. They are just sitting on the shelve. As long as they've been stored properly, doesn't matter how old in my opinion.
Since most breweries don't age date their bottles, one trick you can do, it rarely works though, is look at the embossed numbers on the GLASS bottle. This will tell you when the GLASS was manufactured. So if it says 2011, then the beer is clearly as young or younger than 2011. No way there is 2010 beer inside there. It works sometimes. For other breweries, they put difficult to read batch codes in yellow ink that is hard to read somewhere on the neck of the bottle. If it doesn't say a date, then you can post what you find on ratebeer.com or something and people can help you out with the bottle date.
In general, most breweries don't bottle date and they should. It's really annoying for IPAs to continuously get old, stale bottles. So I usually just drink IPAs I know are mega fresh or drink them at the brewery. Even kegs inside bars are typically stale I've found.
For Budweiser, etc, their BORN ON date and stuff is more of a gimmick. Budweiser is pasteurized and so are most macro pale lagers. They will not really go bad over time unless they are stored incorrectly. For real beer, most have residual sugar and residual yeast; so over time the yeast can evolve in the bottle like a living organism, i.e. "real" beer. This can be good or bad. Bad in that a living beer can become infected over time but unwanted organisms that were dormant during the fermentation process and take a long time to do their dirtywork. Good in that a living beer will change character over time, sometimes becoming more complex and mellowing out or actually increasing in intensity. Just depends on the beer and what you are looking for. Budweiser, being pasteurized, cannot change fundamentally in the can overtime. But certain tastes like metals, tin, soap can happen from long storage.
There's a lot more, but see how that helps and post any more questions you might have.