The word “fresh” wields potent adjectival power.
At first glance, “fresh” unequivocally translates to better. Fresh fruit? Superior to canned or jarred. Fresh air? Good for the soul, lungs, and the rest of the pulmonary system. Fresh beats? All the better for general grinding and grooving.
But when you apply fresh to a concept that’s negative (like a fresh wound), the meaning changes. Suddenly fresh doesn’t mean better, but instead acts to grade the noun, placing it at the apex of a spectrum of intensity. Fresh connotes that your noun is at the most potent, pungent, and powerful it will ever be, and further infers that it will degrade, eventually, in some capacity.
Outside of those few styles that improve with age, it would make sense that fresh beer – beer at its most innately flavorful point – would be the ideal. If fresh means the apogee of flavor, and the reason we drink beer is for flavor, then we should drink the freshest beer possible! A+B=C, so A=C, right? Right.
Despite holding this notion for years, I’d never actually tested it. It’s hard to judge just how fresh a bottle or can of beer can possibly be, given that a case may sit for weeks or months in storage and shipping, be subjected to different temperatures, light, and environmental conditions all before you even have a chance to pry the cap. Many small breweries still don’t include bottling dates, or if they do, they’re more often than not smudged illegible marks that look like a spider got into a cask, then into an inkwell.
In post-brewed storage, as the small amount of oxygen left in the bottle reacts to the rest of the primordial beer soup, trans-2-nonenal forms and leads to paper/cardboard-like flavors. To make matters worse, long siestas in non-refrigerated warehouse resorts accelerate this oxidative process. Brown bottles will also still let in some light which will strike the riboflavin, break down isohumulones, and create skunky 3-methylbut-2-ene-1-thiol. The hoppier the beer, the more isohumulone, and the easier/faster it will skunk when exposed to light.
Cans, while totally shielded from light, aren’t perfect either, and will still oxidate just like their glassy brethren. Over time, the quality of a beer inevitably fades, it’s defining characteristics changing forever. Beer is sort of like memory that way. The fluid itself is still there in the bottle, is decidedly still beer and probably tastes OK, but when you go to drink it, it’s not quite exactly like it once was: changed, muted, revised by time’s unbiased hand.
I knew all of this, but blindly assumed our distribution system worked, and that as long as I wasn’t drinking a brew months and months (or years and years) past its prime drinking time, that it had no obvious defects and looked good in the glass, I was coming pretty close to taking in the flavors, smells, and mouthfeel the brewer truly intended.
But holy hops, I’ve never been so wrong.
Doug Smiley, fellow blogger and beer-buddy, invited me to apply some science to our theories by heading to the Heavy Seas Brewery with some bottles of Loose Cannon IPA he purchased a few months prior. He suggested we do a head-to-head taste test, to see what ~90 days tenure in that brown glass did to the spirit of the beer.
I don’t like to rely on clichés for description, but in this case one serves quite well. The differences between the November 26th 2013 bottle and the February 17th 2014 pint from the keg (that we sampled on February 22nd 2014, for the record) were night and day. The bottled beer was quiet, subdued, like long night had cloaked the ale, the hops tucked into nice cozy water beds with the malts rolling lazily at their feet, a starchy dog mid-nap. Conversely, the keg-poured pint blazed midday summer; crisp bitterness and bright, floral citrus notes from the hops: a warm breeze through an orange grove on a Floridian afternoon.
Dan, the hospitality manager at Heavy Seas, said to us as we sat down to begin our experiment, “I never drink bottles of Loose Cannon anymore.” Having tasted the IPA at only 5-days old, I can see why. Not to say the bottled beer was “bad” by any stretch of the imagination. It was still pretty excellent, and this little experiment won’t stop me from buying bottles in the future. It will however, encourage me to drink at brewery tap rooms much more often than I had before. If you’re looking to squeeze ever possible micron of flavor out of a pint, you’ve got to drink straight from the keg, as soon as possible.
While this conclusion might seem obvious, it waxes voluble about the store-bought bottles we’re drinking, and the supposedly educated judgments we’re making on the assumption that the bottled beer is “fresh.” Especially given the popularity on IPAs, and the hop’s natural propensity to break-down rather quickly. Double especially given that a very large number of beer reviewers are basing their reviews solely on bottled and canned versions of a beer. Triple especially given that bottles are the only way to sample almost every beer that isn’t served on tap near your home.
Before you commit to an opinion about a beer or a brewery, keep in mind that when you drink bottled beer that comes from the other side of the country (or the world), you may only be drinking a shade of what came out of the fermentation tank. It may be generally representative of the recipe, but unless you know it was bottled very recently, may not always a great point of reference to form objective opinions.
For me, it’s just another reason to drink local: it legitimately tastes better. Because science.
P.S. I know there are obvious exceptions to this with styles that age or cellar well. I’m talking specifically about styles (like those on the heavy end of the hop scale) that get worse with age. So you can put away the pitchforks, barleywine and RIS folks.