Karl Hayes

Am I alone in thinking the quality of craft beer has dropped significantly since the proliferation of canned beer on our supermarket and off-license shelves?

I might have been unlucky lately but it seems like there’s a 50:50 chance of getting a faulted beer (or six), and they’re not cheap!

So let’s look at a) why this might be occurring, b) what breweries and re-sellers can do to limit spoilage, and c) what you can do to increase your chances of value for money.

Why is this beer not the best?

Cans burst on the craft scene about five years ago and were marketed as an improvement over bottles; they are far less susceptible to light-strike, are a greener alternative due to a reduction of packaging, and are more compact to ship, warehouse, display, and eventually put in your fridge. This coincided with another change in the NZ scene — hazy beers went from being a fringe curiosity to dominating sales.

Hazy beers are awesome. They are juicy, fruity, hoppy, and delicious. When you drink a fresh one, it’s like an angel crying on your tongue*. But after a few of months in the can or bottle, especially if stored at room temperature, it’ll likely become earthy and astringent. Hazy beers aren’t filtered and have a larger-than-normal amount of biological matter which degrades them faster than a clear beer.

As for the method of packaging, does canned beer degrade faster than bottled beer? Hard to tell as the vast majority of beer on supermarket shelves is only available in cans.

Quite a few of the canned beers I’ve sampled do seem to exhibit traits of oxidisation which might be the result of oxygen being introduced after the can is filled but before the lid is seamed on. Standard practice is to seal the lid (either crown cap for bottles or can lid) on a bed of foam — CO2 bubbles. But even small amounts of oxygen will have a detrimental effect on beer over time and the large area of a can lid will have irregularities and crevices where oxygen may lurk. The same happens during bottling but crown caps are mostly lined with an oxygen scavenging material and there’s less surface area at the top of a bottle where the gases react with the beer compared to a can.

So age is definitely a factor. The dominant style of beers available, hazy pale ales and hazy IPAs, is also a factor. And the method of packaging plays a part. Of course there are always the occasional batch of beer with a more traditional fault within; diacetyl, DMS, acetaldehyde, but thankfully that’s not common.

So what can the breweries do about it?

Nothing written here will persuade breweries to change back to bottling because of the advantages (above) of cans over bottles, and also because they have invested hundreds of thousands in canning machines, cans, labels, and staff training.

However they do have control over the freshness of their product before it leaves the brewery. Smaller but more frequent packaging runs, tighter control of inventory, and refrigeration of the finished product (yes, this is an issue, thankfully rare) will reduce the spoilage.

But the easiest change a brewery can make is to put a best-before date on the outside of six-pack. Most breweries don’t. All cans have one on the base or on the label but if you’re buying beer in a box, you’ll not see it until you unpack them by which time it’s too late. (Unless, like me, you’ll open the box at the supermarket to check – I’ve been asked a couple of times to desist).

And while we’re at it, a best-before-date of 12 months for most beers, and especially hazy beers, is ridiculous. Ideally, cans of most common styles should be available to purchase within a couple of months as that’s when they will be best.

And the supermarkets?

This is the easy one; chilled warehousing, smaller but more frequent orders, stock rotation (standard practice but mistakes do happen), and insisting on clearly visible and legible best-before dates.

Centralised buying, as practiced by both Progressive and Foodstuffs, is an extra step in the beer’s journey to your fridge but I don’t see that changing any time soon.

What can the consumer do?

  • Don’t buy a product that’s meant to be consumed fresh but isn’t. You can assume that a can was packaged 12 months before the best-before date or the brewery will have also printed the packaging date.
  • Be particularly wary of discounted beer from the larger breweries.
  • Treat product on ambient shelves with caution.
  • Don’t purchase a product without a visible best-before date.
  • Don’t assume that smaller breweries will have older product. They will often have smaller but more frequent packaging runs.
  • Let the brewery know if you bought a less-than-optimal product and also let them know if their product is languishing on the shelves for a while. Their response to this information should influence your future custom.
  • If you’re rating a faulted beer on Untappd, include the packaging type, where bought, and the best-before date.
  • Buy direct from breweries if possible. Not always cheaper but it should be fresh and stored chilled.

So in conclusion, fresh beer is best for the breweries, supermarkets, and consumers. It’s in every one’s best interests.

Disclaimer — Karl is an ex brewer, ex brewery owner, and currently co-owns and runs a home brew shop, Brewtopia.

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