“Hey, taste this.”
“Why, is it bad?”
“It tastes flat - like, blah. Like sweet caramel and then nothing. Nothing at all like a West Coast IPA."
I take a big sniff and immediately wish I hadn’t.
A tired old butter-bomb, dead and dusty, alcoholic prune juice from a cardboard cup. What should be a beautiful fruity IPA is instead a disgrace. I take a sip and then another - but it’s like trying to wheedle hop aromas and flavors out of a corpse that’s been wrapped in blankets and left in the basement to rot.
The bartender replaces the pint with a cold stored tallboy and mentions that the draft beer often tastes old and stale. He shows us the kegs, stored warm behind the bar, right next to the line chillers exhausting even hotter air directly onto them.
“That beer used to be popular but now a lot of people complain,” he points to the menu on the bar, “and they have so many other beer choices. But some people still buy it because it’s cheap, it’s always on promotion.”
Warm Lager over Ice or Chocolate Porter on Nitro?
Breweries, distributors and retailers in South East Asia have unknowingly been in beer denial, believing that cold storage of beer was unnecessary and accepting stale and off-flavors as part of the flavor profile. In one of the hottest regions on earth, most beer is stored warm. Bottles, cans, and kegs are often kept in hot, dusty warehouses. The beer is then delivered warm, and chilled upon serving. If they don’t sell through a keg in a few days they’ll just keep selling, knowing that people aren’t able to identify common off-flavors and most likely wouldn’t feel comfortable complaining even if they could.
The recent rise of craft beer is a revolution, not only of styles and flavors but also of drinking habits, of customer expectations, and of the technology needed to service the requirements of delicate craft beer. However, revolution can be a slow process and many of the craft importers, distributors and retailers are still shipping, storing and delivering warm beer before serving it with flash chillers. In the heat of South East Asia, warm beer is stale beer.
Nonetheless, the tide is turning toward greater quality as consumers seek out better beer and better practices. Beer bars, including restaurants and cafes, are popping up with dedicated cold rooms and kegerators. Date codes and freshness are hot topics in beer forums, air-freighted hazy NEIPA’s are becoming as common as Cicerone certified servers and people studying for the next BJCP exam.
When Beer Goes Bad, What the Stale?
Beer is a delicate agricultural product and, in general most beer is meant to be consumed fresh. Of course, some beers evolve with time and an imperial bourbon barrel stout will indeed age well for years.
Beer flavor is a complex balance of over a thousand different compounds, all in a constant state of transformation and deterioration. Immediately upon being packaged the influence of light, time, and heat will also impact the beer. But not all beers age in the same way and whether a flavor is regarded as undesirable or not depends upon several factors: the beer style, the sensitivity of the taster, and ultimately the expectations of both the consumer and the brewer.
Stale is the descriptor for a beer which is beyond its peak freshness and should be pulled from shelves and considered unsellable. Throughout the dynamic staling process some flavors will decrease while others increase as the general balance of the beer becomes skewed, typical stale notes will be perceived, and any potential off-flavors will be more pronounced. This chart illustrates some common reactions in ageing beer.
The Best Possible Beer
If there is one unifying thread running throughout craft brewing it is passion. Each brewer may use different ingredients, techniques, equipment and resources but they are united by the same goal, to make the highest quality beer possible.
Brewers are obsessed with quality and are endlessly searching for ways to make better beer. Brewing consistent high-quality beer is a fine art and there is no better place to experience it than in the brewery itself where quality is constantly controlled and monitored, and the very best pints will always be poured. But unless the brewery is only selling beer in their taproom they’ll also have to distribute - and that means sending their quality out the door.
Cold, Dark & Clean: Transport, Store, Deliver & Serve
Let’s assume the beer is of the highest quality when it leaves the brewery, the O2 levels are low as are diacetyl precursors and other potential flaws, from here that quality is in the hands of the distributors, then wholesalers, and finally retailers. This is where true cold-chain becomes essential. The BA recommends that draft beer be transported and stored between 0.5°C and 4.4°C, and packaged beer slightly warmer at between 0.5°C and 9°C to maintain freshness over time.
Using the Arrhenius equation, we can estimate product shelf life by understanding that most chemical reactions double for every 10°C increase in temperature. The chart below shows that the deterioration of beer flavor will happen in only one day at 60°C. If we consider the average temperature of shipping containers and warehouses in South East Asia to be 30°C, we can expect beer stored there to be stale within less than two weeks. A beer stored at 30°C for 30 days will exhibit the same flavor deterioration as a beer stored at 3°C for one year.
Beer is the New Milk- Drink It Fresh!
Every beer loving consumer should be concerned about the freshness of their beer. Today’s educated and discerning consumers will choose to spend their hard-earned money at establishments where beer is treated with respect; always stored cold, rotated for freshness and pulled from the shelf before the “best by” dates.
There are countless challenges to importing and distribution of craft beer in South East Asia; high taxes, restrictions on advertising, the dominance of local lagers and a lack of beer awareness are just a few of them. For the most part these factors are beyond the influence of importers and distributors, but there is one simple act that is well within our grasp and makes all the difference - temperature control.
“You posting that on Facebook?” He eyes me snapping a photo of the date code on the bottom of the can.
“Yup. It’s delicious, and super fresh.”