Fresh Beer = Better Beer
Yes, there are some delicious exceptions to the mantra, but most styles are best consumed fresh. Acquiring beer directly from the brewery is the best way to insure your pint is at its best. However, a stop at the brewery isn’t always a possibility. Alas! It’s the 21st century! No longer are we waddling down the street with steel pails of beer from the saloon, rushing the growler like a 19th century child so that one can enjoy draught beer at home. (You’ll have to read Rushing The Growler.) We have all the conveniences of modern technology that allow us to safely and efficiently bring home our favorite brew in cans and bottles. And how do we know the age of this packaged beer since it’s probably not straight from the saloon taps? Date codes!
If only it were so simple as a momentary glance at the side of the can or bottle to determine if the contents were fit for consumption. For some packaging, it IS that simple. But there are many more leaving my head cocked to the side and my mind twisted with calculations of barely legible letters and numbers. Some breweries forego listing a date code altogether. The ambiguity associated with date codes helps me realize that they truly are codes – perhaps meant for some to decipher, and others to brush off as an unimportant jumble of sloppy hieroglyphics. Finding fresh beer shouldn’t be so hard.
Beer is a perishable product, and as such, the producer should provide consumers with a legible, consistent means of understanding its freshness. If beer for purchase is sitting on a warm shelf for an unknown amount of days, months, or years and I have no means of instantly knowing when that beer was packaged or when the best by date is, there’s a very small chance I’d be willing to buy it. I’ve been stung too many times, going out on a limb for beer with a mystery date code, only to later lubricate my sink drain with its contents. No thanks!
Let’s assume a date code is present and legible (and you can actually find where and how on the package it’s printed) – confusion can still grip you like tomorrow’s hangover. Many breweries in America have adopted the Gregorian date code (11/11/18 = MM/DD/YY), which is easier to read than a digital clock. But some adventurous or simply devious breweries in the states have chosen to use a different system, either one they’ve created or the Julian date code (118 = 118th day of the year, 04/28).
The Julian date code, found most commonly on European imports, is typically used in conjunction with a letter that indicates the year. For 2018, the letter used would be R, which is the 18th letter of the alphabet. When I encounter a Julian date code in the store, I try to figure out the year first, as it’s the quickest and easiest way to eliminate the possibility of buying the product. Do you really think state employees at the Utah DABC are taking their sweet time to decode their bottles of European beer so they don’t send you home with warm Duvel from 2016? It’s possible, but I’d rather take the time to suss out the date myself instead of feeling that sting of pouring dollars down the drain. It’s a ridiculous time suck, but it’s better than the gamble.
For figuring out the date code system of US breweries, the beer gods have granted us Fresh Beer Only. The website seems to be under construction, but the important bits are all there. If you care enough about cracking date codes, you’ll have this website saved on your phone for in-store use. As handy as it is, Fresh Beer Only does not cover beer from other countries, leaving you out in the cold of the date code abyss. Believe me, it’s a lonely hole to climb out of.
I gathered some of the more cryptic European date codes from the liquor store, snapping photos of the unintelligible digits and numbers so I could google them to death when I got home. Even after combing the world wide web for several hours, unearthing old message board posts and digging deep into specific brewery websites, some codes remained uncracked. I didn’t bother to reach out to the specific breweries that kept the Rosetta Stone of their date code held closely to their chest, as I don’t believe I would have received a response in time for reporting the results to you. So until that information surfaces, you’ll be in the dark with the rest of us.
Three of the codes that I was able to figure out are from breweries that have a relatively large variety of options available in Utah liquor stores (and likely even larger in other states). They are Samuel Smith, Chimay, and Lindemans. See the photos below for how to best translate their date codes.
S = Samuel Smith
K = 11th month of the year (Nov), 11th letter in the alphabet
14 = 14th day of the month
Q = 2017, 17th letter in the alphabet
L = Lindemans
B = unknown
A = 1st month of the year (Jan), 1st letter of the alphabet
05 = 5th day of the month
R = 2018
FR = Framboise
16 = 2016
685 = 685th batch or bottle produced
Note: Chimay Grande Réserve is considered to be best after five years of aging. This one only needs another three!
Date codes can be dirty business, and I don’t know why. I can accept my American mindset may not be in line with European standards, but there should at least be a way to research how to read the freshness stamp on a brewery’s product. Regardless of where the beer is coming from, I urge everyone to either enforce or demand legible date codes on beer. If you see a smudgy date code on your can (or no code at all), bring it to the brewery’s attention. If you can’t decipher a stamped date code, email the brewery and ask for an explanation (I plan to email Merchant du Vin). As consumers, we should demand transparency from the companies we’re supporting with our dollars. Being duped into purchasing old beer is a terrible thing, and I would think it’s in the brewery and retailer’s best interest to provide accurate and legible freshness information on packaging.
For more information on carefully selecting beer for purchase, read our post, Beer Buyers Beware!.
Freshness shouldn’t be a gamble. Drink wisely, friends!
Julian Date Code Converter – https://www.epochconverter.com/days/2018
Kenary’s Clarion Call: Date Code Your Beer – https://www.brewbound.com/news/kenarys-clarion-call-date-code-beer
Brewer’s Association Date Code Standards – https://www.brewersassociation.org/best-practices/quality/date-lot-coding/