Those bottles of delicious hoppy IPAs you’ve got sitting in your fridge? They are slowly dying, and if you’ve got a bottle or two sitting on the counter or in a closet, those are quickly dying too. It’s an often overlooked or misunderstood aspect of craft beer, but the compounds that give IPAs and other hoppy brews their pungent aromas so sought by beer lovers are extremely volatile and begin degrading nearly immediately after a beer is packaged.
The ravages of time and the importance of storage conditions were demonstrated for me on a recent trip to the Firestone Walker brewery on California’s Central Coast. For the past two years, the brewery has hosted a group of writers, journalists and beer bloggers from Los Angeles for a weekend of beer education and exploration, and this year’s trip included a sensory training session held by the brewery’s QC staff. We started with an off flavor tasting, and few things sharpen the palate like spiked beers at 10am. After smelling, tasting and discussing diacetyl, DMS, and oxidation flavors, the group moved on to a second flight—and this is particularly revelatory.
Our host first poured us a glass of Firestone Walker’s sublime Union Jack. The IPA had been bottled two days prior; its aroma was palpable and seemed to leap from the glass with layers of pine, grass, and citrus. Additional glasses of Union Jack were poured: first one-month old IPA that had been stored cold at 40F, then a sample that had been warm-stored at 70F for a month. Finally, a pair of four-month old beers—both warm and cold-stored—followed. The differences between the brews were stark.
First, the bad news: the 120-day, warm-stored sample was a shade of Union Jack’s usual pungent, balanced perfection. Not only had most of the hop aroma fallen out of the beer, but the flavor was noticeably degraded and even a touch of oxidation could be detected. I don’t send beers back often, but if I’d been poured that Union Jack at a bar you can bet I’d have sent it right back. This is to be expected though; four months at room temperature would be the death knell for just about any IPA.
What about the one-month old samples? The 30-day warm-stored sample fared better but was easily differentiated from the 30-day cold-stored IPA. While less bright in aroma than the super-fresh bottle, the 30-day cold-stored sample was still excellent and plenty hoppy. The most surprising aspect of the demonstration was the way the bottle stored for four months at 40F compared to the bottle stored warm for a month. They were really close in aroma and flavor profile, and many of the tasters said they’d be hard-pressed to identify which was which.
The boldest IPAs brimming with hop aromas have shelf-lives measured in weeks, not months, and even a few days at room temperature can accelerate a hoppy beer’s fall from freshness. While the best breweries store and ship their beer cold, there’s really no way of knowing how a particular package has been handled. Your best bet is to shop where beer is treated with respect (kept cold and pulled from the shelf after the “best by” date), check the date-codes (and report out-of-code beer—many breweries have forms on their websites), and keep those bottles and cans in the fridge.
Every beer lover should be concerned about the freshness of the beer they drink, but hop heads looking for their next hit of Lupulin need to be especially vigilant if they want the most bang for their beer money.