A friend came to me and asked, “Have you tried this beer before?”
I looked at the bottle and replied, “Yeah, that’s Lean Lamb, a really nice sour beer from the Mussel Inn.”
Turns out they were returning it because they’d tried one and then discovered it was past its best before date. The unusual, but perfectly normal, sour taste, combined with a recent food-poisoning scare, had put them right off, and no amount of explaining that these beers will keep would dissuade them.
Unlike wine, beer is often seen as something to drink soon after brewing. ‘Fresh is best’ is a slogan often thrown around. While this is true of lagers and ‘greener’ hoppy beers, high-alcohol malty beers (especially darker beers like porters and imperial stouts) can be aged for a very long time.
8 Wired’s imperial stout Bumaye (a Muhammad Ali reference) was brewed in 2011, bottled in 2013 and has a best before date of 2028. When I asked brewer Søren Eriksen why he chose that year in particular, he simply said, “That was the longest date I was legally allowed to use.”
I currently have a bottle of Bumaye alongside four bottles of Hallertau’s sour Funkonnay, a special bottle of Garage Project’s barrel-aged Lord Cockswain’s Courage and some Pot Kettle Blacks from Yeastie Boys in my ‘cellar’. Well technically it’s a cupboard, but it’s a cool, dark place where the temperature is fairly stable.
Speaking of Yeastie Boys, head brewer Stu McKinlay is a known keeper of beers, so I asked him a few questions:
What is in (or was recently in) your beer cellar?
Two types of beers — old Yeastie Boys stock that I want to keep a check on for quality control, and some of my favourite beers that I like to pull out when a friend visits.
So do you often drink beer from your cellar?
Almost every time a good friend comes around! One of my great fears is lying on my deathbed wishing I’d shared a certain beer with a particular friend (or just anyone!)
Where actually is your cellar?
Under my house. It’s almost a proper cellar, though I’d describe it more as an under-house shed as it’s not as flash as I wish it was (and it is under the house rather than properly underground — a good cellar should have a more stable temperature than we get down there).
In your opinion, which beers cellar best?
Generally malt-focused high-alcohol beers (e.g. barleywines, imperial stouts) and/or beers with a decent amount of acidity (e.g. lambic, gueuze, Berliner weisse). Hop-forward beers, especially those that are heavily dry-hopped, tend to suffer the most. There are certainly exceptions to these rules.
What’s your opinion on best before dates?
Some beers certainly don’t need them, but they can be a useful tool as long as consumers are informed that the beer may well be perfectly good (or even better) after that date comes up. I’ve drunk year-old bottles of Pot Kettle Black that were better than anything we had fresh.
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