A FRESH BEER INFRACTION

gordon-fiasco-2Last night I walked into the local bottleshop on my way home from work to check out a Pittsburgh Beer Week promotion– discounted pints of a certain IPA that comes out at every year at Christmas. Not sure I agree with hanging on to a keg of this particular beer until this late in the year, but I sort of understand it. Some (misguided) people often like age this beer for up to a year, and it seems to hold up reasonably well compared to most other beers in the style.

It tasted pretty good, and I perused the shelves looking for anything new. Lo and behold, they had tallboys of Oskar Blues G’Knight– a beer that holds a special place in my heart. It was a true gateway beer for me, back when it was called Gordon, that helped me understand what a hoppy beer could be. For me, a fresh, piney, danktastic can of G’Knight is about as good as American craft beer gets. But I almost never drink it. I can’t find it fresh.

Oskar Blues has a large presence in Pennsylvania. Most bottleshops have conspicuous (usually unrefrigerated) OB displays packed with sweet looking cans of Dale’s Pale Ale, Old Chub, and the like. The flagship Dale’s does a brisk business and you can generally find new cans of it fairly easily. But G’Knight, whether it’s the elevated ABV, the new name, or some other factor, just doesn’t sell as well. So it tends to sit on the shelves.

The reason I know this is because OB launched G’Knight in 16 oz cans during GABF week. Since then, I’ve kept an eye out for the new format, because new format = fresh beer. I drank some G’Knight tallboys in New York last December for a memorial gathering for Magnus Skullsplitter, and it tasted great. But this is the first time I’ve seen it displayed at my local bottleshop.

So I ask they guy working behind the counter about them– are they new? I’ve had my eye out for them. He replied: “We’ve had them in the back for awhile now. We had some of the regular cans to get rid of, and if we put the new ones out it would highlight the difference. So once the old ones were gone, we brought them out. They’re not that new.”

Ugh.

I guess I should appreciate his honesty, but this was not what I wanted to hear. I find myself returning again and again to this topic of fresh beer, but only because it is a very real and glaring problem for the craft beer industry. Who is winning in this scenario? I imagine Dale Katechis’ head would explode if he knew some potential craft beer fan’s first  taste of G’Knight was six months (or more) old, especially with the new cans in the store cooler, after the care and detail that went into both the beer itself, transporting it from Colorado, not to mention the marketing dollars behind the new format rollout. The consumer is certainly not benefiting. The bottleshop owner, who I know loves beer, did not get into this business for the money. But operating on low margins and increased competition, he feels the need to squeeze every penny out of his inventory. Something about this whole system is broken and wrong.

So what is the answer? I wish I knew. I suspect G’Knight might fare better as a seasonal brew, one I would anticipate greatly. I also think very few breweries have the infrastructure and demand to be available in every market. Many are attempting to be national brands with selling a perishable product, and do so at this risk of compromising quality and their good name. In the meantime, check those “best by” dates, drink local, or brew it yourself. Don’t enable and support the status quo by buying old beer.

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9 comments

  1. Disappointing, indeed. I was at a shop where i saw some Nugget Nectar 6+ months out. when i inquired, the guy told me he purposefully sits on a case or two of it so people could get it without dealing with the release hysteria. I bought it to see how it held up, and it was a shadow of its former self. Frustrating.

    1. Agreed, beerbecue. Nugget Nectar drops off a cliff around sixty days or so. Frustrating.

  2. This has certainly become THE issue to me as an Alehead in recent years. I spend most of my time in bottle shops checking bottling dates. I essentially have one or two local stores that I’ll frequent because I know the staff will let me know which offerings are freshest. It’s very frustrating and, like you said, does not have a simple answer.

    I think one possibility would be to end the madness and avarice of the three-tier system and allow breweries to self-distribute. This would certainly not fix everything, but what if the people delivering beer to a package store from a small brewery actually WORKED at the brewery? Wouldn’t they be a lot more careful to swap out older stock for fresh stock since they have so much skin in the game? They would know that a 10-month old IPA is not going to convince drinkers to support them and they’d be much more likely to push for fresher beer on the shelves than the distributors. That’s not to say the distributors don’t have something to lose when beer goes stale, but if you’re repping 100 different brands, do you REALLY care if one of them sits on the shelf for too long?

    Obviously the buck stops with the store owner, but as you said Slouch, they’re working on pretty low profit margins and aren’t exactly making a killing. While they may have gotten into the business to spread the gospel of beer, the reality is that they can’t afford to dump old beer. Their best bet is hoping people will hear about that great “G’Knight” beer from Oskar Blues and buy a year-old case of it because they don’t know any better. It’s a win for the store owner even if it’s a loss for the consumer and brewer.

    So, as always, I guess I’m going to put this in the hands of the distributors. That’s where the money is in the beer game (they certainly have the deepest pockets when it comes to lobbying) and where there’s money, there’s power to change the status quo. As I said, I’d love to see the ridiculous three-tier system go the way of the dodo, but I recognize that local state legislatures would never dare to combat the powerful beverage wholesale lobby. So barring that change, I’d like to see the distributors start to address the problem of old stock. If only old beer turned into something useful like wine does with vinegar…

  3. Very disappointing. I’ve had this problem with craft beers; if they aren’t pasteurized, they need to be kept at a steady temperature to preserve taste. It’s a shame that good breweries get a bad rap bc stores or distributors don’t take proper care! Once I try something I don’t like, I know I’m unlikely to give it another shot!

  4. Also I hope you find your favorite beer in good condition soon!!

  5. I like what Great Lakes is doing right now. Their flagships like Dortmunder Gold (lager) and Edmund Fitzgerald (porter) hold up well on the shelves, and they have four hop bombs (Alchemy Hour DIPA, Rye of the Tiger RIPA, Nosferatu Imperial Red, and Lake Erie Monster IIPA) that are all good and people look for when they hit the shelves. When they’re gone, they’re gone with a new seasonal on the way soon.

  6. I’m with Barley – distribution is a problem. Store owners may care, but there’s two sides to this that don’t match up. Interest in freshness is most prominent with the brewer first, then store owner, then distributor, I guess. Responsibility works in the other direction.

    Sadly, it’s the customer who loses in this. The brewer has the greatest at stake, but it’s not left in their hands.

    I will say that the few times I’ve raised this issue directly with a brewery they’ve been very responsive for the exact reason raised in the post – the last thing any brewer wants is a drinkers first experience to be a bad one, especially when they do everything they can to make sure customers get the best damned product possible.

    1. Would it not make sense for brewers to put a ‘best before’ date on like we have over here in the UK? It would inform customers, would mean retailers would know if it’s going to be past its best, and would help to preserve the reputation of the brewer.

  7. Can’t disagree with anything there. I fear he issue of freshness (or lack thereof) will be a constant one and the emergence of more and more craft brewers won’t necessarily contribute to a solution. Ideally, all craft brewers would stamp bottling dates on their precious products so those of who do care enough to check can be reasonably assured that we’re tasting what the brewer intended (assuming proper transport & storage). Bottle shops have a big role here as well. It would be great if they could simply pull tired brews off the shelves but that’s not realistic. Most distributors won’t take them back anyway or otherwise credit their accounts so there’s not much of an incentive for them to insure that only fresh brews are displayed (not an immediate financial one anyway).

    In the end, its up to us to vote with our expectations.

    Cheers!

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