Late February is not the best time of year to live in the northeastern United States. Days are brutish and short. Weather conditions fluctuate wildly; winter storms Magnus and Nemo rain terror upon the morning commuters. You must shovel, and salt. Football is over for five months. Joe Flacco and Ray Lewis are national heroes. Dark times, indeed.
But all is not lost, for you are a beer drinker! February means Hopslam. It means Nugget Nectar and Palate Wrecker. It means bushels of Nugget, Simcoe, Citra, and Columbus packed into this year’s iterations of highly anticipated seasonal offerings from the nation’s best breweries. Depending where you live, these beers are snatched up by thirsty consumers within a few weeks, and often the very same day they are unloaded from the distributor’s truck. On the far coast, Vinnie and Natalie from Russian River feted by the California state legislature beneath the banner: Welcome! Pliny the Younger; hopped, fermented sugar water transcends beverage to become celebrated American institution!
It’s no secret that the utilization of flavor and aroma hops fuel the craft beer explosion in the US. According to RateBeer, nearly 1 of every 10 new beers introduced in 2012 was IPA. And why not? As a beer consumer, once you’ve acquired the taste, a hopbomb always sounds good. I’ve convinced myself that IPA is the ideal beer style to pair with sushi, Mexican food, and barbecue. Is this because the citric/ floral/ coniferous flavors match objectively with raw fish or rice and beans? Naw, I’ve just rationalized a way to enjoy my favorite beers with my favorite foods. I’m an inveterate hophead.
But once you’ve contracted the hoplust, you have a problem on your hands. When the largest grocer in Pittsburgh, Giant Eagle, finally circumvented draconian PA liquor laws through licensing and began to sell beer in stores, I was elated. GE entering the beer market presented Pennsylvania consumers with an economic option between distributors which sold affordable beer but only by the case, and the specialty bottle shops which sold singles and six-packs at dramatically inflated prices. So Giant Eagle’s prices were good, and the selection was surprisingly excellent. But a few years into the experiment, I’ve noticed a disappointing trend- a lot of old beer sitting on the shelves. And a lot of these are IPA’s.
Let’s consider Founder’s Brewing, an Aleheads staple. No argument, one of the top breweries in the world and a personal favorite of mine. Everything they make is solid. Much of it is best-in-style. Some of it approaches the sublime. Giant Eagle purchases a sizable chunk of the Founder’s beers coming into Pittsburgh. The seasonal/ specialties like Fresh-hopped Ale, Backwoods Bastard, and Breakfast Stout fly off the shelves. KBS is always gone the same day- likewise the large format crazy stuff like Bolt Cutter, CBS, etc. Which is great. Pay attention to their release schedule and you have a decent shot of getting these beers at a fair price without waiting in line or paying a heavy premium at a specialty bottleshop.
Unfortunately to get all these rarities, Giant Eagle also buys a lot of Founders year-round beers. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Centennial IPA. When fresh, it stands with any IPA in the country. Their Dry-hopped Pale Ale is a delicate, delicious beer- but it needs to be consumed right away. As the hop oils begin to degrade, a variety of off-flavors emerge. To me, a lot of past-it pale ales take on a cloying orange marmalade taste. Not good.
It’s not as big a deal when we’re talking about their Porter. I’d take Dirty Bastard with me into a zombie shelter and happily drink it for months. The shelf life on these is much longer, the effects of hop degradation less damaging. But the hoppy pale ales drop off a cliff after sitting too long, often not refrigerated.
I don’t mean to pick on Founders. I see it with every brewery. Store shelves also have in-state Victory Hop Wallop and Troeg’s Hop Back Amber well past their best. Twenty dollar six-packs of Ballast Point Sculpin, arguably the best IPA out there, sit for months. They have New Holland Hopivore and $25 bottles of Nebraska Hop God that I swear have been there since the beer section opened. Once it’s gone bad, the beer geeks won’t touch it. So who buys it? Maybe someone who just getting into good beer reading about Sculpin on Ratebeer and overpays for a tremendous letdown, possibly souring them on craft beer or that particular brewery forever. Who should make the call when a beer needs to be pulled? And who eats the cost?
It’s a problem of which Founder’s seems aware, and I applaud their decision to move Red’s Rye Pale Ale to a seasonal, rather than year-round. When fresh, it’s a lovely beer. But once bottled, the clock is ticking… next time I see it on the shelves in its new incarnation as 4-pack seasonl specialty, I will pick it up, take it home, and drink it immediately. I don’t have to walk past it anymore and watch a great beer get further from it’s glorious prime with each passing week.
Again, Founder’s, Victory, Troeg’s are some of our very best breweries. But by my (admittedly anecdotal) observations, they have major problems moving enough of their flagship pale ales that I can be assured of getting a fresh beer off the shelf at retailers. I’ve seen the same phenomenon in specialty bottle shops as well. The hyped seasonals go fast, the familiar standards sit. I’ve been burned too many times, and these days I won’t even take the chance on an IPA without a bottled-on date. What chance do the plethora of new year-round IPA’s from upstart breweries stand when even tested, tried brands can’t move product amid the insane variety and competition? People love to talk about the craft beer bubble, and this is a quality control issue that I see as a real threat to the continued growth of the industry.
I suspect the market will help resolve this issue over the long haul. Advances in distribution technology will help as consumers begin to demand that delicate hopped ales be kept cold end-to-end. Bottled-on dates or QR batch codes will become industry standard. The Stone Enjoy By campaign has shown a light on the issue, and proven consumers will pay for quality and freshness. And there are exceptions- Bell’s Two Hearted is very popular here and I’ve yet to see it expired.
My solution has been increasingly to support my local brewer. Is East End Big Hop or Helltown Insidious “Better” than the highly-rated Sculpin? I don’t know, but I sure prefer it from my growler a couple weeks out of the tank, rather than bottled and shipped thousands of miles. Don’t get me wrong- the week we get Hopslam in February is a highlight of a dark and dismal month, but my local breweries keep me in good suds the rest of the year.
Any other hop heads out there been burned by IPA’s past their prime? Or am I just getting too picky in my old age? Let me know if this is a problem where you live.