Article By: Lew Bryson
Those words top J. Howard Miller’s iconic World War II poster featuring a serious “Rosie the Riveter” rolling up her sleeves to get to work on war production. The poster originally done for Westinghouse in early 1942 and then reproduced across the country, captured what was needed to win the war: co-operation and sacrifice, and an acknowledgment of the importance of every link in the chain that led to the rifleman at the front line. Rosie the Riveter, and that “We Can Do It!” attitude, inspired Americans to do what needed to be done.
Beer freshness needs its Rosie - that iconic image to symbolize the importance of keeping beer as fresh as possible through every link in the supply chain: brewer/importer, wholesaler, retailer, and consumer. “Freshness is one of the most critical elements affecting the taste of beer and its drinkability,” stated John Serbia, Vice-President of Brewing for Anheuser-Busch. Serbia and A-B have done a lot for selling that concept, of course – the A-B “Born-On” dates have introduced the idea of fresh beer to millions in the broad mainstream of American beer drinkers since the company started the program in September of 1996.
If A-B brought the idea and necessity of beer freshness to the mainstream consumer, Jim Koch and Boston Beer made it an issue in the craft beer marketplace by making it public knowledge. “When I first started making Samuel Adams back in 1984,” Koch recalled, “everyone was notching labels or printing dates in some unreadable code. Then one day the light came on: why don’t I want the consumer to know this? If there’s an old bottle on the shelf, what do I want to happen? I don’t want the consumer to buy it! We started doing readable dates, freshness dating, back in 1987, or maybe 1988.”
So Fresh, You Should Slap It If you’ve been reading my beer stuff here for a while, you may remember a piece I did about eight years ago on how good beer goes bad. Most beer is depressingly vulnerable and delicate compared to wine and spirits. It goes skunky in sunlight (or under the fluorescent tubes in a cooler), it stales quickly if it gets hot, and even under optimum conditions, most beers will not stay at their peak flavor for too long.
“Assuming the beer’s not stored under unreasonable conditions, at what point would I not want a consumer to drink it?”, Koch mused. “A good beer stays at that peak for about four to five months. Until then, it tastes good. After that . . . it’s like listening to music on cheap speakers. A six-month old Samuel Adams Boston Lager is still Samuel Adams, it’s immediately recognizable, but . . . like listening to Beethoven’s Ninth on $2 speakers, it’s not as great an experience.”
Still, that delicacy is not necessarily all bad. It’s a positive, if you look at it from the right angle: it shows beer’s subtlety of flavor and relationship to food. “Brewmasters around the world will tell you the fresher the beer, the better the taste,” Serbia said. “This is because beer is a food product, made of all-natural ingredients, and just like food, beer is a perishable product. At Anheuser-Busch we work hard to ensure our consumers receive the freshest beer available.”
They do, too. Anheuser-Busch is the gold standard on freshness, and has been for decades. That’s not to say other big brewers don’t care; they do, and most have responded to A-B’s freshness campaign by improving their own supply chain, a benefit to everyone. But A-B is legendary.
They were the first brewery in America to use refrigerated railcars to ship their beer, for instance, and plowed a ton of money into building breweries across the country to cut down regional delivery time (and continue to spend tons of money making sure the beers coming out of those breweries all tastes the same). “With our twelve regional breweries and network of more than 7OO wholesalers, we are able to cut down on delivery time and ensure that fresh beer is in retail accounts shortly after it’s packaged,” said Serbia.
“Quality control is also at the forefront at the wholesaler level,” he added. “Our wholesalers adhere to strict inventory and product rotation guidelines, using temperature-controlled warehouses and a first-in, first-out inventory system at retail. They will pull beer off the shelf that has passed the freshness code.”
They don’t just pull Bud Light, either. I was told (by a wholesaler who asked to remain anonymous) that policy in an A-B wholesaler is usually to check codes equally as sharply on all the beers in their portfolio, regardless of who brewed them.
Cutting Down On Stale Beer Freshness dating is, of course, required on milk, and most supermarkets date fresh meat and fish. All these products, and others, are clearly marked, often with a packaging date and a “Best By” or “Sell By” date. But freshness dating is voluntary on beer, and readable freshness dating is a step beyond that. Traditionally, freshness dates, or “pull dates”, were not easily deciphered: beer that was “out of code” was just that, the coded freshness date had been passed and the beer should be pulled from the shelves and the system.
One of the first systems was the “notch code”. Labels had notches on them, and wholesalers used a low-tech “reader” to get the pull date. “The notch codes required five or six cuts,” Koch explained. The block of labels that would be used that day would be notched with a saw and put in the labeler.
Once the beer was in the field, wholesalers could decode the date. “There was a card you’d lay against the label,” Koch said. “There was an area with the date, an area with the month, and one with the year, and the notches would line up with numbers on the card.” If the beer was out of code, the wholesaler would pull it.
In theory, that is. The problem with this was that every brewer had their own code, and it only got worse when they started printing it instead of notching. There were Julian dates, letter codes, “padding” numbers that didn’t mean anything. “With all these different codes, and there were probably close to 1OO of them,” Koch said, “the wholesaler had an impossible job keeping tabs on what’s fresh. ‘Look,’ he’d say, ‘if a brewer’s not going to put it in plain English, I’m not going to learn 1OO different codes. I’m just going to ignore it.’ You’ve got to make it easy for everybody.”
Most large brewers, though, continue to use deliberately obscure date codes. Every now and then someone in the media discovers this and writes a shocked piece about it and gives away the codes to major brands – the wall street journal just ran one of these about three years ago – and there are echo stories for a few weeks . . . and then things go back to normal.
Koch just doesn’t get that. “When I put readable freshness dates on my beer, the other brewers thought I was a traitor,” he said. “When you put readable dates on bottles, you’re giving up what? Your ability to sell stale beer to unsuspecting consumers! People have had a lot of reasons why a brewery doesn’t need to allow a consumer to know if the beer is fresh, and they’re all bogus.”
The cost of actually putting the dates on the bottles is perhaps the most bogus reason, Koch said. “Doing it is very easy,” he laughed. “When we first did it, we did it with a table saw. It was that easy. You’re printing the labels anyway; we just printed the year on the label, and notched the month with the saw. You can do it for about the cost of a neon sign. There’s nobody who can’t afford it when you do it in such a simple way.”
The real costs come when the stale beer comes back. “We budget about 1% of sales for the freshness program: shipping, pulling and destruction,” Koch said. You can’t just dump cases of beer into a landfill or crush them over a drain. Beer has to be disposed of in a way that’s environmentally responsible and that keeps drinkable – if stale – beer out of the hands of consumers, particularly underage ones.
“It’s expensive,” Koch admitted, “but I think of freshness as an ingredient, and you just budget for it. You’re not going to use bad hops, you’re not going to use bad freshness. You’ve got to be serious about it. If the wholesaler and retailer don’t think you care, they won’t care.”
It’s Not About Blame Weird things happen when people don’t care, too. Koch explained the “dumping ground” practice he’d come across in the past. “I called it ‘hide the beer’.” he said, with a wry chuckle. “I’d go into a wholesale account to do some ride-alongs, and I’d say, ‘Let’s go out here and stop at every place that sells beer, all of them.’ And somewhere along the line, you’d walk into these accounts that aren’t in areas that sold much Sam Adams, and lo and behold, here’s a 5O-case stack of Sam Adams, and they’re selling it below cost. The wholesaler had a lot of old beer, and they dumped it somewhere they thought I’d never go. Everyone has a place where they dump beer.”
That’s when Koch made a regular practice of splitting the cost of pulled beer with the wholesaler. “We will split 5O/5O the cost of old beer with the wholesaler,” he said. “We’ll pay them 5O% on it, and we’ll take it out and destroy it. It’s not fair to make the wholesaler pay for all of it; if there’s old beer in the market, about half the time it’s the brewer’s fault. There’s a lot of reasons, and a lot of them are coming from the brewer.”
Some of the problem is selling practices. Retailers are tempted to take more beer than they can actually sell because of a volume discount, or the wholesaler or brewery rep might push a seasonal too hard, and sometimes, Koch admitted, “The beer just doesn’t sell much.”
It’s a balancing act. I talked to one wholesaler (who preferred to remain anonymous on this touchy subject) who admitted that freshness made building a brand more difficult. “The more you sell, the more exposure you get,” he said, “and if there’s a lot piled up, you sell more because more people notice it. But then if you buy more, too much, you get old beer. We encourage our customers to buy the proper amount of beer, not overbuy.”
Ned LaFortune, at Wachusett Brewing in Westminster, had good words about his wholesalers’ record on pulling stale beer. “L. Knife is ironclad about that,” he said. “They don’t stand for it; they pull it and they’re destroying beer all the time. To be honest, I’m not hearing a lot about out-of -code beer, because we’re getting good sell-through, and the wholesalers are doing a great job on making sure retailers don’t over-order.”
Different Roads To Fresh City Sell-through is one great way to keep beer fresh, and bottle-dating is a great way to keep tabs on it once it’s out there. But there are other things that keep the beer fresh, things that get done before it ever gets on the truck.
A-B’s Serbia talked about the technological advances the brewery’s made. “In recent years,” he said, “our brewery team has made significant improvements in both the brewing and packaging processes that have resulted in our beers leaving the brewery at the peak of freshness, and then maintaining that freshness much longer than in the past. These improvements have focused on reducing the amount of oxygen in our beers through tighter process controls, new fillers on packaging lines and new bottle crowns.”
Craft brewers have improved the freshness and stability of their beer immensely over the past ten years. Unfortunately, that’s because so many of them had so far to go. “The micros weren’t that good to begin with, a lot of them,” said my anonymous wholesaler of the situation in the mid-199Os, “and they broke down quickly on the shelf. That’s improved a lot, the beers are much more stable than they used to be. Also, we’re dealing with a lot of crafts with higher alcohol now, and that has a longer shelf life. That helps.”
Retailers can help freshness by checking dates and codes themselves, of course. My local retailer tries to check dates as beer arrives. I’ve seen him dancing around stacks of incoming cases while they’re being rolled into the store, checking dates and codes, and I’ve seen him refuse delivery of beer that was either already out of code or too close to the freshness date.
If the beer’s close to code, and there’s a retailer that’s moving large volumes of that brand, the wholesaler may switch out beer from one retailer and move it to the high-volume retailer. After all, as Koch said, “There’s a significant difference between fresh beer and stale beer, like there’s a difference between day and night. But just like that, there’s twilight, where you might think it’s night, and I think it’s day. Freshness dating is not like turning out the lights. It doesn’t turn undrinkable on midnight of a certain day.”
One of the most important and easiest things retailers can do for beer freshness is to keep proper rotation. First-in, first-out should be the mantra, and it’s something that has to be hammered home to every clerk and part-timer. If the newest beer is always put in the front, the stuff in the back is just waiting for a rush on the brand to become a nightmare.
The link that everyone forgets – sometimes consciously – is the consumer. That’s who Serbia and Koch are reaching out to, and employing in their efforts to keep beer fresh.
“If consumers were more insistent on freshness,” Koch insisted, “brewers would have to pay more attention to it. A consumer might want to buy their beer from a brewer who cares enough about the consumer to let them know when the beer’s fresh. If a brewer wants to sell a consumer stale beer without the consumer knowing it, the consumer might ask themselves if they want to buy that. The consumer should look for a readable, usable freshness date.”
The consumer is the link in the chain that really needs that “We Can Do It!” encouragement. I know I always check seafood “Best By” dates when I buy it in the supermarket, but I’ll admit I don’t always check beer dates, and I’ve been burned sometimes.
That’s what inspired this article. My brother-in-law unwittingly bought an out-of-code case of beer that was foamy and sour (not what you’re looking for in a dark lager). When we contacted the brewery, they were chagrined to admit that the beer was over two-years-old, packaged before they added an inkjet dater to their bottling line. Both the retailer and the brewer offered to refund the full purchase price, with apologies.
That’s the kind of reaction that makes people willing to try again. If consumers start to look for dates on beer instead of codes, and learn to look every time, we’ll have an unpaid army of freshness inspectors. That might frighten some in the industry, but not Koch.
“Freshness is an important element of beer quality,” he said, “and the more pressure there is on everyone to open it up, the better off everyone will be: everyone will drink more beer. It’s a blessing!”
Fresher beer in every link of the chain, from brewer to wholesaler to retailer to consumer. In a tightening economy, where every sale is important, keeping the quality of your product high becomes even more crucial.