Best before dates on New Zealand beer are applied so inconsistently that we’d probably be better off without them.
A couple of month’s back I asked a group of New Zealand brewers about their BB dating practices.
This was triggered by Geoff Griggs’ commentary on beer quality, combined with some discussions on BB dates for US beers exported to Australia, including one article titled 'Nine month Best Before dates "ridiculous" says Beer Professor'.
The brewers’ responses were varied. Some use a flat 12-month BB date on everything that leaves the brewery. Some vary the dating depending on beer style and alcohol content. Some even vary their dating from batch to batch depending on the dissolved oxygen recorded at bottling/canning.
BB dates are not compulsory. According to Food Standards Australia New Zealand, “Date marks give a guide to how long food can be kept before it begins to deteriorate or may become unsafe to eat.”
Use-by dates are for “foods that must be eaten before a certain time for health or safety reasons”. Foods that can last for two years or more – e.g. wine – don’t need any dates at all. In between, there’s best-before dates, for foods that “should be safe but they may have lost some quality.”
The frustrating irony is that the current beer BB practices neither protect us from unsafe beer, or provide an indication of quality. Beer that is past its BB date will not cause you any harm. And plenty of beers are well past their best at their BB date, especially if they’ve been handled carelessly in packaging and storage.
“Beer is well known to be resistant to pathogenic growth due to pH, alcohol and hop constituents, so it will pretty-much never make you ill no matter how long it sits around. So from a pure food safety perspective, you could put two years on it as long as the container won’t explode”, says Sawmill’s Sam Williamson.
“Most customers demand three months (some customers more) shelf-life from when they receive it, and you’d hope to sell every beer from the brewery within three months. Which means six months would be a minimum practically. Then who knows how long the consumer will leave it before drinking it! We put a year on so that it’s easy to recall the packaging date and this speeds up traceability. In saying that we try to package only enough to sell within two months, and store chilled.”
Twelve months has become a default BB date here in New Zealand. Weezledog’s Mark Jackman points out that a shorter date just makes his beer look old. “We use 12 months as this seems to be the industry standard for the most part. I look at best before dates before purchasing a beer and so a shorter best before could make me think that a beer is much older than it is.”
Other brewers tailor BB dates to suit different beer styles.
Mike’s Brewing’s Ron Trigg: “Lighter coloured bottled beers six months. Dark bottled beers nine months to 12 months normally, dependent on ABV. Barrel aged Whisky Porter at 10.5% ABV – we have put 10 years on these in the past.”
Kereru’s Chris Mills: “For beers below 7.3% we apply a standard 12 months. For beers over 7.3% that aren't barrel-aged we apply a three years best before date, and we apply a five years best before for our barrel aged beers.”
North End’s Kieran Haslett-Moore: “We have three categories: Core range/low strength/hop forward gets six months; strong/Belgian yeast in pack/high acid gets one year; and high alcohol/mixed fermentation/barrel/spontaneous is vintage dated.”
Yeastie Boys’ Stu McKinlay: “+ 12 months for anything under 6%. + 18 months for Pot Kettle Black and Gunnamatta. + 3 years for Rex Attitude and xeRRex. It varies for seasonals, based on what the recipe is like, but it will generally follow the same kind of rules. We've gone out as far as five years. No BB dates on His/Her Majesty or any other vintage beers we do. We design all of these to age well, even the couple of IPAs we've done (which were very heavily kettle/whirlpool hopped rather than dry hopped, in the traditional style).”
McLeod's Jason Bathgate: “SIx months for all beers. If we know that we have had higher then normal levels of oxygen during packing, we will shorten it even more. Barrel aged and sours, no expiry.”
Even within a single style, expecting a single BB date to apply to all beer is unrealistic. Some brewers pasteurise everything, while others are putting out beers that are unpasteurised and unfiltered.
Liberty takes a flexible approach, and adjusts its BB dates for each batch. “When you’re talking about best before dates, you’re talking about oxidation”, says Joe Wood. “Basically what it comes down to is how much oxygen did you put in the beer during the process on its way and into the bottle. Some beers can tolerate a bit of oxygen, and some can’t. It’s my job to know what beers can handle it and which ones don’t. But you just don’t want oxygen in there in the first place. I break down our total measured oxygen pickup (TPO: Total Packaged Oxygen) into BB dates. Anything less than 25ppb I can comfortably put 12 months on the bottle. 50ppb or less with be 9 months. 75ppb would be 3 - 6 months (but we don’t get that high). Keep in mind that with a standard crown enclosure, the oxygen ingress at 10 degrees is 10ppb per month in storage.”
Ah, storage! The vagaries of storage and handling have a huge effect on beer quality.
“We always have a BB period of one year. We stand behind that period, provided that the beer is kept refrigerated”, says Deep Creek’s Sarah MacLachlan. “Although some beers such as the sour ranges can better withstand the warmer temperatures, unlike the hoppier beers which certainly must be kept chilled, we still require that all of our beer is kept chilled as it is unpasteurised.”
Several brewers reported frustrations with the lack of control over keeping their products chilled, both in transport, and, especially, in stores.
Food Standards states “If specific storage conditions are required in order for a product to keep until its best before or use by date, suppliers must include this information on the label, e.g. ‘This yoghurt should be kept refrigerated’.
So if brewers are setting BB dates on the assumption the beer is stored chilled, then the label must say so. But there doesn’t seem to be any requirement for retailers to follow these recommendations. It’s very common to find beer labelled ‘keep chilled’ sitting around at room temperature.
While retailers are quite happy to transport, store and display beer at room temperature, they also expect brewers to use longer BB dates that assume the beer’s been kept cold. This is an obvious double standard that treats the product and the customer with disrespect.
What’s the solution?
I’d like to see Packaged-On dates stamped onto battles/cans, with a recommendation on the label that “This beer is good for X months after this date if kept chilled”. Beers capable of aging don’t need any BB dates, in the same way wine isn’t required to have them by regulators or retailers.
And most of all, I’d like to see a requirement that any product labelled “Please keep chilled” must be kept chilled in transport and display. It’s what Food Safety assumes, it’s what the brewer wants, and it’s what the customer deserves.