Bottled On vs. Best Before

As a follow up to my post on beer expiry, it got me thinking about a lack of industry standards as to how to communicate the freshness of a beer.

Some beers will put a clear best before date, some will put the bottling date, some will use a convoluted date coding system you need a website to decode, and finally, some use nothing at all.

The first one is pretty self-explanatory, or is it? By using a Best Before date, the brewery is saying that based on their estimates that are based on some facts they know about the beer, that it should taste fine until that date, and afterwards, it isn’t something they would want to see on the shelf, since it isn’t to their standards.

Unfortunately, this option leaves little room for judgment. Similar to milk on a grocery store shelf, as it gets close to that date, you’re less likely to want it. Once that date is passed, good luck convincing anyone to buy it. In some ways, this can shoot the brewer in the foot, as distribution channels sometimes end up providing stores with short dated products due to distance and popularity. Stores should be looking for this and refusing close-dated shipments, but they won’t always.

Bottled On dates are my favourite option. This tells me the most relevant information about the beer. If it’s an 8% ABV with high malt character, I know I can stray much further from that date before drinking it and still have a decent, or at the very least eye-opening experience. If it’s a fresh hopped beer at 5%, that one is getting poured at the first opportunity.

As I heard a local brewer who uses Bottled On dates once say: “We know our customers aren’t dumb, they can figure it out themselves.” This sentiment is perfect, and while it might mean a little more guesswork for retailers, this is where their expertise should show. If you’re seeing old beer with bottled on dates that shouldn’t be on the shelf, this is a reflection on how invested the staff of that liquor store is.

Date codes are probably the most annoying, as you can never tell if it was a Bottled On date, Best Before date, lot code, or batch identifier. Deciphering these can range from as simple as a few seconds of doing the alphabet in your head to minutes of actually calling the brewery to find out what the code means and when the beer is going to be good until.

I’ve never really understood why companies choose this route, other than potentially confusing their customers so they can’t tell if the product has gone bad or not. It seems to stem from older management styles and systems, so we can only hope that companies adapt away from this.

Finally, the one that to me is inexcusable. Not having a date on your beer is on par with selling bread without a date, but also putting it in a sealed brown paper bag so you can’t see if the bread has gone bad or not. To me, this is when a brewery is telling me that they care more about the dollars they can make than than the freshness of their beer.

A store is unlikely to pull a beer with no date on it, since they can say they don’t know if it’s past a reasonable selling timeframe. A pub will still serve it to their customer, since they see no reason not to sell it.

Essentially, date your beer, and date it in a way that will make sense to everyone involved. When you do so, you show respect for your customer, for your retailers, and most importantly, the beer.

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