Seasonal Beer Guide: Part II

Even though my previous column was focused on Summer and Fall seasonal beers, I alluded to the fact that having more beer on the shelves is not necessarily always the best thing for consumers. Like any product, a gap between the information consumers have when making a purchase and the reality of the product they hope to enjoy can lead to disappointment. A bad beer can turn someone off entirely to a brewer or style, especially if expensive and over-hyped. This column will hopefully offer a few simple tips to keep in mind so that the next time you step out of your comfort zone and try something new, you won’t come away feeling shorted or burned.

Returning to the topic of a couple weeks ago, seasonal beers are wonderful for the way they provide fresh and timely flavor to the normal slate of options. However, these beers are seasonal in terms of both their flavor profiles and their “best-by” windows. Given how popular, and usually extremely profitable, a style like pumpkin ale is, brewers often invest a great deal of their production capacity in order to ensure that supply will be able to meet demand. This requires a substantial gamble because a brew kettle dedicated to one beer means less equipment is available for other big-ticket items and special releases, or even high-sale styles like IPAs.

In order to guarantee their beer is on shelves when the season, and tastes, start to change, many brewers have started to ignore the weather and calendar and have began putting seasonal beers on shelves long before most consumers would even have something like pumpkin on their radar. Consequently, as many of you may have already noted, “Fall” beers start showing up in late August or early September, which means that they were brewed sometime in June or July at the minimum.

That means if you decide to try a pumpkin beer for the first time in late November, a time that to you feels like true Fall, you may be buying what could be an expensive experiment that is far past its prime.

Beer is a living, organic product that, while somewhat tenacious compared to other food products, is not immortal. Most styles that are not explicitly designed for long term storage will begin to move away from optimal taste pretty much as soon as the beer is in the bottle. Given that many popular beers enjoy a high-rate of turnover, the six pack or 24-bottle sampler you decide to grab out for a cold case will most likely still taste okay.

However, this perfect scenario will not always apply, especially when purchasing single bottles. Many large grocery and liquor stores like Whole Foods, Wegman’s or even Total Wine (which has a location right over the border in DE) have joined in the increasingly popular trend of offering “mix six packs” or similar “pick single” deals, allowing a consumer to choose from a set of pre-chosen brands and styles according to their tastes and interest.

This is an unbelievable way for wary consumers to branch out and explore unfamiliar epicurean terrain — you may have heard great things about Dale’s Pale Ale, but the price of it in a four-pack may have steered you away in the past. I personally love to create my own six packs, and use any opportunity to try as many new beers as possible with the littlest possible investment, because nothing is worse than being stuck with five beers you utterly hate.

However beneficial this arrangement is for consumers, there are a few points to keep in mind. First of all, most companies only make certain beers, usually never their entire stock, available as singles in order to eliminate older stock or otherwise wasted inventory. If only one or two bottles in a six-pack are damaged in transit, it is generally illegal and frowned upon to attempt to sell the product as is — by breaking what would be otherwise a financial loss into single units, companies make money at the same time as giving consumers added freedom of choice.

Moreover, because beer is generally cheaper per ounce the greater the quantity purchased, you will actually be paying more for the same item in relative terms, though obviously with less of an absolute monetary investment. These stakes make getting the best bang for your buck even more important if you want to walk away without feeling cheated and upset after spending a premium amount on what you think should be a premium product.

The two most important things to keep in mind when assembling your theoretical pick-six are: the prominence of hops in a beer’s style and its total alcohol content.

Hop-forward styles like IPAs, Double IPAs or American Pale Ales derive their most charming and flavorful characteristics from the organic compounds found in the resinous oil of the hop flower.

These “alpha acids” provide bitterness and additional compounds contribute pine, citrus, grass or spice aromatic notes to the beer’s flavor profile.

Though IPAs, or India Pale Ales were originally designed to be hearty and spoilage-free for the long and hot journey from Britain to India (hence the name), that does not mean that the optimum flavor lasts as long as the beer itself may.

IPAs, due to the same volatile compounds that give them their flavor, are especially sensitive to long-term exposure to UV light. After long-term exposure, these resinous acids breakdown, producing the “skunk” flavor you might associate with Corona or Heineken, though it is often an unintended result of poor storage and not an artistic addition.

Contrary to many myths and second-hand information, temperature change will never cause a beer to become skunked — leaving a cold case in your trunk for a few hours will not result in adverse changes to flavor. A simple matter of science is likely the cause this myth; a beer kept out in the sun will inevitably be warmed up, but UV rays are the causal agent. That means a beer that has been out on a shelf or even in an artificially lit refrigerated case can be damaged. If there is light in the store the chance for skunking is there.

Moreover, even if the beer is undamaged, those looking explicitly for bitter and citrus-y IPAs will be disappointed if their choice is over two months old after bottling. Around two months after bottling, the intensity of flavor and bitterness with began to diminish, so an IPA from Wegman’s over six months old won’t be rancid, but it will be disappointing.

If the brewer is kind enough to provide a bottling date on the label or bottle itself, one can make a safe and confident choice whether or not a certain hop-forward beer is worth it.

Sometimes this information is provided in an extremely unhelpful multi-digit code. If presented with such a string of numbers, try a quick Google search, as oftentimes breweries will give translations into actual dates on their websites.

If no bottling date is in sight, it’s best to skip that IPA you had your eye on unless you enjoy the thrill of a gamble.

Returning to the second point, beers that contain a high percentage of alcohol by volume, generally anything over seven or eight, can last for years under proper conditions and may even benefit from some time on a shelf. Ignoring Imperial IPAs, many malt-heavy beers — porters, stouts, dopplebocks, barleywines — or anything that contains yeast in the bottle (including most things Belgian) fall into this ABV category. If these beers are to your liking, or if your interested in experimenting with something new, feel free to choose these offerings without fear.

With the right luck, you might even be able to pick up dusty old bottle of something like Dogfish Head World Wide Stout (clocking in at 18%) for a discount and pre-aged if the retailer doesn’t realize what is on their shelf.

Remember, craft beer is all about empowering the consumer, and the freedom of choice is paramount to that ethos. Just keep these small points in mind to ensure that your choices will end with a happy drinking experience.

Cheers and happy drinking!

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