The American beer business has entered a dynamic era. A short time ago—1978 to be exact—there were only 89 breweries producing beer in the U.S. Today there are more than 2,500 breweries making some of the most creative and full-flavored beers this country has ever consumed. The dramatic shifts in the beer business require craft brewers, beer distributors, retailers and beer drinkers to reevaluate how craft beer is stored and transported. Beer is a perishable product and craft brewers do their best to ensure that the product is in the most optimal condition upon release from the brewery. From that point on, everyone who touches the beer needs to do their part.
The Flavor Life of Craft Beer
Most of beers' flavor begins to deteriorate from the instant it leaves the brewery. The chemistry is extremely complex, but there are two general strategies to help slow down the rate of flavor change.
- The first approach is to minimize the oxygen level in beer during packaging at the brewery. Homebrewers and any brewers who referment/bottle condition their beers have a slight edge on preserving the fresh quality of their beer. Live yeast scavenge
- The second strategy is to maintain the beer at as cold a temperature as possible without freezing it. Heat has a profound impact on chemical reactions. A reaction will go two to three times faster for every 18°F (10°C) increase in temperature. Put into the context of flavor life, a beer that will last 3 months at "classic" room temperature 68°F (20°C) will last only 1 month at 86°F (30°C).
Cold storage is a cornerstone of any quality program. A brewery’s highest priority is to maintain product quality during distribution, at retail/stores/restaurants, etc. and helping beer drinkers maintain quality at home. Yes even ales should be stored as cold as possible to maintain freshness. Bringing them back up to your favorite ale serving temperature will bring back the flavor experience. Back and forth temperature fluctuations can damage the freshness and other qualities of beer.
The Brewers Association (BA) recommends the following parameters for beer storage and shipping:
• Draught between 33 and 40°F
• Package between 33 and 49°F
Importance of Cold Temperature Storage (below 50°F)
Craft breweries strive to help distributors, retailers and beer drinkers ensure that craft beer’s flavor stability is maintain. Craft beer has greater malt and hop character, in addition to many flavor nuances not found in lighter styles. Fresh, consistent beer expresses the complexities that beer drinkers expect. Distributors, retailers and beer drinkers can improve their experience and relationship to quality beer by keeping all craft beer refrigerated according to specifications. Cold storage and shipping temperatures preserve the taste qualities of all beer, but it is even more important with full-flavored craft beers which are not usually flashed or tunnel pasteurized.
Detriments of Warm Temperature Storage (above 50°F)
The staling process is a series of organic chemical reactions that compromise desired flavor associated with fresh beer. Staling is a function of time and temperature. Warm temperatures promote staling reactions and increase the rate at which it occurs. Cold temperatures protect beer from staling by retarding the reaction. Beers with pronounced malt and hop character suffer most from warm storage. Desirable flavors decrease, and negative flavors begin to manifest, namely cooked cereal and sherry-like notes. Compared to beers stored in accordance with the Brewers Association recommendations, beer stored at 68°F, will have roughly half the shelf life. If stored at 86°F, flavor will be noticeably degraded in a couple weeks.
Beer Distributors, Retailers and You
Beer is usually stored at a retail location for a week or less, while it can be stored for up to a month in a distributor’s warehouse. There is usually less control of beer environment at retail storage temperatures. Since beer spends more time at the warehouse, it is more imperative that it is stored cold there. As a beer drinker who has just bought the perfect craft beer, placing beer in a very warm or hot environment, even for short periods, can have devastating effect on quality. Store your beer in a fridge or the coolest place in your home. If you don’t have access to a cool environment, it is probably not a good idea to stockpile any beer in quantities that you can’t enjoy within a week or less.
There are understandable challenges faced at the retail level. Trying to design and integrate a quality-minded presentation that gives the consumer variety while promoting beer is a challenge. Keeping the themes of quality and freshness at top of mind at all levels: distribution, retail and consumer. Craft beer is enjoying an era of consumer discovery and appreciation. Homebrewers and beer enthusiasts are the vanguards of the craft beer excitement. The better we handle our cherished beers the more our beer experience will be improved. No matter who makes the beer, we all want to see craft beer succeed. At the same time, placing an IPAs on the warm shelf, in direct sunlight in the delivery alley or in the trunk of your car is not the long-term answer.