This article is intended to give Australian and New Zealand brewers advice to adequately date code their beer. You should conduct your own research to see what works best for your product and ensure you comply with relevant food standards in your part of the world.
There’s often much internet discussion about beers not presenting well and a consumer having a poor experience.
Often, this is the result of a consumer purchasing old and not-so-fresh product.
Savvy consumers know that they should check for a date code on a product to best determine the age and therefore the freshness of the beer they are drinking.
But what is the best information regarding the date code on your product to give your consumer the best possible experience?
And how can we as brewers end the black magic fuckery that is misinforming our consumers?
New Craft Beer Consumers Lack Knowledge About Beer’s Shelf Life
As craft brewers, we always welcome new drinkers into the craft beer scene.
More often than not, those new consumers have left their old world of macro-lager behind and are seeking new and interesting beer experiences.
However, many new craft beer consumers don’t know that beer – and especially craft beer – is a perishable product.
Why is this?
Macro-lager has been processed, filtered and pasteurised to ensure maximum shelf life in the harshest of conditions.
It is microbially stable (to prevent gushing) and extremely low in dissolved oxygen (to prevent ageing/staling).
Heck, you don’t even need to refrigerate macro-lager and it will stay mostly good for a very long period of time!
Macro brewers have very talented lab and quality teams as well as very expensive equipment to ensure good shelf life.
Macro lager is essentially the UHT milk of the beer world….sure, it lasts ages, but it’s effectively dead inside.
Because of this, many macro-lager drinkers rightfully assume that ALL beer has a long shelf life of at least 12 months but usually longer.
They also think that beer is as tough as nails and can undergo the harshest of conditions.
It does not – and they are not aware that beer, and in particular craft beer, is fragile and very, very perishable.
This is where the problem in the craft beer world begins.
Does My Beer Need a Date Code?
In Australia and New Zealand, we share the same (with a few country-specific differences) Food Standards Code of Practice.
My research has determined that beer does not require a date code – either a “use by” or “best before” date.
This is mainly because of a loop hole in that under the code, the onus is on the manufacturer to determine the use-by or best-before date.
In beer with it’s alcohol content acting as a preservative and anti-pathogen, it could reasonably be determined by the brewer that the shelf life of the product is greater than 2 years.
Foods with a shelf life of greater than 2 years (with the exception of baby formula) do not require a date code.
Thus, beer sold in Australia and New Zealand do not require a date code, if the brewer chooses.
What Do You Mean You DON’T Date Code?
Starting a brewery is difficult and expensive af.
In the design or build phase, it’s common that funds are directed to the production or “making” of the beer.
Also – many small breweries enter the market largely as “production” or “packaging” breweries – mainly because the lack the location to become a brewpub and generate more revenue that way.
So take the rose coloured glasses off for a second – if you go down the path of a production brewer, you are a food manufacturer.
So you better act like one.
Not date coding product is disrespectful to your consumers who spend their hard-earned on your beer.
This is because you are failing to provide your consumer with the information required to make an informed decision about the freshness of your product.
Additionally, as a brewer, not date coding product is foolish.
What if a problem occurs with your product out in the field?
Maybe you have chipped glass which poses a risk to consumers? Or it’s just a batch that’s gone bad and you need to recall the product from the market.
If you have many batches of the same product out there “in the field”, how do you distinguish between the good batches and the bad one?
Do you recall all the product from all the batches?
That sounds expensive and can severely damage your brand.
When I’m in consumer mode, I tend to stay away from product that does not have a date code. Who knows how old it is!?
So ffs, it’s 2018 and it’s time you date coded all packaged product.
Best Practice For Date Coding Bottle and Can Carton Outers
If you’re a packaging/production brewer, you need to think about how your product gets to your customers and ultimately to your consumers.
You’ll ship your bottled or canned beer in cartons on pallets from the brewery usually to an intermediary warehouse or Third Party Logistics (3PL) company.
Your 3PL will then deliver your product to your customers.
Your warehouse staff and your 3PL must be suitably educated to ensure good stock rotation.
That means First-In First-Out or FIFO stock rotation.
Thus, your carton outers for your bottled or canned product should be date coded in such a way so as to assist warehouse staff to quickly determine at a glance which is the oldest stock that should leave the warehouse first.
Because the last thing you want is for older stock to be left sitting in your warehouse going stale while your new stock is being shipped out to customers.
Best Practice For Date Coding Bottles and Cans
The thing about bottles and cans (aka small pack) is that even though your brewery may wholesale the product to your customers (i.e. bottle shops, bars, restaurants etc), the pack format itself allows you to speak direct to your consumer.
That’s why you spent all that money designing labels.
If you sell into some of the major chains such as Uncle Dan’s, they will require you to have a best before date printed on each bottle or can. Typically, they request a minimum of 9 months.
But a best before date alone doesn’t tell your consumer how fresh the product is and it doesn’t let them make an informed decision.
So if you’re speaking direct with your consumer, how do you best communicate the freshness of your product?
You use a “packed on” date.
A packed on date allows your consumer to decide if the product is fresh enough for them to drink.
There is nothing in the FSANZ code that prevents you from using a packed on date for beer.
It assumes that you’ve still specified a greater-than-two-years best before and therefore you have opted not to put a best before date on your product.
And if you find yourself selling beer to the major chains, use both best before and packed on dates!
In fact – why not do both anyways
Best Practice For Date Coding Kegs
Now – kegs differ to bottles and cans because you’re “labelling” on each keg never passes before the eyes of the consumer.
Only the publican and his/her staff will ever see any date code you put on your product.
Unless you’re Carlton Draught with their “brewery fresh” dates on tap decals, which is cool and all but it still won’t persuade me to drink Carlton Draught.
So how do you tell that publican to tap that keg fresh?
Kegstipation is where you sell a keg to a venue and then it sits in their store room or cool room in the corner for a long time – often forgotten about – while it slowly ages.
Kegstipation can also happen when a venue scores a keg of super-rare IPA only for them to hold on to it for a special occasion or event.
Why a venue would age IPA is beyond me. Big beer or belgian? Maybe. But please don’t age IPA.
The publican is a gatekeeper to consumers getting their lips around your product.
So the best way to force a venue to consume a keg in a timely manner is to write a best before date only.
Why not tell the publican about the packed on date?
Because it’s irrelevant to the publican (unless they specifically ask) and therefore it’s irrelevant to the end consumer because they aren’t given the choice.
How Do I Determine What Best Before Date I Should Use For My Beer?
Determining what your best before date should be depends upon a number of things such as:
- Package Type – Kegs should have a shorter best before than bottles/cans. This will ensure quick pull through.
- Beer Style – That NEIPA isn’t going to last more than a month or two but that Imperial Stout or Sour might last for years.
- Distribution Channel – If you’re going into the major chains, you’ll need to at least comply with their requirements to be ranged. If you don’t think your product will last that long then you should reconsider whether you’re up for playing with the big boys. Bad beer experiences ruin brands – especially with broad distribution!
- Beer Quality – If you don’t have a Dissolved Oxygen (DO) meter to calculate Total Pack Oxygen (TPO) or you’re not doing a sufficient level of quality checks on your beer, you cannot accurately determine your shelf life. Do us all a favour – at the very least, buy a DO meter. It’ll look nice next to that expensive copper clad brewhouse.
What Date Coding Doesn’t Protect You Against
So you’ve gone and made the investment and you’re date coding your product. Great!
Unfortunately, that’s doesn’t solve all your problems.
You see, the main thing working against your date code is temperature and time – mainly how your beer is stored prior to consumption.
I like to use the milk analogy; if you have a carton of milk with a 10-days-from-now use by date and you leave that carton of milk in the hot sun, will it last the full 10 days?
It probably wouldn’t even last a day.
Beer is no different. Until your beer is sold, you should keep it in the best possible condition.
That means refrigerating your product until you sell it….aka keep-it-cold-until-it’s-sold….but that’s a topic of another blog post.
It’s time we ended the nasty practice of not informing our consumers about the freshness of our product.
If you’re putting your beer into bottles and cans, both a best before and packed on date should be printed on every unit and it’s carton outer. Like this 3 Ravens Juicy IPA:
If you’re kegging your beer, just a best before date will do.
Ideally, if your equipment allows, a batch number would be additional, useful information.
Be realistic about what date code you put on your product and how much time you’ve given will transcribe to the consumer’s experience.
Invest in the right equipment and do the right thing by all good beer lovers.