Last weekend, I approached the beer coolers at my regular grocery store and chuckled to myself at the hushed line of people assembled there, awash in the fluorescent-white glow. Eyes glazed, slightly slack-jawed, shoppers of all ages stared at the hundreds of options with expressions of lobotomized bewilderment. Surely beer shopping shouldn’t be this befuddling?
But it is, sometimes even for me. With nearly 7,000 breweries operating in America, the fight for shelf space and customers’ attention grows ever more competitive. Neon colors, over-the-top beer names, ultra-minimal can designs, cats shooting laser beams out of their eyes—nothing seems to stand out anymore. And thus, we become zombie shoppers, shuffling along in a daze, reluctantly grabbing a six-pack that looks cool, and hoping for the best.
There is a better way. The five suggestions below might not always get you a beer that changes your life, but they’ll get you closer to a fresh beer experience. As with previous pieces in this series—5 rules for better drinking at a beer bar, and 5 beer-menu rules I wish all bars would follow—this guidance is intended to help you close the distance between you and a pint of something tasty. Beer shopping’s true letdown is stale beer—everything else is just part of beer exploration.
Most grocery stores have both coolers and room-temperature shelves of beer—you want to concentrate on the former. Temperature fluctuations and heat are the enemy of fresh-tasting beer; every brewery would prefer its beer be shipped, stored, and displayed cold. I narrow down the grocery options by focusing entirely on the refrigerated section.
With the exception of cellaring or aging beer, 99 percent of the time, you want to buy the freshest beer possible. And that’s doubly true when it comes to IPAs whose volatile hop compounds begin to degrade after a few months, or delicate styles like pilsners that don’t have strong flavors to mask the taste of aging malts.
It’s not always easy to know when your beer was born, but some breweries add date codes to their beers. Those dates can reflect when the beer was brewed; some reflect a “best by” date; there’s no standard. You might have to whip out your phone to Google a specific brewery’s date-coding conventions, but it’s worth it to ensure your beer hasn’t sat on a shelf for eight months. (Note to breweries: My kingdom for date codes that drinkers can actually decipher!)
I pick cans over bottles 90 percent of the time, and not just because they’re easier to crush and pack into a recycling bin. Cans keep light out more effectively than bottles, which is another important factor in beer freshness. Light can cause beer to skunk or otherwise degrade the flavors we desire, so a package that’s impervious to light is going to keep beer fresher. Of course, if a beer I love only comes in bottles, I’ll make an exception, but if I was deciding between two unfamiliar IPAs—one in a can, one in a bottle—I’d choose the former.
The beer aisle isn’t exactly a farmer’s market, but when you’re searching for the freshest beer styles, it can help to keep the seasons in mind. In September, a local brewery’s Oktoberfest beer is bound to be pretty fresh. (If you’re shopping at a store with year-old Oktoberfest, turn around and leave.) In December, a spruce-tip ale or a Christmas beer should hit the spot; ditto a summer ale in July. This isn’t a hard-and-fast “rule”—IPAs, porters, and amber ales are brewed year round, for example—but choosing beer with an eye toward the weather does keep me from falling into my same-old, same-old rut.
I’m not saying the beer sale shelf is analogous to the meat department’s “manager’s special,” but… okay, maybe I am. Beer pricing is a strange and complicated process, a dance between the retailer, the distributor, and the brewery that’s becoming an increasingly thorny issue as more breweries vie for your bucks.
Yes, sometimes you just happen upon a great deal on some fresh beer (I got a six-pack of tasty Full Steam Lager for something like $5.99 at my grocery store two months ago). But stuff that’s reduced for quick sale might also be on its way out, freshness-wise, so double-check date codes and avoid beers that don’t have them.
The exception to the rule: Sometimes my local store has an “old” beer on sale that actually ages quite well—an imperial stout, a barleywine, etc. In that case, you might find a gem from a year prior that’s essentially been “cellared” for you. Of course, you’re rolling the dice on whether the store kept it in proper storage, away from light and heat.