Fresh really is best

Earlier this month I was one of the judges for Consumer magazine’s latest beer review.

The results will be published soon, so I’m not going to scoop them here. But one of the most obvious trends was that beers we know and love off the tap let themselves down when served from the bottle. Many tasted tired, some were obviously oxidised, and one or two were probably light-struck. One gushered on opening.

Consumer magazine buys its test goods from retailers, just as consumers do. For this test, the beer was purchased at Wellington supermarkets that have good beer ranges. In the past, some wine competitions have been scammed by fraudulent winemakers submitting entries that were not available commercially. Consumer’s system avoids this scam.

One of the great pleasures in visiting a brewery is tasting the beer at its freshest. Even the most ordinary beers can taste great straight out of the brewer’s tanks. The difference isn’t simply the result of aging – it is also the result of bottling, transport and storage.

Bottling is one process the brewer has some control over. The Consumer test results suggest bigger, more modern bottling plants produce better results than some of the smaller or older plants.

Transport is another significant factor. Don’t assume the beer you buy at the supermarket has been delivered straight from the brewery. Supermarket chains like to centralise stock deliveries, and this could mean the beer is trucked to a large distribution centre in Auckland, then trucked to you supermarket. Ironically, if you’re looking for beer from a local brewery, it might have travelled twice as far as a beer produced near the distribution centre.

Poor storage can also damage the beer. The best way to store beer is to keep it in my garage, where it’s dark and cool all year round. Just drop it off at my back door and I’ll look after it for you. Unrefrigerated storerooms and supermarket shelves do the product no favours, and storage under bright fluorescent light causes light-strike.

So what can we do as buyers to ensure we get the best quality for our beer-buying buck? One obvious solution is to support good bars serving craft beer on tap, and help them to ensure the stock is turned over promptly. It’s the same with bottled beer – buy from a busy store with fast stock turnover, and don’t be afraid to check for best before dates to get the freshest stock available.

And don’t forget that good beer can be delivered straight to your door, either from breweries or from specialist beer traders. If there’s no good beer retailer in your town, check out some of the links on the right and deal directly with someone who treats beer with respect.

Brewers have a part to play too. Their products’ reputation and sales depend on competent delivery and storage, and retailers should be educated about how to look after beer and sell it at its freshest. Supermarkets all accept direct delivery of bread, for example, and those that accept direct beer deliveries will have superior products to those that insist on centralised deliveries.

Let me know your experiences and recommendations for good and bad beer retailers. Have you ever returned a bottle of beer because it wasn’t up to scratch? What sort of response did you get?


© Martin Craig, August 2011. Reproduction with permission.

9 Responses to “Fresh really is best”

  1. I’m very pleased to see you writing about this Martin. I wrote about the same issue myself some time ago, starting the long running, and very tongue-in-cheek debate with Stu which relates to the title of this post. :) I think this needs all the discussion it can get.

    I think it’s the biggest weakness of NZ’s (maybe the world’s) craft beer scene. Nothing makes a worse impression on a would-be craft beer convert than a bottle in poor condition. I wish it was an easy problem to solve.

    I like your suggestion to drink fresh, and perhaps by implication, drink local. Not always practical, but at least an ideal to strive for.


  2. Oh, and before the debate starts all over again…. I do believe the call on what is “best” should be the brewer’s. I’m talking here about when a packaged product starts tasting “poor”, as defined by the brewer. If a consumer likes the beer green as can be, or with a bit of oxidation, that’s fine, but not, perhaps, as the brewer intended. “Fresh”, for the purpose of this discussion, means “in the condition where the brewer would be happy to put his name on the product”.


  3. Thanks Greig

    That’s a useful link with some good background information.

    As far as brewers go, I have to wonder if they have a realistic idea of what their beer actually tastes like at the end of the supply chain. Tasting it at the brewery is one thing, but truck it to Auckland, then truck it back to Gore, leave it under light at room temp for a month, and then charge full price. That’s what some punters are paying for and tasting.

    I have had some complaints from brewers who disagree with my reviews of their beer. One reason could be that they don’t experience their beer in the state that customers experience.

    It would be interesting to ‘mystery shop’ major supermarkets and bottle stores around the country, buying stock off the shelf and returning it to brewers for tasting and checking Best Before dates.




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