Following on from last week's piece about whether or not to support your local brewery, I'm minded to think about another aspect of the same subject - the freshness of the beer in your glass.
From reading the beer geek forums I see there is a small but vociferous group of people for whom the freshness of their beer is paramount almost to the point of obsession. You have to wonder why they don't simply brew their own and forget about buying beer – at least they'll know the provenance of the beer they're drinking and exactly how old it is. They'll put fingers to keyboard and complain excessively about finding a bottle in a beer shop that's out of date or which doesn't have a date on it to begin with. Others chime in and start to argue about who's to blame and, more importantly, who needs to cough up some compensation if said bottle was actually purchased. I perceive an exaggerated sense of entitlement in some of these discussions. I've seen at least one thread about boycotting breweries who don't date their bottles.
Brewers don't make beer to have it sitting around gathering dust, metaphorically speaking. With one or two exceptions (such as Deschutes Jubel 2010 which, if I remember correctly, carries a 'Best After' date on the label) they want us to enjoy the fruits of their labour in peak condition. Bearing in mind the current appetite for craft beer it's likely that the beer is heading out of the door almost as soon as it's racked and packaged. Unfortunately, what happens to the beer after it leaves the brewery is out of their control if they go through a distributor; a good reason for choosing beers from small, local breweries where they're allowed to self-distribute, although there are some major craft breweries who have a well deserved reputation for chasing down distributors and retailers who sell their beer when it's known to be past its best.
Most bars don't have the walk-in space for more than one or two kegs of each draft beer. They rely on quick turnover and frequent deliveries which means you're probably getting fresh beer, especially if it's from a local brewery, and fresh-ish beer if it's from a bit further away. Bottles, however, are another matter. Without a date on the label it's impossible to know how long those cases have been around.
Freshness in beer hasn't always been such an issue. At various times during the past several centuries, drinking old beer has been the norm in one way or another. When beer was predominantly brewed at the alehouse you could get beer as fresh as if you'd brewed it yourself (and there were some very fortunate monks who did just that), but it was often mixed with older beer to the customer's taste, and the drinkers of the time liked it that way. The older beer which had been stored in wooden barrels that were used over and over again, acquired flavours and characteristics from both the wood and the various organisms that eventually came to inhabit it, a process which a good many breweries today are eager to revive. Some never stopped doing it, such as the brewers of Belgian lambics and sours.
For a while in England the word 'stale' was applied to beer in a way that simply meant old, as 'mild' meant young, and it was not uncommon for drinkers to order a mild and stale, or a 'three threads' - a blend of mild, stale and a strong pale ale. Even the famous Guinness two-part pour has its origins here. When the black stuff was still poured from the wood like all other beers it was common practice to make up a pint partly from a newly delivered barrel and partly from one that had been tapped and was starting to show some oxidisation, which all cask-conditioned beer does after three or four days. Blending the young with the old gave it a slightly sharp character that Guinness recreates today by intentionally souring some of its production which is then pasteurised and added to the batch before it's kegged and infused with nitrogen.
Before refrigeration and when it was difficult to brew beer in warm weather, it was common for beers to be brewed in the spring and kept for drinking either throughout the summer (Belgian farmhouse ales and saisons), or to be put away in cellars or in caves filled with ice collected from ponds and lakes during the winter, to be drunk in the autumn (German Märzen/Oktoberfestbier).
Another kind of October beer (one which actually was brewed in October) was made by English squires and lords of the manor for their own consumption (they also made small beer from the second runnings for their servants and workers). It was a very early type of pale ale made to be matured for a year or more, and it's likely that this was the progenitor of IPA since George Hodgson's October Ale was one of the various kinds of beer first shipped out to India and which underwent a transformation on the voyage to become something quite different and, as we now know, exceptionally popular, eventually being brewed specifically for export trade and called India Pale Ale.
Even when commercial brewing took off, old beer was still quite common. London porter might be aged for up to two years (sometimes with dire consequences) before being shipped off to the public house.
The difference between those beers and the beers of today is that they were mostly cask-conditioned and therefore still 'alive', in a manner of speaking. After having been matured either in barrels or in huge tuns, the beer would have more yeast and a little sugar added for its final fermentation and conditioning in the barrel. That's not to say today's beer is completely dead, by the way. There will always be a small amount of yeast left in a keg or bottle of unpasteurised craft beer, but it's not the same kind of thing at all. That beer has been force-carbonated and is (mostly) meant for consumption before a set date.
So how soon should that be, and are there contemporary beers that can be aged?
It's not really up for argument that most beers taste best straight out of the conditioning tank. Try a fresh pilsner, pale ale, IPA or amber and compare it to one that's been sitting around for a while. There's a big difference, but is the older one really so undrinkable? I don't think so. A sell-by date on a bottle of beer gives the drinker an idea of when the brewer thinks it'll be past its best, not an indication that it's about to embark on a journey that ends up with it becoming a science project in the same way that, for instance, milk or OJ does. It just means that it doesn't taste quite so good. Some beer styles should definitely be drunk as fresh as possible: hop-forward beers, beers flavoured with coffee and chocolate and hefeweizens, for instance. I would always prefer to drink them young because the flavours that make them what they are fade quickly. However, I know that if the beer has come from another state or another country I'm unlikely to be getting the same experience as the people who live closer to the brewery. A Pilsner Urquell in Prague is not the same as a Pilsner Urquell in San Francisco, or even London.
I've had an Austin-brewed beer at a local bar and then a week later at the brewery's tasting room. I doubt the keg at the bar was more than a few weeks old, knowing them as I do, but the difference was astonishing, and here's what's at the heart of the issue. That straight-from-the-fermenter freshness disappears very, very quickly, then the beer settles down to something perfectly drinkable and stays that way for a while, probably for a lot longer than some drinkers imagine. That's how we usually get it when we order a pint or buy a bottle, as long as the beer has been looked after properly by the distributor and the bar and it hasn't spent weeks, perhaps months, travelling from a brewery half a world away and sitting in ships and warehouses which may or may not have been refrigerated. Unfortunately it sometimes happens that distributors will order too much beer which ends up getting pushed to the back of the warehouse until they decide it's time for a clearout, which is when they might offer it to bars at a reduced price. That saving, and the knowledge that the beer may not be in prime condition isn't often passed on to the customer. There are scoundrels in every walk of life, even beerdom.
What about the subject of ageing beer? That's something which is dear to my heart because so many of the beer styles suitable for cellaring are among my favourites, but it's a lengthy and involved matter that will have to keep for another time, no pun intended.
By all means insist on your beer to be the way the brewer wants you to drink it – young and fresh. Buy it from shops you know and trust and which, hopefully, have a high turnover. Drink at bars you know and trust. Get to know the people behind the bar and talk to them about beer: eventually you'll get a feel for how seriously they take the condition of the brews they serve. But if you're going to get too precious about it maybe you should look into buying a homebrew setup.