Good Beer Hunting

No Country for Old Beer — Stone, Sierra Nevada, Distributors Caught Up in Iffy Dating Down Under

American craft brewers tend to fight for freshness as a core attribute of their competitive difference. So much so that many have banked entire marketing platforms on it. Think Stone’s aptly named Enjoy by IPA, for example, a beer which is branded to showcase its never-distant expiration date as a selling point.

Overseas, however, the timeline that defines freshness for many of these same products may not be as stringent. Beer that purports to have a shelf life of 4-6 months in the U.S. might have a shelf life of, say, a full calendar year abroad. In turn, “best by four months from now” yields to “best by this time next year.”

And this freshness dichotomy reveals an uncomfortable paradox: Contrary to their own explicitly stated standards, some American breweries are telling international drinkers that beer is fresh past the point it’s deemed fit for consumption at home.

This conflict recently caught the eye of Australian beer writer, Glen Humphries, who runs the blog, Beer is Your Friend. On Monday, he reported specifically that Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo Extra IPA and Stone’s Go To IPA, as sold in the country, both come with code lengths of 365 days.

According to the marketing collateral belonging to the two companies, however, these two beers should be consumed within 150 days (Sierra Nevada) and 120 days (Stone) respectively from the time of packaging. Stone even highlights on its website the fact that its window of freshness is “among the shortest in the industry,” adding “one of the greatest tragedies for us is when a beer crafted to showcase these hops is left languishing on a shelf for too long as time erodes all of its botanical qualities.”

It’s not that brewers don’t want overseas drinkers getting anything less than their best. In fact, there are myriad reasons for extending code dates according to industry vets and international distributors. Among them? It takes longer to ship beer to foreign markets. Using the same best buy codes employed closer to the point of production would only help the illegal gray market flourish. And finally, some countries have different—but widely accepted—standard timelines for expiration dates.

When reached by GBH, Sierra Nevada declined to comment. But Stone founder Greg Koch says the last of those three is the reason for extended dates on Stone beer in Australia. But he’s also adamant that Stone fans down under are still getting fresh beer.

“What’s not visible is the fact that we have an agreement with our importer that they will only sell beer within the code date, and that code date is within 90-120 days,” Koch says.

“Here’s the reality,” he continues. “Retailers will not accept beer even with 90 days on it. The challenge is not [with] us. The challenge is the pre-existing code date standards for the country of Australia. So we have no choice but to use an Australian system, or nobody will buy the beer, period.”

In a lengthy comment attached to Humphries’ piece, John Latta of Experienceit, Stone’s importer in the country, echoed the sentiment laid out here by Koch. He writes:

“Australian retailers and most other international retailer markets are not geared to manage short shelf dates and Australian consumers naturally think that a [best before] date on a product like beer would be at least 9 to 12 months, (which is what most Australian brewers use for exactly the same beer styles), so when they see something close to code that only had a 90 day code, they think its old.”

Of course, this discrepancy between domestic and international code dates isn’t unique to Stone and Sierra Nevada. Nor are these timelines necessarily up to the breweries that ship beer internationally. As is common with beer industry disputes, it's easy to blame the complexity of the system. Stone knows this firsthand, after all—that's why they named an IPA series "Enjoy By" and put the date right there in the name. Those beers can be found sitting dusty on shelves months past their dates, but at least the drinker knows exactly what they're getting with an Enjoy By. These shifts in date coding leave consumers in the dark regardless of original intent.

Left Hand Brewing of Longmont, CO has recently been touching down on foreign soil as well. Company COO Chris Lennert says the bulk of its exported product is coded to match its domestic brews. However, Left Hand has compromised on one unspecified beer as sold in one unspecified market. This was “due to that country’s [distribution] monopoly wanting a year, and we reluctantly went to eight months,” Lennert says. On that note, he says the company is also reviewing whether to extend that product’s U.S. shelf life to match.

Either way, he says the company has in the past terminated relationships with foreign partners over their requirements for a longer shelf life. As a result, this matter of freshness relative to earth’s parallels is one of concern to the company.

“Our beer doesn’t age differently in other countries than the U.S.,” he tells GBH. “Putting a year date code on our beers because ‘that’s what everybody else does if they want chain business’ isn’t the right thing to do in our book. Educating the buyers and the end consumers about appropriate shelf life on craft beers is critical, yet we can’t do it alone.”

Of course, the practice has its backers, too. Inspired by Humphries’ piece (in which he originally referred to this game of code date elongating as “dodgy” before updating his headline), a few Australian distributors took to Facebook to voice support of the custom.

Geoff Hanson works for Phoenix Beers, an Australian distributor that, per its website, sells Sierra Nevada, Rogue, Oskar Blues, BrewDog, and more American and other non-native-to-Australia craft brands. (The company even offers “Out of Code” specials on its website.) He says that shortened code dates to match a brewery’s homeland standards are just “not going to be economically viable for such a distant market.”

“The beer is simply not going to hit the consumer before the ticking time bomb goes off,” he writes. “So some kind of extension to the [best before] dates is going to be necessary to make this model work. So why select 12 months best before? This part of it is perhaps the most debatable.”

Andy Christofi, also of Experienceit Beverages (which, along with Stone, counts Deschutes, Victory, and more in its portfolio), advocates instead for a simple “brewed on” date.

“Then the customer decides if they want it or not,” he writes. “People…can skip it and have something else, whereas others might be okay with its age. Both reasonable and how it should be.”

Of course, it’s always tough to argue against consumer choice. But brewers take deadly seriously their commitment to fresh beer. So as American breweries continue to make inroads overseas while craft slows stateside, the matter is likely to only become more visible. And Lennert, at Left Hand, thinks it’s worth talking about.

“We will [be successful] one pint at a time,” he says. “But if it’s not a good pint, do we really want people switching over to spirits or wine?”

—Dave Eisenberg

The dodgy side of best-before dates [Beer is Your Friend]