A few years ago, craft beer buyers in New York City had a monthly ritual. Brian Gundell, director of sales and distribution at Greenpoint Beer, would contact them to say he was heading out with cases of India Pale Ales (IPAs) that the brewery had canned that morning. Did they want a few cases?
The answer was always yes. Photos of those beers found their way onto Instagram almost immediately. At some stores, dozens of cans were sold before the barcode could be entered into the database.
The scenario is emblematic of New York City’s craft beer boom, which has only grown over the last decade and continues today, albeit abated due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, enthusiasts would line up outside of breweries to be among the first to get cans and growlers of the latest IPA. Even specialty shops were mad about freshness. Short of pulling up to a tank with a glass, getting your hands on a just-canned IPA seemed to be a beer lover’s dream.
One reason is that IPAs are famously temperamental. Some age well for weeks, even months. Others are best enjoyed as soon as possible. It’s led many enthusiasts to look for canned-on dates, usually found on the bottom of cans, to check for freshness.
But are these best practices? Can an IPA be consumed too early?
The timeline for optimal freshness depends on the type of IPA, says Gundell.
“New England IPAs have about a two-and-a-half to three-week window before hop characteristics start to drop off dramatically,” he says. “As one of our brewers, Mikey Fishbone, says, ‘NEIPAs are like the farmers cheese of beers: quick and dirty.’ ”
Gundell points to diminishing aromatics in the days and weeks after canning.
The timeline remains tight when it comes to West Coast IPAs, known for drier flavor profiles that typically feature grapefruit pith, smoke, resin and pine, as opposed to the fruity and herbal flavors of the hazier ales.
“The moment we put it in cans, it’s a ticking time bomb where it continues to become more dull and less delicious every day,” says Evan Price, cofounder of Green Cheek Beer Company in Orange, California. “The hoppy aromatics that were once vibrant and exciting continue to fade.”
Some bars go to great lengths to get IPAs as fresh as possible. At Ventura, California-based Fluid State Beer Garden, Co-owner Jen Schwertman bought a refrigerated Sprinter van to make pickups directly from brewers.
“Some of our proudest moments are when we can tap an amazing IPA on the same day that it was kegged,” she says. “That’s when we know that our customers get to have the best flavor experience possible.”
Many national brands need time for their product to reach far-flung markets, however.
Mahaliah Duncan, a brewery representative for Mikkeller San Diego, says that some sectors of the craft beer market are more obsessed with immediacy than others. “It’s well known that an IPA can last up to three months or so, but many retailers are weary about bringing on something that was brewed more than three or four weeks prior.”
“We have a 60-day freshness code on all of our IPAs, meaning that if the beer is always kept refrigerated that we assure the customer that it will be in excellent condition for a minimum of 60 days,” he says.
Some craft beer obsessives seek a middle ground.
“My personal preference is to drink IPAs before they hit the three-week mark,” says Jason Rappaport, chief of staff at fashion brand Universal Standard. Many Saturday mornings, he can be found in line outside of Other Half Brewing in Brooklyn, NY. “After that, there’s usually a significant drop in freshness, depending on the brewery.”
Rappaport believes that some beers can be consumed too soon. “During the first few days after canning, the beer may taste a bit ‘hot’ or ‘green,’ and need some time to settle down,” he says.
Eno Sarris, national baseball writer for The Athletic and a craft beer fan, thinks that the urgency to drink beers within hours of canning has slowed somewhat.
“I no longer feel like I have to get a beer in the first couple weeks out of the tank,” he says. “I generally like to get beers that were brewed in the last month. I’ll go to six weeks for something special.”