Imagine if you brewed a beer, left it on a shelf for four months and just remembered it now? Imagine if the shelf in question was in a working kitchen, with temperatures rising over 35C? And imagine if said beer was unfiltered and unpasteurised?
There are those who believe that, since the cold chain has been broken, since control over the storage conditions has been lost, this beer will probably no longer be drinkable. For example, there are brewers who refuse to ship their beer to other parts of the country, or refuse to attend festivals more than a few hours’ drive from their brewery, believing that their unfiltered, unpasteurised, and often bottle-conditioned beer will change beyond recognition if it sits out of a fridge for a day. There are brewers who, when you tell them that you tried their beer and it was sour/phenolic/just plain off, that it was because the beer “doesn’t travel well”. Indeed, there have been many times where I have tried a Cape Town beer in Johannesburg (and vice versa) which does not live up to the quality of that beer at its source.
So is it true? Should beer be treated like milk and can it not travel well?
Recently, the brewers at The Craft Beer Project (by which I of course mean my hubby Shawn and our buddy Greg) have begun to attempt to brew all the styles of the BJCP guidelines. Their first brew, an Ordinary Bitter (imaginatively named “8A”), was brewed in July 10th, 2014 and bottled on August 3rd, carbonated with CO2 using a Blichmann bottle gun. To test the cleanliness of the brewery and see if there were any infections lurking, the brewers decided to leave a few bottles out of the fridge and let them age in the heat. Beer, like any natural product, will age more quickly in hotter conditions – think about how much faster fruit ripens when left out of the fridge.
Professor of Malting & Brewing Sciences and all-round beer guru Dr. Charlie Bamforth has done plenty of research into the topic of how temperature affects the rate that beer gets old and found that beer ages twice as quickly when you raise the temperature by 10 degrees. I’ve heard others say that beer aged at 30 degrees C for 30 days ages roughly the same as beer aged at three degrees for 365 days. So, the ordinary bitter, which was sitting on a top shelf in Banana Jam Café’s kitchen for close to four months, would have be the equivalent to being left in a fridge for close to four years. According to the logic above, this beer should be awful.
It wasn’t. That said, it was not what it was several months ago. As beer ages, the flavours and aromas of the product will change – one of the major reasons for larger breweries using pasteurisation is to delay this change, thus keeping their beer tasting the same for longer. Most microbrewers don’t have this luxury, but this isn’t necessarily a disadvantage. Beer that has aged does not automatically give off-flavours and research shows that many consumers actually enjoy the flavours of an aged beer. The bitterness drops substantially in aged beers, partly because of the rise of sweet and toffee-like flavours. Additionally, the beer might take on a cardboard/sherry type of flavour because of oxidization, creating a complex bouquet of flavours, especially in dark beers (for more nerdy information on how beer ages, check out this article.
The Ordinary Bitter reflected this – the bitterness was gone and it was noticeably sweeter, as well as slightly more carbonated. There was no sourness, no band aid flavours and it did not gush. An aged beer should not exhibit these qualities – only in a beer that had an infection to begin with would this happen. Hence the importance of santization, as well as quality control (in the brewery and in the – pub good sanitation is needed throughout the life of the beer).
If you leave your beer at room temperature for a month and, upon opening, are struck in the face with plasticky smelling vinegar that gushes like a volcano, you have an infection. It is not that the beer hasn’t aged well, it’s that it wasn’t made well. The beer took on off-flavours because there was bacteria present in the beer (either from the brewing, fermentation or bottling process) and, as the beer aged, this bacteria grew, giving the noticeable off-flavours. Many times this off-flavour may not be present at the source, as the beer was kept cold, delaying the growth of the bacteria. So while it was the travel that sped up the growth of the infection, it was not the travel that caused the beer to go off – that was the fault of bad sanitation.
At the end of the day, we all want to drink a wide variety of amazing tasting beer brewed in South Africa. There is no reason I shouldn’t be able to go to a Cape Town liquor store (even on a Sunday – whoop to longer opening hours!) to buy a craft beer that’s been brewed on the other side of the country without worrying that the beer hasn’t “travelled well”. As the craft beer industry grows, so do the expectations and knowledge of the consumer who is always wanting more and better beer and, much like sanitation, it is up to the brewer to deliver.
Have you ever tried ageing beer? How did it taste? Have you bought a beer that “did not travel well”? Do you think the cold chain needs to be maintained? Or do you agree that if a beer has been made well, it won’t suddenly turn into a bottle of band aids and goop?