The Freshness Factor

Best-by dates and refrigeration are increasingly important selling points for beer.

Sparrow Wine & Spirits in Hoboken, New Jersey, now stores most of its beer selection in coolers to ensure quality and freshness. This initiative is being echoed by retailers nationwide.
Sparrow Wine & Spirits in Hoboken, New Jersey, now stores most of its beer selection in coolers to ensure quality and freshness. This initiative is being echoed by retailers nationwide. (Photo by Frank Apollino)

Some shoppers at Sparrow Wine & Spirits in Hoboken, New Jersey, are so fanatical about quality beer that they lug in cooler backpacks or roller bags to ensure that their purchases stay chilled. That suits Laz Luis, beer director of the two-unit retailer, as Sparrow keeps most of its beer refrigerated anyway.

Sparrow and a growing number of retailers now insist on keeping most—if not all—of their beer selection chilled. Luis attributes the practice to the styles of beer that are popular today, such as hoppy IPAs, that are best when continuously chilled. “My customers expect the beer to be refrigerated as a sign of quality,” he explains. So Sparrow—which stocks more than 1,000 beer SKUs, priced from $5.99 a six-pack of 16-ounce cans of Narragansett lager to $34.99 a 750-ml. bottle of the 2016 Bruery Poterie Anniversary ale—loads up its in-store and basement beer coolers despite the higher electricity costs and constant battle for refrigerator shelf space. “When cooler space gets tight, we’ll start to call out special products to our customers,” Luis says. At the Boise Co-Op in Meridian, Idaho, beer manager Derek Bolton says shoppers appreciate that almost all of the beer is kept cold, with the exception of brews like sours and barleywines. The venue devotes 10 cooler doors to beer, with about half reserved for craft labels.

Many brewers are now encouraging—or even demanding—that their packaged beer be refrigerated at retail. Ryan Krill, cofounder of New Jersey’s Cape May Brewing Co., says his company requires that brews like Cape May IPA and Coastal Evacuation Double IPA be merchandised in coolers. “If retailers can’t make the commitment to keep our beer chilled, they’re not the right partners for us,” Krill says. Lauren Zeidler, director of quality at California’s Ballast Point Brewing Co., explains, “We take extensive measures to keep our beer cold at all times. While we can’t impose requirements, we rely on our distributor and retail partners to maintain cold storage. We educate and stress the importance of cold displays whenever possible.”

Date coding—which helps ensure that consumers purchase fresh beer at retail—is also getting increased attention. While not required by law, “born on” or “best by” codes are increasingly appearing on packaged beer. In fact, the Beer Institute launched the Brewers’ Voluntary Disclosure Initiative last year to encourage participating beer marketers to provide freshness dating on their products by the end of 2020. Anheuser-Busch InBev, MillerCoors, Heineken USA, Constellation Brands, North American Breweries and Craft Brew Alliance—which account for some 80 percent of all U.S. beer volume combined—have agreed to the standards.

Recommended shelf-life varies by beer style. Cape May’s “best before” dates can range from 60 days from the package date for dry-hopped brews to 180 days for stouts. Ballast Point utilizes the Julian dating system, but Zeidler says the brewery is “exploring other consumer-friendly labeling options so fans can clearly see how fresh our beers are.” The Beer Baron in Livonia, Michigan, which stocks as many as 2,000 beer SKUs, will pull out beers within two weeks of their expiration date and run a promotion, such as 10 percent off the marked price. “We look especially closely at IPAs,” says owner Rocky Zebari.

“If beers arrive that are too close to their best-by date, I send them back,” says Bolton, noting that Boise Co-Op’s policy is to return beer to the distributor when it reaches the halfway date for freshness, such as 90 days on a beer with a 180-day freshness date. The Idaho retail store offers 623 beer SKUs, priced from 99 cents for a 24-ounce can of Pabst Blue Ribbon to $27.99 for a 750-ml. bottle of Goose Island Gillian. “We do our best to inspect every delivery for acceptable date codes,” agrees Luis at Sparrow. The New Jersey retailer wants to be sure that any beer that ends up in his customers’ cooler backpacks is cold and fresh.