Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

February 17, 2009

Beer Diary:

Grab A Foreigner—Beer, That Is

Get out there and try an international brew, but remember: freshness counts.
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
Contact Eddie»
We’re halfway through International Month here at and we’ve touched on a handful of some great and/or well-known foreign-brewed beers. To wit:

Jug reviewed The Lion Brewery Ceylon PLC Lion Stout and Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout.

Nigel reviewed Jamaica’s national brew, Red Stripe, and has a few more coming down the pike.

I’ve reviewed Private Weissbierbrauerei G. Schneider & Sohn Aventinus, Brouwerij Moortgat Duvel, and Uerige DoppelSticke.

Hopefully we’ve inspired more than a few of you to go out and try some brews from across the world. But before you go out all willy-nilly to your nearest liquor store or bar and start ordering everything from all over the globe, we’ll share a few pointers with you when it comes to seeking out and buying international beers.

It’s not something you hear a lot about, but over time beer can go bad, sometimes—if you’re really unlucky—in a couple of months. What happens is a process called oxidation, where oxygen reacts with molecules in beer and begins to produce off flavors, like notes of wet cardboard, wineyness, rotten vegetables, and even—blech—baby diapers (as opposed to adult diapers, I suppose). Most often you’re going to notice this in lighter, more subtle beer styles—darker, heavier beers like stouts and old ales can stand up to aging, and sometimes even improve over time. But if you’re going to buy a four dollar bottle of German weissbier at the local beer shop, you want to make sure it’s not skunked to high heaven.

One way to help avoid buying bad brew is checking for a date on the bottle. American craft brewers have been woefully slow to adopt this consumer-friendly feature, mainly because the cost to do so is prohibitive, especially for the smaller producers. But a lot of the international breweries are huge, on a scale more akin to macro swillmakers than craft brewers. Despite their size, however, many of these established foreign breweries—some are hundreds of years old—are making interesting, even challenging beers. And because of their scale of operations, they can afford to date their bottles. This is important to us, because sometimes foreign brews can sit on the shelf at your local beer store for a long time before curious beer dorks pick them up—not to mention the fact that these same brews might have been sitting on a ship outside of some port for months on end.

So, check the date. Some breweries, like Brouwerij Moortgat, the makers of Duvel, print a “best before” date somewhere on the label, usually on the back or the neck. Others print the date the beer was bottled, which leaves you to guess how long is too long. There’s no scientifically determined expiration date for beer, but there’re a few rules of thumb. Lighter brews go skunky quicker, so if you’re picking out something especially delicate, like a Weihenstephaner Kristall Weissbier, you’ll want to make sure it’s no more than six months old. Nine months you’re getting into extremely iffy territory, and a year, well, you’ve been warned. Slightly heavier brews like pilseners, pale ales, and bigger wheat beers may be good for a few months longer. Doppelbocks, porters, stouts, these will still be drinkable even after a year, sometimes even two, since they were brewed. Just be aware that a fresh Aventinus is going to taste quite a bit different than a bottle two years old. It might not necessarily be bad, but it’ll be different.

Also, be aware that the first thing to go in an aging beer is the hops—the sharper edges of the flavors, aromas, bitterness. So that crisp German pilsener might not be all it could be after a year since it was bottled all the way over in Europe.

Mileage may vary: I’ve had Bavarian wheats that’d been in the bottle for a year and a half and tasted fine, and I’ve had pale ales barely six months old that tasted like an old shoe box. Sometimes it boils down to dumb luck. So the main thing to keep in mind is to grab the freshest bottle you can find, especially if it’s a lighter brew or the hops are the star of the show.

So get out there and try some of the brews we recommended that may appeal to you, or feel dangerous and just grab something that intrigues you off the shelf. Drink, taste, think, compare to some of the similar brews you’ve had here in the Midwest. You might very well be sampling a piece of American craft brewing’s past. Or maybe it’s future.

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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