The American beer business has entered a dynamic era. A short time ago—1978 to be exact—there were only 89 breweries producing beer in the U.S. Today there are more than 2,500 breweries making some of the most creative and full-flavored beers this country has ever consumed. The dramatic shifts in the beer business require craft brewers and wholesalers to reevaluate how craft beer is stored and delivered to retailers. Beer is a perishable product and craft brewers do their best to ensure that the product is in the most optimal condition upon delivery. From that point on, wholesalers and retailers need to do their part as well.
The Flavor Life of Craft Beer
Most beers’ flavor deteriorates from the instant that they leave the brewery. The chemistry is extremely complex, but there are two general strategies to help slow down the rate of flavor change. The first approach is to minimize the oxygen level in beer, both during packaging but also during the beer’s shelf life. The second strategy is to maintain the beer at as cold a temperature as possible without freezing it. Heat has a profound impact on chemical reactions. A reaction will go two to three times faster for every 18°F (10°C) increase in temperature. Put into the context of flavor life, a beer that will last 3 months at “classic” room temperature 68°F (20°C) will last only 1 month at 86°F (30°C).
Cold storage is a cornerstone of any quality program. A brewery’s highest priority is to maintain product quality in the distribution chain, and it is in everyone’s best interests to deliver the best quality beer to our retailer customers—consumer satisfaction and repeat sales are shared goals. The Brewers Association (BA) recommends the following parameters for beer storage and shipping:
• Draught between 33 and 40°F
• Package between 33 and 45°F
Importance of Cold Temperature Storage (below 45°F)
Craft breweries strive to ensure their product’s flavor stability, which usually boasts greater malt and hop character, in addition to many flavor nuances not found in lighter styles. Fresh, consistent beer expresses the complexities that beer drinkers expect. Distributors can contribute to that goal by keeping all craft beer refrigerated according to specifications. Cold storage and shipping temperatures preserve the taste qualities of all beer, but it is even more important with full-flavored craft beers which are not usually flashed or tunnel pasteurized.
Detriments of Warm Temperature Storage (above 45°F)
The staling process is a series of organic chemical reactions that compromise desired flavor associated with fresh beer. Staling is a function of time and temperature. Warm temperatures promote staling reactions and increase the rate at which it occurs. Cold temperatures protect beer from staling by retarding the reaction. Beers with pronounced malt and hop character suffer most from warm storage. Desirable flavors decrease, and negative flavors begin to manifest, namely cooked cereal and sherry-like notes. Compared to beers stored in accordance with the BA recommendations, beer stored at 68°F, will have roughly half the shelf life. If stored at 86°F, flavor will be noticeably degraded in a couple weeks.
Although retail storage temperatures cannot always be controlled, beer is usually stored there for a week or less, while it can be stored for up to a month at a distributorship. Since beer spends more time at the warehouse, it is imperative that it is stored cold there. We need to focus on what we, as partners, can control. Together, we can ensure that craft beer tastes fresher and has longer self-life by keeping it cold.
We collectively understand the challenges that buyers face at retail. Trying to design and integrate a “set” that gives the consumer variety while maintaining profit per linear feet is daunting. We need to work with buyers to help them achieve this goal, but we need to do it while keeping quality and freshness at top of mind in all three tiers. Craft is booming we all want to see it continue to grow and succeed. At the same time, adding a handful of IPAs and placing them on the warm shelf is not the long-term answer.