Sunday, 2 May 2010

Best Before

I like Stilton. Actually, I like all blue cheese. Actually, I like all cheese. No, not quite true, I don't particularly care for the processed stuff that feels like mildly cheese flavoured Playdoh. But I digress. I like cheese that tastes of cheese, I like it when it is threatening to get up and walk off on its own, Stilton doesn't get to this point until after its best before date making said regulatory marking an irrelevant and contradictory semantic, in my opinion.

Fullers Vintage has a best before date and any beer less than 10% has to have such a date by law. Wine, on the other hand, does not. OK, most wine is over 10% but even a sub 10% light German white fails to attract this trading standard law. The oldest Fullers Vintage, and indeed the oldest beer I own, is over 10 years old, well past its best before date and much better than it was before the best before date. Best before dates are just silly on beer.

We are finishing the design for our two 2009 vintage beers. Both are higher gravity and great care has been taken to ensure that clean and oxygen free products are produced and so extending their shelf lives well beyond any scientifically determinable lifetime. I arbitrarily set the 8% whisky stout at 3 years after the bottling date and the 10% barley wine at 5 years after bottling. We also designed into the label a couple of tongue in cheek comments that hinted, perhaps not that subtly, that the best before date was silly.


Mr Stringers, being the ever helpful fellow Cumbrian as he is, suggested we ran any label design past trading standards. That, I thought, was a very sensible idea.

We got a list of stuff back from the nice man which included objection to my "rendering the best before date an irrelevant and contradictory semantic" It would seem that the best before date is a legal requirement that I'm not allowed to take the piss out of on my bottle.


My friends at Plain Creative, who are rather less hot headed than me, rewrote the label to take into account some of the gentleman's concerns; like for instance the fact that one of the beers proclaimed to be a wine, all be it a barley one, instead of stating it to be a beer. One is tempted to think that our local trading standards office fail to understand esoteric beer. The resultant labels can be seen here. I like them a lot.

You will see that the jibes at the best before date are staying. I'm not going to write a letter to trading standards complaining about my own beer, but it's tempting. Let's see what happens.

I repeat, for hand bottled beer like these, the best before date is indeed an irrelevant and contradictory semantic.

23 comments:

ZakAvery said...

Nice labels!

Although I don't totally agree with what you're implying (that beer will just keep on getting better forever), it is unlikely that beer will become dangerous, or even mildly injurious to health.

Some brewers take the other approach, putting a short date on their beers because they believe that their beers are better drunk fresh. The beers are a nuisance to deal with from a retail perspective, but that's the brewer's choice.

HardKnott Dave said...

I'm not suggesting that beer will continue to improve for ever and some will be better drunk sooner. All I am saying is that like wine, all beer will reach an optimum age at which to drink. That age will depend on the individual beer, how it is stored and the tastes of the drinker.

The optimum drinking age of a beer has no sensible connection to the best before date.

Most importantly, I'm glad you like the labels, much work has gone into them!

Velky Al said...

nice labels indeed! I am looking forward to eventually trying some of your beers, of course when you get a US distributor or I finally make it back to the UK.

Cooking Lager said...

Quality stuff Dave. Is there a bit of label that turns blue when it's cold enough to drink?

haddonsman said...

The best-before-end (BBE) date on a product is a quality guide, legally defined as that by which it maintains 'minimum durability' and in guidance notes as when it can "reasonably be expected to retain its optimum condition".

So, if you don't expect a beer to reach its optimal drinking age for three years and you expect it to maintain its optimal quality for three years beyond that, you're fully entitled to give it a BBE date of six years after bottling.

I have some beers with the (legally required) bbe date, a production date (establishing vintage) and a best-after date (brewer's recommendation). As long as you keep all the legal stuff within field of vision, you can add the others in to make your feelings clear.

Simon, Reluctant Scooper

bob said...

we cracked open my collection of vintaqe ales the other week and a bootle of golden pride past its best before date. they were all very tasty.
my mate billy wrote it up since im a slacker.
http://bit.ly/9I5qfc

Jeff Pickthall said...

Where do my 1974 bottles of Thomas Hardy's stand?

Jeff Pickthall said...

oh, and I seem to remember selling a gueuze with a BB date of the year 2028.

Leigh said...

Slightly off-topic, but relevant nontheless to your new endevour - nice labels. I'd buy that.

StringersBeer said...

Glad you found TS to be "helpful"...
One thing no bureaucrat likes is having the p*ss taken out of them or their avocation.

"haddonsman", nails it above. As long as you put on what you're required to - you can probably add whatever else you want (as long as it's legal). The problem with putting a bbe much longer than good (or common) practice is that you haven't validated it - it's just an assumption. You may very well be right (and I bet you are). But until you've opened a couple of 10 year old samples and shown them to be good...

BTW, I'm surprised they were OK with "n% ABV", I'd have expected them to insist on "alc n% vol", or some such thing.

And what about your allergen labeling? You do put barley malt in this stuff don't you?

Our TS officer took a couple of samples and we got a report on abv, gluten and SO2. For free! Into the "due diligence" file. Nice one.

Mark said...

Looking good! Something Brewdog-ish about them, which I like. Along with what Simon says, I think it's nice to see production dates on bottles. The thing with bottles like this (aside from the legal stuff) is that they will sell to geeks and people who know about beer, so you can be a little more playful with the dates (extended BBEs or a Best After date).

I'm just about to open an Aether Blaec, as it happens...

BeerReviewsAndy said...

labels are looking good mate!

i too like the bottled on dates on beers!!

Brewers Union Local 180 said...

When will this show up at the Bier Stein in Eugene?

Tandleman said...

"Looking good! Something Brewdog-ish about them, which I like.2

Or JW Lees-ish?

http://www.jwlees.co.uk/

Combining innovation and history?

Baron Orm said...

Lovely labels Dave, really eye catching, modern but not too modern.

As far as BB dates I like to see them on the beer as it gives an indication of how long to store it for, but as you say for strong 'vintage' ales this isn't so relevant.

I would like to see something that indicates how the beer will 'change' as it ages - more smoky, woody, port-like, etc.

HardKnott Dave said...

All very interesting stuff.

A key observation I'd like to make is that in the wine world it is the wine buffs that decide when a wine is best drunk, not the vineyard. The vineyard and wine makers do their very best to make a good wine but in the end it is the trade that decides the optimum time to drink the wine.

I'd be happy, as a brewer, for the year of production to go on the bottle, and perhaps other important stuff, like how long the beer was matured for before bottling. After that the beer experts should decide that the beer is ready to drink. I do not believe this can be determined at bottling date any more than it can for wine. An estimate might be possible, but that's all.

Other than strength of the beer, and additional age proactive production techniques such as dry hopping or the take up of tannins from barrel ageing, there is no scientific way of determining the ageing ability of beer at the bottling stage. I have this from good authority from brewing academics.

I have in my possession a couple of wine guide books. The type of thing wine buffs buy so that they can decide what wine to buy for consumption now and what to buy for laying down. They offer no promises but an opinion from the author as to what is good now, and what should be laid down. Many vineyards and many vintages are listed. A gap in the market for a progressive beer writer perhaps?

When we start to think about optimum beer consumption dates in the same way as the wine world does, then we really will have a grown up beer connoisseur community.

HardKnott Dave said...

"When will this show up at the Bier Stein in Eugene?"

My people need to talk to your people.

HardKnott Dave said...

Stringers,

You might well have picked out a couple of things we need to address.....

StringersBeer said...

"there is no scientific way of determining the ageing ability of beer at the bottling stage"
I'm sure you're right - which is why it's difficult to justify claims for long age. So we have to fall back to best practice.

There's always forced aging... 1 week at 37C equiv 1 month at ambient... but that'll still take more than 2 years of incubation to justify a 10 year bbe ... let's not bother.

That said, I seem to remember Dave Porter getting some forced aging trials done so that he could support a 2year (was it?) bbe...

ChrisM said...

Looking good Dave, great designs. More importantly, though, when and how do we get to try the beers!?

Séan Billings said...

If you don't have to put a Best Before on a beer that is over 10% vol. why have you put one on the Granite label? The label says it's 10.4% vol.

Darren T said...

Great-looking labels, Dave. Kudos to the designers. Any idea when / where the finished product will be on sale yet?

Sigmar said...

A very interesting read, thanks for the insights.

I stumbled across your site while googling about beer and best before dates. I now plan an afternoon watching cricket with several bottles of Chimay Brune.

Thanks chaps :-)

Nice labels btw HK Dave.