Beer Run

Beer Run: When does an IPA become too old to drink?

The folks at highly regarded Russian River Brewing stress one thing that may surprise you: freshness. It’s practically a mantra for this famed Santa Rosa brewery.

They want you to enjoy their Pliny the Elder, a world-class double India Pale Ale, as soon as possible. It’s not something to stock up on for the big barbecue in six months. It’s definitely not something to collect and break out in a few years for a special occasion.

“Beer is a perishable product. The way we make our IPAs, they’re not meant to age,” said Russian River co-owner Natalie Cilurzo. “The fresher they are, the better they are.”

The emphasis on due dates and spoilage isn’t necessarily new, but not a lot of beer aficionados paid much attention to fading flavor profiles and staleness when it came to Budweiser and its “Born on” campaign.

The renewed emphasis on drinking sooner than later tends to highlight the quality-driven appeal of craft beer. Because its beer is in such demand, Russian River can be choosy about who is allowed to sell it. It won’t do business with any retail outlet, for instance, that wants to set it out on warm store shelves.

Yes, IPAs lose their luster — and fast. In fact, freshness for many styles of beer is an issue you’re hearing about more and more as craft beer continues to boom. I’m told that you should be drinking your favorite IPA within two months of when it was brewed.

But wait. Wasn’t the IPA style originally created centuries ago to endure long voyages by ship without going rancid? Yes and no. There may be some truth to the notion that adding extra hops, the telltale flavor notes in IPAs, may preserve beer, but many now dispute that this was ever the defining element of the pale ale’s origins.

“The idea of beer being invented specifically for shipping to India doesn’t appear to be true,” said Mitch Steele, author of the 2012 book “IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale” (Brewers Publications, $17, 350 pages) and brewmaster at San Diego’s Stone Brewing.

He says adding dry hops may help inhibit bacterial growth, but “that was fairly standard practice with a lot of beers.”

Steele’s Stone Brewing has done a brilliant job of spreading the word about freshness — and in doing so it has created new excitement for its limited releases called “Enjoy By.” These IPAs have an expiration date as part of the name. And they sell out quickly.

Stone’s first “Enjoy By” offering was called “Enjoy by 09.21.12”.

“We didn’t know what to expect, but it just flew off the shelves,” Steele said.

Beer aficionados got the message. On Stone’s website, the brewery asks beer lovers to “check the date code on the shoulder of the bottle before you buy, and if it’s expired, earn craft beer karma by reporting it here.”

The website also has a helpful guide for how long various beer styles remain fresh. Stone’s Enjoy By series of IPAs, for example, are best within 35 days of bottling, while other styles last for 90 days and some, such as the porter, extend to 120 days. Many other craft breweries have begun similiar initiatives.

Sierra Nevada is so concerned about freshness it is building a brewery in North Carolina to cut down on shipping time. It already went to great lengths to ship beer in refrigerated trucks.

“Oxygen is terrible for beer,” said Sierra Nevada brewmaster Steve Dresler, noting that the bottle cap is not a perfect seal. If your supposedly great beer tastes a little like cardboard, it’s stale.

However, some beers do well stored and aged at cellar temperature. Some beers can be even better if you wait.

“I recently had a Beatification that was 5 years old, and it was amazing,” said Cilurzo, referring to Russian River’s sour beer that uses wild yeast and is aged in oak barrels.

Beers like that do well with aging, said Ken Hotchkiss, owner of Sacramento craft beer hotspot Capitol Beer and Taproom. He also points to imperial stouts and barley wines as good candidates for aging.

“They can stay at cellar temperature for years and actually change for the better,” he said.

Mike Mraz of Mraz Brewing in El Dorado Hills has been open only four months, but he’s already brewing beer that people are talking about. He has several Belgian-style barrel-aged beers in the works, including sours, that take months to make. Those beers do well when aged, he said.

Stay tuned for more on Mraz and his beer. We’ll visit the brewery soon.