One of the major criticisms of New England style IPAs is their extremely short shelf life. While all hop-forward beers suffer from this shortcoming, it especially hurts a beer that relies on late/dry-hopping for flavor and aroma as a predominant feature. The aromatic compounds that give these beers their fruit juice flavor and pungent nose dissipate or degrade quickly, so it is extremely important to drink the beers as close to the packaging date as possible. This wasn’t an issue with many of the original versions of the style, they were brewed in small batches and sold directly to the consumer within days, ensuring optimal freshness in most cases. Now that some bigger breweries like Sam Adams an Sierra Nevada are taking a crack at the NEIPA style it is important to see how sitting on a shelf in a bottle shop will effect the quality of the beers. I read constantly about how short the shelf lives of these beers are, but I haven’t seen an in depth study that proves this. Fortunately, in addition to writing about beer, I am a research scientist, so I designed a fun experiment where I intentionally ruined one of my favorite beers in the name of science.
Materials: For this study I obtained a couple 4 packs of Trillium Melcher Street IPA, one of my all time favorite versions of the NEIPA sub-style. You can read my full review of Melcher Street IPA HERE. I bought the beer in December within days of canning, directly from the brewery in Canton. I wanted a beer I had enjoyed number of times so I had a solid foundation of what the beer should taste like under optimal conditions.
Study Design: Ideally I would have a number of beers brewed/canned on different days and then aged, so that I could sample them in parallel, but logistically this is nearly impossible. For one, most of these breweries have rotating release schedules, so you never know when a particular beer will be brewed. I also don’t have the ability to drop everything and run out to a brewery at any time. There is also the potential for variation batch-to-batch that has nothing to do with the aging process. Instead I purchased a couple 4 packs in December and left three cans to age on a shelf in the glassware cabinet in my dining room. I was hoping to mimic the environment of a shelf of a liquor store, which is much different from a proper storage cellar. I sampled beers on the day of purchase and again after 1, 2 and 3 months of warm storage. I also sampled a beer that had been stored in the fridge for the first month. Each beer was transferred to the fridge for a day before consuming, and then consumed to check the changes in taste and aroma. Here is what I found:
Month 0: This beer is world class when it is fresh. A giant burst of fruity hops on the nose followed by big hop flavor, peach, grapefruit and mango with a little resin and a very subtle bitter bite. There is just a hint of sweetness here, but more from the fruity hop flavors tricking the palate than any lingering malts. A great beer.
Month 1 (warm storage): I was amazed at how much this beer changed. I was initially going to do 1, 3 and 6 month time points, but tasting this beer led to a shift in the study design. The flavor is still top notch, plenty of citrus and tropical fruit, but I was amazed at how much aroma was lost in just a month on the shelf. You still get some aromatics with a good deep breath, but the pungent hop aroma that helps make this a world class NEIPA is gone. If this was my first time trying the beer I would have still enjoyed it, but my evaluation would take a hit due to the lowered aromatics.
Month 1 (cold storage): After I finished the warm stored beer I immediately opened up another can that had spent the month in my beer fridge and the difference was striking. The big nose was very much present, and the beer was stellar. If anything the month in the fridge mellowed out a few of the more assertive notes from the fresh beer and improved it. I wish I’d saved 2 more cans in cold storage for the other time points, but I honestly didn’t think of it and I have limits on the amount of amazing beer I am willing to ruin, even if it’s for science.
Month 2: The first month on the shelf dissipated a substantial amount of the beers aroma, and after two months it was completely gone. There is still solid hop flavor, but the malts start to assert themselves a little more. This isn’t a bad beer, but it is a huge downgrade from the fresh version. I really wish I had saved a can for two weeks in the fridge to see if it held up.
Month 3: No nose on this beer at all. The flavor is OK, some fruity hops come through along with some bready malt. The change from month two to month three is much less dramatic than the changes over the first two months. Not a terrible beer by any stretch, but not at all what you would expect from the style.
Conclusions: New England style IPAs have a reputation for incredibly short shelf lives, and this study helps back up that reputation. After even a month on the shelf you notice a substantial decline in quality, and after 3 months even a top shelf NEIPA is pretty much ruined. It is always important for breweries to date their packaging and for consumers to check dates before they buy the beer, but it is especially critical with this sub-style. As NEIPAs hit distribution I’ve seen a number of freshness dating strategies. One of the best is Springdale Brewing who clearly marks the canned on date, the best by date (2 months after canning for hoppy beers) and a directive to store the beer cold. Other breweries just have a single date with no explanation of what the date means, have numbers that are impossible to read or decipher, or even worse have no date coding at all. If a brewery really cares about delivering the optimal product to their consumers they will clearly date all of their cans and work with distributors to keep the freshest possible beer on shelves and encourage bottle shops to store the beer cold whenever possible. It is also critical for consumers to check the dates and store the beer cold once they buy it.
It was fun to delve into a little science as part of Hoppy Boston!