The unofficial campaign to educate drinkers about the importance of drinking (most) beer fresh continues with the launch of a new video by Modus Operandi. The Northern Beaches brewery has been stamping a packaged on date on its kegs since launching in 2014 and on its cans since they were introduced last year.
The brewery also takes great care to ensure any beer that leaves the brewery makes its way through the distribution network and venues into drinkers' hands cold and as quickly as possible. Now this short film aims to explain why by delivering a serious message in a lighthearted manner.
Its release comes at a time when there has been more discussion about freshness – or otherwise – of beer than at any other stage in The Crafty Pint's existence. There has been debate over the flexible best before dates on some imported beers – dates that are extended for the Australian market – while we recently asked whether packaged on, best before dates or providing both were best practice while pointing out that many local brewers provide no such information on their bottles and cans.
"For us it's about what's right for the beer knowing we are a brewing company not a shadowy marketing one," says Modus Operandi co-owner Grant Wearin. "We feel strongly that Australian consumers have been pretty much misled and miseducated around how important freshness is to beer quality. It's critical.
"The only way to support this ethos in a packaged product is to stamp a packed on date not hide behind a best before. For us as a self distributed model we just have to work harder with our outlets in educating the drinker and the retailer on the importance of freshness."
The impact of age on beer is something we've looked to highlight through our blind tastings. We've had trophy and gold medal winning beers fare badly often because they're months old by the time we've picked them up from trade. That's in the cases we can ascertain their age; often bottles and cans come with no indication of age, meaning the only hope a drinker has of knowing if a beer is fresh is to have a retailer they trust.
There are many brewers looking to hammer the message home. Despite clamour for its beer from the East Coast, for years Feral Brewing held back from sending beer across the country until it could guarantee refrigerated transport and continues to highlight the "Fresh is Best" message via its Tusk Days, for example.
Cold storage and cold distribution is something Grant describes as "a huge part of the puzzle for us", with his beers transported via a refrigerated truck in Sydney, Canberra and Newcastle. He also obliges customers who wish to stock Modus Operandi beers to agree to cold storage as a part of their trading terms.
He says: "Volume based beer businesses will chuckle at us for doing that but they are largely the same businesses struggling to hold onto their customer in this market we brew in. Right sizing your brewery is another critical point, moving stock fresh to your customers is critical. So you won't find over capitalised breweries, in terms of brewing capacity, putting packed on dates as it might take them a month or more to move a single batch.
"We don't believe you can short change the customer by potentially selling them old beer while you grow into your brewing kit. Every brewer with growth ambitions I've spoken to is obsessed with asking, 'How big's ya brewhouse, mate?' I always answer the question but wonder why nobody asks how quick do you turn your stock – it's in part because some brewers have made the choice to hide behind best before dates and/or grow into a big brewing kit over time. Our 'right-sized' brewhouse runs all the time and we employ more brewers as a result."
It's not just brewers looking to campaign on freshness either. At the end of 2016, Aaron Edwards, owner of Sydney's Bitter Phew, decided to try an experiment.
Unbeknown to his customers, he wanted to see if it was possible to always offer at least one draught beer that was no more than seven days old. Once it ticked over to the eighth day, it would no longer be considered “fresh” and would be replaced (unless a fresher beer had already been tapped elsewhere across the range). He wanted to see what could be done on the venue side to ensure drinkers were getting those beers as intended, as regularly as possible.
“It was pretty brutal for us and for brewers,” he says.
“Often the brewers don't actually brew every week – there was a week where no one was brewing so technically I had nothing under seven days. It could have been that brewers were working on two week brewing schedules, or it could be shipping schedules. Some weeks we had three beers less than two weeks but only one that was less than one week.”
Despite minor hurdles, the trial worked in principle so they decided to make freshness a permanent, if still unpublicised, feature from the beginning of this year, albeit with slightly extended parameters.
“It was a case of saying, ‘Let’s be realistic’,” says Aaron.
“As far as I'm concerned, a beer is still fresh within 30 days, it’s just not brewery fresh. So we upped it from seven to 21 days, as long as the beer was actually sitting on premise and ready to be tapped.”
For a lot of breweries – particularly those that are interstate, dealing with third party distribution or with longer brewing cycles – this could be viewed as a hard stance that prevents perfectly good beer from being offered. That’s something of which Aaron is cognisant.
“It does rule out some brewers," he says. "Some might only brew a particular beer every three months, which means that after three weeks we technically won’t be able to stock it. That’s a challenge because the beer might still be tasting good, but it’s about putting a bit of a line in the sand.
“We want Bitter Phew to be known as progressive. We’re not reinventing the wheel, just striving to make the industry better. Yes, there’s a selfish part in that we want people to drink here, but it’s also setting a standard that consumers will hopefully catch on to and maybe start looking at their local pub and asking if a beer is fresh.
“I think it’s always going to be a challenge because it requires maintenance and diligence. This is an ongoing thing, but it’s nice that everyone’s responsible for it in a way. If consumers accept bad beer it allows bars to keep selling it, and the same with brewers.”
The campaign seems likely to keep gaining momentum. This week, one of the brewing company owners we spoke to for the Enjoy By article, Tom Delmont of Fixation Brewing, posted on our Facebook page that for its new Squish cans they have included both the packaged on and best before dates. As things stand, its bottles – packaged at Stone & Wood's facility in Murwillumbah, will still come with best before dates as the packaging line doesn't yet have the ability to add both, but he says the move with the cans is part of the company's ongoing commitment to getting beer to consumers in the freshest and most transparent manner.
In deciding on how they were going to bring beer to market back in 2014, Grant said there were many factors they considered when it came to date stamping.
"For Modus, it's three factors: freshness, cold distribution and right sizing makes better beer and the customer understands that now with a packaged on date. They can't understand that with a best before date in my view. Best before is for dairy companies."