Crappy beer is a silent killer. It doesn’t make a sound. It sneaks up on you, and without notice, ruins your post-gym, its-been-a-long-day refreshment.
But you can arm yourself. You can stay safe.
Buying good beer is tough for the average American, mostly because of what happens after the beer leaves the brewery. Not every store knows what they're doing with their haul, so it's on you to make sure you're getting a proper six pack.
Here’s your guide to navigating the perilous wasteland of stale hops and warm suds at a place we call the grocery store.
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1. Mind the Date
This is probably the most important thing to consider when buying beer anywhere, whether you’re in a gas station, or a bottle shop, or your older brother’s friend’s basement. With the exception of high alcohol stouts and Belgian beers (which mellow with age), you want fresh beer, and most beer bottles or cans will tell you just how fresh that beer is. Look for the “bottled on” or “best by” date on the bottom or side of the can or bottle. Don’t buy IPAs or pale ales that were bottled more than a month ago, and for the most part, avoid buying beer that’s within two months of its “best by” date. It seems extreme, but it’s the most trustworthy way to ensure the beer you bought tastes the way it should.
2. When It Comes to Hops, Look for the Fridge
As a general rule, you should never buy an IPA that has been stored at room temperature. If you do, you’re disrespecting the IPA’s flavor at the highest level, something like spitting in your grandmother’s soup. This is because hop oils (the stuff that gives beers fruity, piney flavor) lose their potency in a warm climate, eventually leaving you with a beer that’s all bitterness and no flavor. You’ll see grocery stores promote new or special release beers by stacking boxes in the middle of the store, but if you’re buying an IPA, pale ale, dry-hopped saison, or anything remotely hoppy, please, head to the refrigerated beer section. Both the brewer and your grandmother will appreciate it.
3. Mix-a-Six, or Maybe, Don’t
The mix-your-own six-pack is a fantastic thing in theory. But the reality of the situation is that most of those single bottles have been hanging out on that shelf for a while. They’re usually not in the fridge or even close to the same bottling date, so you might get one beer that’s in perfect condition and five that taste off. Consistency is what you want (and the toughest thing for a brewer to achieve) when it comes to beer buying. Betting your hard-earned cash on six different (possibly injured) horses isn’t the smartest move. Save the mix-a-six for a bottle shop you trust.
4. Support Big Business
Normally, I advocate to drink as locally as possible, but when you’re in a supermarket — with a beer selection meant to appeal to the masses — you’re going to get a lot of national brands and large craft breweries. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s almost a guarantee that the beer you buy will be fresh, because so many people are buying it. That means the store has to restock more frequently, which means newer beer. I’m actually more likely to buy a sixer of Bell’s Two Hearted Ale from Walgreens than I am from my local bottle shop, because I know the pharmacy gets more traffic and moves more beer.
5. Steer Clear of the Weirdos
That raspberry peanut butter porter that’s staring you down from the shelves has stared down the last 3,258 people that walked it by over the past five months. If you’re thinking, 'I wonder who the hell buys this,' you should probably stay one of the people who doesn’t. The grocery store isn’t the place to test out a weird new brew. It’s about staying in the comfort zone. Straightforward lagers, stouts, Belgians, and well-treated hoppy ales are your best bets.
6. Talk to the Beer Person
Someone is in charge of the beer at your grocery store. I mean, those shelves don’t stock themselves. It might be a totally uneducated teenager or someone who’s worked with beer all of their life, but chances are, they know more about the store’s beer operation than you do. Ask them when shipments came in, what beers they’re excited about, what’s coming in soon, and if there’s anything to avoid. Again, we’re looking for the freshest beer possible, and this is another way to verify that freshness. Plus, sometimes beer workers keep a stash of the good stuff in the back, for customers who show an interest.
7. Know Which Grocery Store to Trust
This may come as a surprise to some, but I truly believe that Whole Foods is one of the most reliable places in the country to buy beer. No, their main focus isn’t beer. But Whole Foods has incredible relationships with local breweries and distributors, and their selection of local (and sometimes obscure) beers is fantastic. You can find new releases from Grimm Artisanal Ales at WF in NYC. You can find bottles of Russian River sours at WF in San Francisco. You can find cans of Pipeworks IPAs at WF in Chicago. If you’re in a new city, Whole Foods is actually a pretty good starting point when it comes to buying local brews. This is not sponsored content, I promise.