Lots, Codes, and Life: Dating in the Beer Industry

By: Eric Myers

As the number of active breweries in the country exceeds 7000 and roars toward 8000, it’s more important than ever to consider one of the crucial facets of your packaged product: shelf life, and how to communicate it to your customer. It’s not just marketing; date lot coding and traceability is required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under the Bioterrorism Act of 2002. However, the exact method of recording date lot codes is ultimately up to each individual brewer, and there is a vast array of practices in the industry that can ensure that your customer knows how fresh your beer is, and that you’re in compliance with federal code at the same time.

Why Is Date Coding Important?

The easiest answer to this question is because you must. It’s the law. In the unfortunate situation that your brewery – or one of your suppliers – might have to recall product from the market, having date lot coding that is on every package, is easy to find, and easy to understand will allow your staff and every downstream partner, whether it’s a distributor or a retailer, to comply with the recall efficiently and ultimately save you headaches and money.  It’s also a great tool that your sales force–or your distributor–can use to be sure that beer in the market is as fresh as possible, it can help with FIFO inventory control and create an accountability tool for you to use with all of your downstream partners.

Finally, it’s an extra layer of transparency for your customer, as well as an educational tool, allowing you to provide them with the best–and freshest–possible product, and the best possible customer experience.

How to Code

For better or worse, there is no standard way or best practice guide to follow for date coding your beer. From a practical, legal standpoint, as long as there is a code on your package that is traceable to a batch at your particular factory and you can track that batch back to its component ingredients, you’ve complied with FDA standards. However, esoteric or confusing coding can be a problem in the marketplace and lacks customer transparency.

Many food and beverage manufacturers use a Julian Code to signify what date an item was manufactured or packaged. Julian Code is a system designed by the U.S. Military to easily date MREs and is easy to track and assign with simple programming tasks. It uses the last digit of the year in question followed by the day of the year.  (For example, a product dated with December 15, 2018 the Julian Code would be 8349.  December 15 is the 349th day of the year in non-leap-years.)  While this provides a standard format that is unique per day and easily traceable on a package and within a database, it is not easy for a customer to read and gain information from. An eager beer drinker looking for a fresh IPA would have no way of knowing what information was being presented to them and might end up looking elsewhere.

However, a standard date might not be the easy go-to answer that it seems. A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Harvard University’s Food and Law Policy Clinic (The Dating Game, 2013, NRDC) notes that confusing date labeling leads to a tremendous amount of food waste in the United States as “open dates can come in a dizzying variety of forms, none of which are strictly defined or regulated on a federal level” and that “although most date labels are intended as indicators of freshness and quality, many consumers mistakenly believe they are indicators of safety.” Putting information on your package that isn’t well thought out may create more harm than good.

Finding the Right Date

Back in 1996, Anheuser-Busch launched a marketing campaign in a bid to show that their beer was the freshest on the market and coined the term, “Born on date.” It has become a ubiquitous term in the beer industry, regardless of the fact that the date was dropped from all Budweiser labeling in 2015 in favor of a “Freshest before” date. Just because the biggest brewery in the land does it hardly makes it an industry standard, however. It’s not even standard across their entire company.

Megan Lagesse of Anheuser-Busch InBev’s “The Higher End” craft division notes, “Some of [our] partners (Goose Island, [and] Wicked Weed) are doing dual date coding (brewed on and best by) but everyone isn’t because not all of our production equipment has the capability to dual date code,” she says. “So, we chose best by date coding [for] broader consistency, because everyone understands an expiration date but not everyone is educated enough to know IPAs should be drank as fresh as possible, but you can age wild beers and stouts.”

Jeremy Danner, Ambassador Brewer of Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing, notes proudly that Boulevard prints, “both packaged on and best by dates on all cans, bottles, keg rings and exterior boxes. If you’re going to only print one,” he says, “it should be the packaged-on date, as thoughts vary when it comes to shelf life.”

That shelf life–the basis of rationale behind a best by date–can be difficult, if not impossible, for a small brewery to determine. While larger breweries have the benefit of tasting panels, labs, and a vast number of data points, many small breweries get by with a microscope and a handful of jack-of-all-trade production team members. In small breweries, with limited, sometimes unique, production batches, shelf life is often the product of an educated guess, rather than a robust statistically significant tasting panel. Even pressure from a distributor can affect what date goes onto a package and in many cases a brewer will resort to relying on a packaged-on date and using phrases like, “Do not age” or “Best when its fresh” in lieu of a best by date.

Doing so, however, relies on the customer to be educated about your product, and that might not always be as easy as it sounds. Pete Ternes of Chicago’s Middle Brow beer notes, “90% of consumers don’t know what it means for a particular beer to have been packaged on a particular date.” While there are many craft beer fans who are incredibly well-educated and can ascertain which beer styles can handle age and which can’t, most beer-drinkers don’t know the implications of a beer’s brewed or packaged-on date.

Complicating the issue is lack of consistent temperature control once product leaves the brewery. A brewery may post a shelf life of 45 days for an IPA, but not the conditions under which that shelf life has been ascertained or should be maintained. A beer with a shelf life of 45 days at 38F has a shelf life of only 11 days at room temperature.

No Easy Answers

Unfortunately, until an industry standard or federal regulation is put into place, there is no easy answer about how to best approach lot and date coding. Ultimately, it is up to you to choose the method that you think will both comply with the FDA and provide information to your customers. Regardless of what format you do choose, providing context and information to your customers–whether that customer is the distributor, the retailer, or the end consumer–as to how you arrived at the decision of what lot and date coding method you’ve chosen is the best path and can double as an excellent marketing and education tool for your brewery.

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