It seems hard to believe now that “Use By” and “Best Before” dates haven’t always been a feature of food labelling, but incredibly what most consumers would now view as eminently sensible, or even essential information, only made its appearance in 1970, and that was on a voluntary basis.
I am certainly old enough to remember the days before shelf life information first appeared on foodstuffs, even though I’m unsure how people consumers managed, and why there weren’t more instances of food poisoning.
We take these things for granted these days, and even drinks like beer have a “Best Before” date (BBE) somewhere on the container. One thing worth bearing in mind is that unlike a “Use By” date which is a safety warning to be heeded, a BBE is only a guideline. The foodstuff might not taste as fresh if you exceed the latter, but it will not harm you.
I put this to the test the other day, when I came across a bottle of Fuller’s Golden Pride, with a BBE date of 19th Feb 2016, lurking in my cellar. (I haven’t really got a cellar, just a stack of beer crates and boxes, in the coolest part of the extension). Described as a “Superior Strength Ale”, and with an ABV of 8.5%, this high strength beer was nearly two years past its “Best Before” date. So was it still drinkable?
There was only one way to find out, and that was to crack open the bottle and taste the contents. The beer was still nice and clear, with plenty of condition. It had an attractive, deep amber colour, which was topped by a sticky-looking head.
Taste-wise, the beer had taken on a distinct sherry-like character, which reminded me of Oloroso Sherry or Madeira wine. It still possessed a fair amount of residual sweetness, but it wasn’t cloying or unbalanced. It obviously wasn’t a beer for rapid consumption, but drank slowly over the course of an hours or so, it was quite pleasant.
The other surprising thing was this Golden Pride had thrown quite a sediment, despite it being a filtered and pasteurised beer. This resulted in the last couple of inches pouring with a bit of a haze, but the beer was none the worse for that.
I wouldn’t intentionally age a brewery-conditioned beer in this way, but it does prove that a beer of this strength is able to survive and remain perfectly drinkable, long after its BBE date has passed. Had it been a bottle-conditioned beer, then I feel it might have retained a bit more of its original character, but that’s not meant to be a criticism of this particular bottle.
There is still another bottle left in my store; this time slightly younger, with a BBE May 2016, along with a bottle of Woodforde’s Norfolk Nip, ABV 7.0% BBE November 2015. I really must get myself a bit more organised!