Nearly every person who has purchased a canned or bottled beer has noticed the faint ink or laser etched code on the package’s exterior. Most folks probably don’t give it much thought, but it serves several important purposes that we all should care about. In many ways, it is no different than the date code printed on your milk container. It’s there to ensure freshness for the producer, the distributor, the retailer, and most importantly, the customer. But there are other safety purposes that are not as well understood, that are a direct result of the events of September 11, 2001.
In the beer industry, there is no mandated system for date lot coding, but most companies are more or less standardized. The code can take several forms; a “best by” format, which indicates a date chosen by the brewery after which the beer’s best flavor cannot be ensured, and the “packaged date” (NoDa Brewing’s preferred method). This is simply the date that the beer was bottled or canned and the date where most breweries start their stopwatch in the interest of freshness. Each brewery decides the “freshness window” for their brand but most fall in the 120-150 day range. This can vary with style, with hoppy beers having small windows, and large stouts having much longer windows but, by in large, 120-150 days is the norm.
The Brewers Association is the industry trade group that represents the vast majority of craft breweries in the U.S. Their technical committee is involved in supporting the quality of all craft beer through education and recommended practices. The BA says it is in the best interest of craft brewers to mark their packaged products with a form of date or lot code. This code acts as a vehicle to trace a brewery’s package in the marketplace and allows a brewery to cross reference the specific batch(es) of beer that make up the packaged product. As stated by the Bioterrorism Act, breweries are required to insure traceability of their beer and to keep internal records of specific ingredients, including manufacture lot numbers that were used in individual batches. This allows quick and effective recall of product in the event of a bioterrorism act. Not only is this required by law, but it also serves an important public safety function.
Lot coding serves three primary functions:
- It provides a critical function in the event of a safety recall. This is rare and brewers try to avoid this at all costs, but it is critical that a brewery be prepared for this possibility.
- It is a valuable tool in quality assurance for the retail chain allowing distributors and retailers to rotate stock to achieve a first-in first out stock supply.
- It allows transparency for the consumer to determine the freshness of the product.
Date and lot coding can take several forms but the Brewers Association recommends that each brewery use a legible best by or packaging date code that is understandable to the customer. Most brewers use standard or Georgian date coding ex. June 29, 2017. Other forms include Julian date. These are easily decoded by distributors and retailers but not as easy for customers. An example would be 180-17 which would represent the 180th day of the year (June 29th) of 2017. If a brewery uses this method you have to ask yourself why they do not want the customer to know the actual package date? Still there are other brewers that use a company specific date code unique to them. This may complicate stock rotation depending on the knowledge of the retailer but it almost insures that the customer has no clue to the date of origin.
Next time you pick up that six pack of lager or that four pack of IPA, look at the date and know that it is there for your safety and to ensure that your product tastes its best. If you see no code or one that is not decipherable then we suggest you inquire why.