Today’s craft beer scene is overwhelming. Even for those with a grasp on hop varieties and local breweries, combing through a tap list can induce decision paralysis. But if there’s one thing that should guide an order, it’s freshness. Draft beer has long been heralded as the best option, whether for mouthfeel, pressure control or a foamy head. Now that so many craft breweries are choosing cans over bottles and kegs, is draft still considered “better?”
The answer, it turns out, isn’t so clear cut. Style — specifically when it relates to a beer’s hop content — influences the shelf life of a beer, as does packaging. Your best bet is to consult with the bartender. Robert Sherrill, beverage director of Covenhoven, a Brooklyn-based craft beer bar with 16 rotating taps and a fridge stocked with over 200 local, national and imported cans and bottles, explains.
Q: Is draft beer always better?
A: Draft beer is definitely better than bottled, but canned can be better than draft. It depends. If you look at trends, locally and nationally, most breweries are moving to canning beers. What that allows for is a proper seal. Even in a glass bottle, oxygen can leak in. So flushing cans with carbon dioxide and sealing a beer shut keeps it fresher for longer. Cans also prevent light from getting in, which can be an issue with bottles, even brown bottles. Light and oxygen are the enemies of beer.
Draft beers usually move faster, and if you’re replacing kegs more often, that usually means fresher beer. So, in terms of quality and turnover, it’s draft, then cans, then bottles.
Q: Are there particular styles that move faster than others?
A: IPAs are king. They have been for a number of years, at least in the craft market, and particularly in New York. Pilsners tend to be very popular, too; and I’ve recently had more and more people coming in asking for sours on draft.
Generally speaking, for an IPA, you want to consume it within a month of it being brewed. Hop quality begins to fade after about 30 days. Beyond that, freshness ranges according to style and hops. That information will usually come from the brewery, printed on a can or bottle. Sours like lambics can age for years; a traditional lambic is a one-year-aged beer that’s blended with a three-years-aged beer and then aged for another year. The same goes for big imperial stouts — you can hold those for five or 10 years. Some bars, like [Covenhoven], keep stuff. I have a case of beer in the cellar that my predecessor instructed us not to open until 2024 — it’s Anchor Old Foghorn Barleywine.
Q: Are local beers usually indicative of freshness?
A: Yes and no. Local beer has a tendency to be more fresh, but it has to be good beer to be fresh enough that you’ll go through kegs of it.
Q: What about year-round versus seasonal releases?
A: All beer is fresh when it first comes out. I don’t pay attention to seasonal releases; I pay attention to what the season is and order from there. You’re more likely to get a fresher witbier in the summer than in the winter, for example.
Q: What sort of questions should someone ask a bartender in order to get the best or freshest beer?
A: First, let the bartender know what type of beer you like. People often ask what I like best, but every palate is different. Knowing what kind of beer you like gives the bartender a starting point, even if it’s Heineken or Guinness. Any good beer bar will allow you a few tastes before deciding on a beer, so you should always taste before committing to something.
Choosing the right bar is also really important. You want a staff that’s casual and approachable and knowledgeable, not snooty. Craft beer bars are some of the most inviting, magical places you can go to. They’re filled with cool people gathering and uniting around a beverage, recognizing that [the beer isn’t the reason for being], but that it’s a means to a conversation. And the staff is what drives that dynamic. So picking the right bar, with the right staff, and having a bartender guide you through the process of choosing a beer and expanding your palate is what matters most. It’s not just what you can do to choose a better beer, it’s knowing how to choose the person who’s going to guide you.