I was rooting through the well-stocked coolers of my favorite crossroads tavern the other day when I saw it: that familiar Great Lakes Brewing Company
label, the one with the green wagon and its cargo of shiny red Christmas bulbs.
"Hey!" I called over to the bartender. "How did you get Christmas Ale this time of year?" He shrugged.
Still preoccupied by the mission at hand, I went back to pawing through the coolers. As the name implies, Christmas Ale is a seasonal brew, released only at the holidays. And like all GLBC's beers, it's all-natural, preservative-free, and date-stamped to assure quality. Could the stuff in the cooler possibly be fresh?
I headed back over for a closer look; sure enough, the bottle's expiration date was January 8, 2006.
"I'm not looking to start any trouble," I said to the barkeep, "but that Christmas Ale is bothering me . . . it's waaaay past its freshness date."
He scoffed at my concern. "As long as you refrigerate it, it doesn't matter," he retorted. In fact, he went on, he wished the brewery wouldn't even bother with freshness dating. Nobody cares about the dates, he opined, as long as the beer still tastes good.
"And does it?"
"Well, of course it does! We had some people in here yesterday who ordered it, and they loved it! Those dates just make people like you worry for nothing. They don't mean a thing."
Well, okay. I know expiration dates aren't an exact science -- look at that sour cream I used on last night's burritos, after all. But still, Great Lakes is infamous for its aggressive quality control and insistence on freshness. And that beer was 10 months beyond its prime. Surely that was a little extreme.
"Well, the beer certainly won't hurt you," says Great Lakes spokeswoman Kami Dolney, noting that consumers are often known to stockpile Christmas Ale for later. On the other hand, the quality doesn't exactly improve with age, and once the beer's delivered to a retailer, proper handling and storage are beyond the brewery's control. For those reasons, retailers are expected to abide by the freshness dating. "We do give them some leeway in removing it from the shelves," Dolney says. "But  months is really beyond the pale!"
Great Lakes owner Pat Conway is even more adamant. "Our customers do care about freshness. And they do look at the dates. That's why we put them there." And while Conway understands a retailer's desire to hold onto interesting seasonal brews for year-round enjoyment, the practice simply doesn't fly. "We'll be sending a salesman out there to have a little talk with them sometime soon."
While this was my first and only gig as an unpaid field operative, Conway says it's a popular pastime among Great Lakes devotees. "There are quite a few of them who contact us when they spot expired beers, and we really appreciate their diligence. We call them our 'Beer Rangers.'"
And if you're craving the seasonal brew without the taste of Christmas past, head down to the brewery: The taps just started spouting Christmas Ale again. God bless us, everyone. -- Cicora