The second enemy of beer is sunlight (or fluorescent light). Actually it's not so much the beer that doesn't get along with the light, it's the hops. Hops are small cone-shaped flowers that have been used for more than 300 years to impart flavor to beer. The oils from the hop leaf escape to "bitter" the beer during the brewing process. They also leave behind aromatic and flavor compounds that give beer its aroma, which can vary from floral, citrus, earthy and sometimes, skunky. Yes, skunky!
When certain waves of light penetrate a bottle of beer sitting helplessly on the shelf, they proceed to chemically shred those tasty hop oil molecules. The shreds attach themselves to other molecules to form a stinky, sulfur smell, which turns out to be the same compound that Pepe Lepew wears for his cologne.
Therefore, Tip No. 2 is: Always try to buy beer that has had minimal exposure to light. Try to buy beer in the original cardboard case or reach way in the back of the cooler for that six-pack. Beer in clear or green bottles "skunk-up" faster than beer in brown bottles.
Historically, beer was meant to be served within the shadow of the brewery itself, and there were literally thousands of them. It was only through transport and then packaging technology that beer was able to travel. The best beer is still served at the brewery, but that is not a realistic expectation in this age of the global market.
One thing that has not changed, though, is that beer's freshness clock starts to count down the minute the beer is capped or canned. How then, do we determine the age of the beer that is sitting in our grocer's cooler, far away from the brewery? Freshness dating is a very consumer-friendly way of telling us that the beer should be good when we buy it.
There are unfortunately only a handful of craft brewers who practice freshness dating. Samuel Adams and Great Lakes Brewing Co. are two brands that are very well represented in the Charleston area, and we are fortunate in that both brewers print date codes right on the label.
Other brand leaders like Sierra Nevada and Rogue apparently do not wish us to know the age of the beer because they lack freshness dating information. The only indication you may have is the amount of dust on the bottle.
Tip No. 3 is: Do whatever you can to buy fresh beer. Look for a freshness date, ask the retailer - whatever. Your efforts will be rewarded.
For more on the craft of beer, see Rich Ireland's "Beers to You" blog at www.thegazz.com.