Many keen home brewers feel qualified to answer the question on the ageing of lagers.
All true lagers are aged before consumption. The word Lager, in fact, comes from the German word meaning “to store”.
After fermentation, the beer undergoes a storage, or lagering, process at low temperature to allow the beer to mature and take on the distinctive clean taste for which lagers are famous.
Lagering takes from one week to more than six months, depending on the style. We suspect that both Budweiser and Grolsch undergo this process.
In general, European lagers tend to be more complex than American lagers, which are usually lighter and less intricate in style. Because a complex beer will gain more from lengthy lagering, European lagers tend to be matured for longer than American ones.
After lagering the beer is bottled. Once bottled the beer can spoil easily through exposure to light, oxygen or high temperatures.
Fast shipping and sale minimises the chance of beer spoilage. So, in short, both claims are correct. A lager needs to be matured to develop the correct flavors, and fast shipping, once matured, is important.
As for which brand is best, that is a matter of personal taste, the fact is, beer needs to mature as part of the brewing process.
After fermentation a beer needs first to be matured and aged at a cool temperature, usually between 4 and 7 °C. During this period the residual yeast in the beer carries on metabolising and, because the beer has become nutrient-poor during brewing, reabsorbs compounds that had previously been excreted.
The most notable of these is diacetyl, which imparts a butterscotch taste to the beer. Meanwhile the yeast content of the brew steadily falls as the yeast sediments.
Next, the beer is chilled to -1 °C or below. This promotes protein coagulation and precipitation, which increases the physical shelf life, or the time the beer takes to go hazy. At the end of all this the beer is filtered and bottled.
From here on it’s all downhill. Bottling is traumatic to beer. It is filtered, pumped, packaged and pasteurised. Some contamination with oxygen is unavoidable, and this immediately gets to work on the compounds in the beer, starting a process of deterioration.
In conclusion, mature it slowly and at length to get a good flavor and then get it into the drinker as fast as possible before it deteriorates. A reasonably good taster can distinguish between a week-old and a month-old bottle from the same batch.
Beer is raw immediately after fermentation, and any harsh sugars that are present, such as the Belgian candy used in some beers, burn the nose, while the hops taste like freshly cut grass. The conditioning, or lagering, period is a very slow fermentation during which these raw flavors mellow and the subtler flavors increase in complexity.
At some point the beer reaches its peak of flavor and starts losing taste.
A pale ale might peak between one and three months after fermentation, while a high-gravity imperial stout could still be developing years later.
Many beer experts think that US-style Budweiser is a very light taste to begin with and that because their breweries have strong quality control over every step of their process, they can reduce the need for longer maturation and clarification periods without affecting the taste too much. European lagers, on the other hand, have longer lagering periods because they are far more complex in taste.
After pasteurisation, beer is essentially defenceless against degradation.
Any temperature swings between the brewery and consumption spoil the taste. Even worse, compounds known as alpha acids from the hops are light-sensitive, photons break down the isohumulones in the liquid, creating 3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol, which gives the beer a skunky smell and taste.
And yes, it really is the same compound found in skunk spray. Brown bottles slow this process, but clear and green bottles provide almost no protection. Some brewers use chemically modified hop compounds that are resistant to skunking, but even so it is best to use an opaque container, and a steel cask beats anything else.
You need a conditioning period for the flavor of the beer to peak, however long that may be. But once you reach that peak you would ideally drink it immediately, especially if it is pasteurized.
The time it takes to brew a beer and how quickly it is shipped to consumers are really two different aspects of the overall brewing, packaging and distribution process. So, the two claims are not opposite, but complementary in ensuring a good-quality beer.
Anheuser-Busch says they brew Budweiser for just the right amount of time to give the beer its unique clean, crisp taste. While they assume all quality brewers understand the time needed to brew and mature their beer, they make the additional effort to bring a freshly packaged beer to the consumer.
They even suggest when it should be consumed to ensure it has the freshest taste: within the first no days. The “Born On” date provides this information and recommendation.
Many companies know consumers are looking for the best-tasting beer available, and the fact is, fresh beer tastes better, hence their policy.