The table on the patio of HenHouse Brewing Company's Palace of Barrels tasting room in Petaluma already overflows with beer flights and fried chicken sandwiches when HenHouse co-founder Collin McDonnell comes out of the back with several additional cans—of the craft brewery's signature IPA.
We're here for a taste test, except that all three of the IPAs placed before us appear to be the exact same beer.
Yet, appearances can be deceiving, and a closer look at the three cans reveals one small, but important, difference between them—the expiration date. Yes, HenHouse Brewing marks each of their cans with a best-by date, and it's more than a suggestion.
Best-by dates are a mantra for McDonnell and the staff at HenHouse—one that makes freshness their top priority. That mantra is on full display this weekend when HenHouse Brewing hosts the first-ever "Freshtival" beer festival on Saturday, Oct. 12, at SOMO Village Event Center in Rohnert Park, in which more than 50 brewers pour over 100 less-than-a-week-old beers, celebrating the flavorful power of fresh beer alongside live music, great food, a gallery of beer industry art, interactive freshness demos and more.
But, back to the taste test.
McDonnell first cracks open a five-day-old can of HenHouse IPA, then pops the tab on a three-month-old can and finally opens a nine-month-old can.
The differences in the flavor profiles are striking, with ripe notes of fruit and hops in the young can, and a stale, metallic flavor in the old can.
"So much about what we do is shortening the chain between us and the beer drinker," says McDonnell. To that effect, HenHouse employs a strict, 28-day shelf-life policy for any beer it distributes to tap rooms or stores.
"You can really tell that the beer tastes so much better in those first 28 days," says McDonnell. "I think it's super important for the consumer to drink 28-day-old beer. You can tell how much brighter and vibrant and more fun the hop flavor is in new beer."
McDonnell adds that the company's 28-day shelf-life policy advocates for the consumer.
"Life is actually better for the people drinking the beer if they get it in the first 28 days," he says. "At 90 days it's a muted and boring experience, and when we get to nine months old it's sad and gross. The more it oxidizes (in the can), the beer's hop flavors get grating and it's super unpleasant. Even under the best treatment, nine-month-old beer is still not fun to drink."
HenHouse is not alone in this thinking; the entire craft beer industry has moved towards the fresh trend in recent years, meaning that the Freshtival comes at a perfect time for beer lovers.
"It's something that Bay Area Brewers Guild and us put our heads together and collaborated about," says HenHouse account manager and Freshtival co-organizer Kristie Hubacker. "It's a change in the industry, people are moving to packaged-on or drink-by dates, and you can see consumers checking that, you'll see people in the aisles turning the cans, checking the dates—that is a growing trend."
Due to time constraints and travel logistics, the majority of breweries at the Freshtival will be Bay Area-based, with North Bay brewers like Barrel Brothers, Bear Republic, Cooperage Brewing, Crooked Goat, Iron Springs Brewing, Indian Valley Brewing, Russian River Brewing, Stone Brewing Napa and Third Street Aleworks getting in on the freshness.
Other West Coast breweries are taking advantage of HenHouse's distribution side of the business and utilizing the company's cold transport system to get beers from as far away as Los Angeles and Washington State to the fest in less than a week. "We were not exclusive, any brewery from anywhere can come if they can bring beer that's seven days or fresher," says Hubacker.
While there's not exactly a competition for the freshest beer, HenHouse will use the event as a means to further propel the craft beer scene into the era of freshness. For its part, HenHouse will release an "Art of Freshness" IPA at the event, which McDonnell says will be kegged that morning. They will also pour a "Mr. October" double-IPA and other signature releases packaged that week.
"The Freshtival for us is about going out and making (freshness) a big deal in front of a lot of people," says McDonnell. "Hopefully, it's something we can do to not just make our beer better, but make beer better."