Oldies are seldom goodies

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What this world needs is a uniform system of freshness dating.

Most beer sold in America is packaged and labeled with a date that tells when the suds were brewed or when one might reasonably expect the stuff to turn into rotgut.

These dates, unfortunately, are almost always indecipherable.

Pick up a Heineken and you’ll see something like:

IPE 0089K 72496050207 10.

Somewhere in there, I’m told, is Sept. 6, 1997.

Others notch their paper labels, as if the head brewer had pulled out his penknife and personally whittled your bottle. You’re never completely sure that it’s an official bottling date or maybe someone at the distributor got drunk and started peeling labels.

Budweiser has made this a bit easier with its pompous-but-to-the-point “born-on date.” The megabrewer clearly tells you when its finest rice product was bottled, but not where.

Freshness dates are important because beer doesn’t last forever. Most beer is meant to be consumed quickly. But not too quickly, because then you belch. And the next thing you know, your brother-in-law belches, and then you belch even louder, and then you have a contest – who can belch the alphabet? – and then your wife yells at you for acting like a couple of kids and how come you haven’t mowed the lawn yet?

True, age is not the only factor that screws up good beer. Heat and sunlight can do a number on your brew, too.

Moreover, age isn’t always such a bad thing. Last summer, for example, bar manager Anne Cebulla of Bridgid’s (726 N. 24th St., Fairmount) embargoed a shipment of Belgian Chimay for a couple of months because she believed it hadn’t been properly aged.

With so many different beer types at the distributor, who’s to know how long any of it will last?

Your best bet is to buy local, but even that’s no guarantee. I still see cases of Red Feather from Chambersburg, Pa., collecting dust at distributors, and its maker has been closed for months.

A uniform system of freshness dating – one that says “Drink this before Day X or suffer the consequences” – would do the trick. In fact, freshness dating would benefit a world of products.

Personal computers, for example, ought to come with a date that tells you when your $2,000 investment will be technologically obsolete. I believe a Pentium II has the approximate shelf life of a good imperial stout.

Clothing, too, could use a freshness date. Then Mrs. Sixpack wouldn’t have to tell me that yellow ties went out of style nine years ago.

Same with pop music. CDs should clearly state that, within six weeks, the contents will be played to death on your radio station.

Your automobile already comes with freshness dating – it’s called the warranty – and it expires exactly one week after your loan is paid off.

Why stop with actual products?

Silly expressions – like, “You go, girl” – should be dated to warn dull users when their pet phrase is a stupid cliche.

And wouldn’t it be nice if insufferable celebrities evaporated at the end of their freshness date? David Letterman – sorry, you expired three years ago. Ed Rendell – staler than month-old bagels.

Clinton jokes need freshness dates – if it’s older than two days, chances are you’ve heard it.

Heck, the president himself could use a little guidance. If the intern is under 21, keep the bottle opener in your pocket.

As for the rest of us, well, maybe all relationships need a freshness date. If you haven’t gotten a good taste within the first three months, toss it into the recycling bucket.

Unless, of course, your partner was meant to be aged. In which case, treat him or her like a vintage brew, then sip and enjoy.

Confused by those impenetrable dating codes? Check out “Beer Dies” on the Internet at web.superb.net/islander/beer. A former beer-store clerk named Michael Bauser seems to have broken the codes for most of the nation’s biggest breweries.

If you think your beer is stale – skunky or tasting of cardboard – don’t hesitate to return the bottle to your bartender or distributor. Most will take back the bad beer rather than lose a customer.


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