If there’s one guiding law IPA devotees are taught at the beginning of their craft beer journey, it’s to drink their hazies fresh.

For many, checking the canned-on dates on the bottom of IPAs is standard practice, and some are quick to pass up an otherwise automatic purchase if it’s more than a few weeks old. But one thing these breweries haven’t defined is what “fresh” really means. Even more ambiguous: They don’t bother touching on when a beer might be “too fresh.”

For anyone who’s managed to score a super-fresh hazy — say one to two days old — the scenario probably played out a bit like this: You crack into the can expecting the best version of that IPA you’ve ever had, but instead, it tastes almost acidic with a harsh, vegetal hop flavor. All of those dank, tropical fruit notes you were hoping for just aren’t there.

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If this has ever happened to you, we send our condolences. You’ve fallen victim to an IPA that was simply too fresh. But what does “too fresh” really mean, and at what point do hop flavors harmonize and evolve into optimal “fresh” territory? We sat down with Sam Richardson, co-founder and brewmaster of Brooklyn’s Other Half Brewing Company, to find out.

When It’s Too Soon

An IPA actually isn’t going to be at its absolute best right off the canning line. “I liken it to pasta sauce,” Richardson says. “When you make pasta sauce and eat it right away, it’s fine. But the next day or two days later, it’s even better. Everything melds.” And like many good sauces, there are a lot of ingredients that make it into the complex stew that is an IPA. The biggest two that affect harshness (or “greenness” as many call it) are CO2 and hops.

“In super-freshly canned beer, the CO2 is often mis-integrated, and that can add harshness,” Richardson says. “The volume of hops will also impact its longevity. A beer with less hops in it will be more drinkable at an earlier point.”

If the pasta sauce analogy didn’t land, Richardson also likens the idea to wine. “A high-tannin wine is gonna be a little bit rougher at the beginning, and obviously people age them for a reason. With hops, it’s similar, but a much shorter time frame,” he says. “A very hoppy beer in the beginning will be green and aggressive, and then it mellows out over time and becomes more drinkable.”

That “green” profile largely stems from heavy hopping rates and exactly how much plant matter ends up in the beer itself. At Other Half, Richardson and his team use a centrifuge to spin solids out of their beers prior to canning, which removes some of that green character — but there’s still an incubation period of sorts before it’s perfect for consumers to crack.

The Sweet Spot

Navigating exactly when a beer is at its best is not easy, especially since specific hop varieties take different amounts of time to shine at their brightest. For instance, Richardson points out that New Zealand varietals tend to have more longevity than those hailing from the Pacific Northwest.

“A variety like Nelson Sauvin will taste almost better at four months than it does at one month. It gets more complex and more refined,” he says. “But it’s not like a three-month-old Citra beer is gonna be significantly worse than a three-month-old Nelson Sauvin beer. It’s an agricultural product. When it was harvested matters, what the growing season was like matters, oil content — all these things go into it.”

That said, a general rule of thumb is to make sure a hazy is at least a week old before cracking into it. After that, it’ll be pretty fresh anywhere up to a couple months, according to Richardson, as most IPAs will mellow out in a couple weeks post-canning.

“People will look at beers that are three weeks old and say ‘I don’t want that. It’s already three weeks old,’ which is just the wrong way to look at it,” he says. “It’s probably in that sweet spot at three to four weeks where it’s still very hoppy and fresh-tasting, but not as green.”

And it’s true: A lot of good beer goes to waste because people are under the impression that an IPA is cooked after a few weeks. The “drink fresh” propaganda is real, and there are more pressing factors to consider when shopping around for IPAs. One of those factors is temperature. In reality, heat is a way bigger threat to our beloved hazies than age.

“With New England IPAs, specifically, too much exposure to warm temps will kill off the positive hop aromas and flavors,” Richardson says. “The thing I get concerned about is [the effect of] a hot bodega or even a pallet of beer sitting on a hot loading dock for too long. I find that more problematic — low turnover, non-air-conditioned places.” As mentioned above, hops are an agricultural product like fruits and veggies, so before you even bother checking the canned-on date, make sure wherever you’re buying your beer from is keeping it refrigerated — or at least near an AC unit.

When It’s Too Old

Even if the cold chain remains intact, there still comes a time when IPAs lose their luster.

“When it comes to a New England IPA, three months is a good time frame in which to consume one,” Richardson says. “They can still be good after that, but they may start to get a little muddled in profile — just not as clear and clean.” West Coast IPAs are a little more forgiving, mainly because they generally contain fewer hops. At the end of the day, the death of hop flavor boils down to inevitable oxidation.

“That’s gonna deteriorate a beer over time,” Richardson says. “Even the best of the best have some amount of oxygen making it in there. It’s unavoidable.”

Still, a two-year-old hazy isn’t gonna hurt you — it’ll just be flabby, bitter, and not the beer the brewers intended it to be. As long as you’re drinking IPAs from good producers, keeping ‘em cold, and cracking cans before the three-month mark, those beers should be golden.

*Image retrieved from pavel siamionov via stock.adobe.com