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Does the LCBO have a stale beer problem?

Generally speaking, beer is a beverage best enjoyed fresh. So I was dismayed recently when I happened upon Cream Ale from famed Copenhagen brewery Mikkeller at my local LCBO, happily bought it, Instagrammed my score, and was then roundly lambasted by other beer nerds for having purchased beer that was part of the LCBO's summer release. Last summer, that is.

Why was it, I wondered, that the LCBO, one of only two places in the province that is legally allowed to sell a variety of beer onsite, is so frequently the topic of conversation among craft beer fans for having imported beer on its shelves that is so far removed from the date it was actually bottled? How could I be buying beer released nine months ago?

The issue, as you might guess, isn't a simple one.

I spoke with Christine Bujold, Media Relations Coordinator for the LCBO about the process for bringing imported beer into Ontario.

"Products sold through LCBO stores are tasted, tested and certified by the LCBO's Quality Assurance (QA) department," she told me via email. "The QA department conducts more than 500,000 laboratory tests and tastes more than 7,500 products each year."

That takes some time and can often delay the time between when beer is bottled and when it actually hits the shelves.

"With regards to beer," she says, "The LCBO makes every effort to ensure beer is stored, in our warehouses and retail stores, in a manner that ensures it retains its quality and freshness. This includes minimizing situations where beer may be impacted by exposure to natural elements such as direct sunlight."

Stephen Beaumont, author of The Pocket Beer Guide and The World Atlas of Beer, says that the LCBO may not be perfect, but they're making huge strides.

"All too often we hear stories about beers languishing in the warehouse instead of disappearing from store shelves and others spending too much time in North Bay stores rather than being snapped up in Toronto, Ottawa or Hamilton," he says.

"But I am convinced that this situation will get better with time and experience. [...] The LCBO is a bit of a colossus and as such takes time, sometimes considerable amounts of time, to fully effect program changes."

He also emphasized that this problem isn't unique to Ontario. "I've patronized any number of beer specialty stores in the U.S. and abroad for well over two decades and have seen out-of-date beers in the vast majority of them."

Bujold confirms that LCBO warehouse staff monitor "best before" dates and retail staff are trained to remove from shelves any inventory past its date.

Indeed, the Mikkeller Cream Ale that I purchased did in fact have a "best before date" of 2016. This is obviously some insane optimism from the brewers, but difficult to fault the LCBO for, given that they can only go off the manufacturer's best before.

Bujold also informed me that, "if a customer feels that he or she has purchased an unsatisfactory product from the LCBO, they may return the product to any LCBO store for a full refund." And so I actually returned my less-than-fresh beer and got my money back.

So the next time you purchase "stale" beer from the LCBO, consider that there's actually a lot going on to make sure the imports we get in Ontario are fresh, and, more importantly, you can always take it back.

Ben Johnson also writes about beer over on Ben's Beer Blog. Follow him on twitter @Ben_T_Johnson. If you'd like to read Christine Bujold's complete statement on beer freshness at the LCBO, you can do so here.

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