The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco... with an Anchor Summer Beer.

Beer freshness always struck us as gimmickry until we quaffed a Guinness poured straight from the storage tanks at St. James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin. Revelatory. Now, with the dog days barking, summer beers can offer delicious remedy—long as they’re still good. “Filtered beers are at their best the day they leave the brewery,” explains Garrett Oliver, Brooklyn Brewery Brewmaster and well-known authority on suds. “The fresher the better.” He likens older beer to a stale baguette. Hop character dissipates first, followed by the fresh grain. Ultimately, oxidation lends old beer a cardboard quality. Most brands have some age indicator on the container, but there’s no industry standard, and the date codes can be infuriatingly—intentionally, it seems—complex to translate. Says Oliver (whose beers were among the first to offer “Best Before” dates on their brews), “we use Julian date codes (you can easily find a Julian calendar online), and that’s true of some other breweries. So, if I see code “09011”, I know that’s the 90th day of 2011.” Other codes can be much harder to crack. We found a helpful decoder on most brewers’ websites, while and also provide some information on the topic. Stores manned by beer geeks are your allies in the fight for fresh beer. Oliver posits a six-month window of freshness for an average brew. Which means some spring/summer releases have reached middle age. Here are a few to grab before they go to beer heaven:

Anchor Summer
This classic American summer ale, brewed with 50% malted wheat, has been greeting the season since 1984. Highly drinkable, with a pleasantly sour hop finish, it’s available between April and November. Anchor’s 3-digit dating code works like this: the 1st character represents the last digit of the year. The 2nd character refers to the bottling month (refer to the table on Anchor’s FAQ page to see how this breaks down). The 3rd digit tells you the bottling day, with “A-Z” representing the first 26 days of the month, and 7-9, 0, and 1 handling the rest. To conclude: our sample, code 1UU, was bottled on June 21st.

Sierra Nevada Summerfest
They’re better known for their Pale Ale, but Sierra Nevada’s summer offering is our favorite. It’s a bright and floral pilsner-style lager, great for day drinking and barbeque. Sierra’s 9-digit code translates as follows: the first number refers to the last digit of the year. The next three to the Julian calendar day; the 5th to a specific bottling line, and the last 4 to a 24-hr clock, Pacific Time. Our bottle, code 1151-1-0712, was born on the 31st of May, at 7:12AM.

Founders Cerise Cherry Fermented Ale
Founders beers aren’t available everywhere yet, but this Grand Rapids microbrewery—the second fastest growing brewery in the U.S. in 2009, ranked 4th-best brewery in the world by in 2010—is one to watch. Cerise, available from June to August (and made with Michigan cherries at five separate stages of fermentation), is a delightful lip-smacker. Better still, a simple date stamp tells us that ours was bottled on May 5th, at 10:44AM.

Lagunitas Lucky 13
Another California brewery, Lagunitas (from the modest town of Petaluma) continually impresses with their challenging yet quaffable beers. Lucky 13.alt, the June 2011 offering in their 22-oz seasonal line-up, is a big old girl. It’s got robust spiciness and ABV (8.5%) reminiscent of a German bockbier, with hops shooting through it like the California sunshine. Lagunitas uses the Julian calendar—and even though ours appears to have slipped through without a stamp, we know it’s only bottled from June to August, so we’re in the clear.

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