Fresh As A...Beer?

If YOU'VE NEVER WORRIED about the six-pack aging in your fridge, start now. You're about to discover the newest gimmick in the beer business, and the oldest trick in marketing: create a need, then answer it.

This week the nation's biggest brewer, AnheuserBusch, begins labeling each can and bottle of Bud or Michelob with a birth date ("Born on" July 4, for example) and a warning to drink up before 110 days. A multimillion-dollar campaign will explain that just as with bread or milk, when it comes to beer freshness counts.

Never mind that beer never goes bad. True, after several months it oxidizes, acquiring a cardboardy taste. But big-label beers quickly move off the shelf, and are already coded to warn distributors when they've sat too long.

The real targets of this brewhaha are upstarts like Boston Beer Co.'s Sam Adams, which have been tough competition for the likes of Bud. Smaller breweries have prospered with an image of homemade (read: fresh) quality.

Now, Bud and the other megabrands hope to freshen their image. Coors recently launched ads highlighting its own "sell by" dates. Expect others to join the freshness fad before it gets stale.