Ask brewers and craft beer aficionados alike, and there’s one thing they can all agree on: fresh beer is the best beer. One of the most relatable disappointments among beer drinkers is finally cracking open a can of a beer you’ve been looking forward to and realizing it just doesn’t taste right. But we’re here to help. Read on to find out whether beer can actually “go bad,” how to store your beer to lengthen its life, and how to identify the age of the beers on your shelf.
Does Beer Expire?
The short answer is yes, beer expires. But it’s a bit more complicated than just saying it can “go bad,” as it depends exactly what you mean by that.
“Pathogens cannot live in beer, so from a health standpoint, beer cannot go bad,” explained Firestone Walker Sensory Research Analyst Craig Thomas. “But age and temperature have a huge impact on how all beer tastes. Some beer styles retain the ‘fresh factor’ better than others, and many brewers have gotten very good at slowing the rate of aging flavors developing in their beer. But the fresher your beer, the better!”
Like other foods, beer is made from organic plant ingredients that eventually decay. Brewers work to make the beer last as long as possible, and they have some major advantages – the alcohol content, beer’s low pH, and the antimicrobial activity of hops. When properly brewed and packaged, the only things in your beer are the ingredients and the smallest amount of air.
It is impossible to package beer without a small amount of oxygen coming along with it. Over time, that oxygen can change the beer itself, sometimes adding a stale flavor described as “cardboard.” Not all beers are affected by oxidation in the same way, though. For example, malty beers sometimes develop sweet, grainy, caramel, and toffee notes. The speed of oxidation can be affected by major temperature swings, so it’s best to keep your beers cool.
A beer’s hoppiness can also diminish after a while. Hop aromas are very time-sensitive, so the citrusy, floral, or tropical hop aromas we love in hop-forward beers will disintegrate over time.
And finally, you’ve probably heard of “skunked” beer. It’s a common misconception that skunky beer is caused by temperature swings, but it’s actually more the result of light exposure. To put it simply, the chemicals in hops react poorly with ultraviolet light. That’s why you’ll see many bottled beers in dark-colored glass – it allows less light to get through and impact the liquid.
Best Practices for Storing Beer
This one’s easy: beer should be stored for a short time in a dark, cool place. If you have room in your fridge, that is the best spot. If the fridge is full, keeping your beer in the basement or a cool closet is the next-best option.
Needless to say, the hot trunk of a car or a sunny kitchen counter are some of the worst places for your beer – so keep its time in locations like that to a minimum.
Curious about shelf life? Remember the 3/30/300 Rule: A Firestone beer stored at 98-degrees Fahrenheit for 3 days is equivalent to one stored at 72-degrees Fahrenheit for 30 days or one stored at 35-degrees Fahrenheit for 300 days.
How old is my beer?
Almost every beer has a date printed on it, which will help you understand how long the beer will taste the way the brewers intended – assuming it’s been stored properly.
At Firestone Walker, we make it easy with a “born on” date. This date, found on the bottom of cans or the bottle label, notes when the beer was packaged. We use a month/day/year format followed by a time stamp. (ex: 1/1/23 23:40)
Other breweries use what is called a Julian date code. It’s often 3 numbers followed by one more digit. The first three digits represent the day of the year, with the last digit being the last number of the year. For example, 165 3 would be the 165th day of 2023 (June 13th). Sometimes this number can appear as 0165 – with the year coming first, followed by the day of the year.
Lastly, some breweries put a best-by date on their packaging. Know that the closer you are to the best-by date, the older the beer.
Keep your beers cold, this ensures freshness and ultimately a great beer!
Intentionally Aging Beer
Some beers develop admirable flavors over time, and intentionally aging beer is a hobby of its own. As a rule of thumb, if you enjoy drinking beer, you want to drink it closer to the day it was brewed. That is how you get to taste the beer the way the brewers intended it to be.
Deadset on cellaring that bottle of 2023 Parabola to try next year? We get it. Aging beer allows various flavors not immediately present to develop over time. Just remember that not all beers are good candidates for the effects of gentle aging and cellaring.
Beers that can be cellared: Barleywines, Imperial Stouts, Belgian style Quads, and other high-ABV beers with dark malts. Barrel-aged sours and rauchbiers are lower ABV, but they can age beautifully.
Beers that shouldn’t be cellared: Any beers with hop-forward characteristics, such as IPAs and Pale Ales. Most lagers and session beers are also poor candidates for aging and should be consumed fresh.
Read our blog on cellaring for more tips on properly aging your beer.