Unlike wine enthusiasts, beer nerds face one particular restriction when they get their hands on a grailed bottle of suds: There’s really no saving it for a special occasion. Unlike the bottles of Bordeaux or Barolo one might stash in the cellar until the right moment arrives, almost every type of beer only gets less remarkable as it sits there waiting to be unleashed.
No, beer doesn’t expire per se. But it’s got a few factors working against its aging potential: Light, oxygen, heat, and time are the four main culprits of spoiled or “skunked” beer.
Hops are sensitive to the UV radiation the sun emits, hence why most beer bottles are tinted brown — that’s deliberate. Even if exposed to sunlight for under an hour, beer will undergo a chemical reaction that produces 3-methyl crotyl mercaptan, a compound that exudes a distinct skunky flavor. Luckily, most beer these days comes in cans, so lightstrike isn’t as much of a threat as it once was.
Oxidation is also generally seen as having a negative effect on beer, and rightfully so. No matter how good a job the folks are doing on the canning or bottling line, there’s always a smidge of oxygen in every vessel of beer. For most light styles, like pilsners, oxidation sets in rather quickly. Those bright, malty flavors are fragile, and can quickly turn into acidic flavors of stewed tomatoes with a cardboard-like aftertaste.
While the whole “store cold, drink fresh” movement is admittedly a sound marketing strategy to move more product, there is some truth to it, as high heat can make beer go stale. Storing your brews in a hellish garage in the height of summer will screw with your beer’s flavor rather quickly, but a bit of time at room temp won’t. While not ideal, plenty of stores stock their beers without refrigeration — looking at you, Trader Joe’s. As long as you re-refrigerate your room-temp brews, they should be fine.
Beer can’t escape it, and neither can we. With most hoppy beers, flavor tends to dwindle after the three- to six-month mark, due to the fragility of its fresh ingredients (like hops) and the factors mentioned above. On the other hand, bottle-conditioned beers with an ABV of 9 percent or higher will generally be fine if aged for over a year. Flavors will break down and organic compounds will continue to produce new reactions and nuance, which can actually improve the profile in many drinkers’ eyes when it comes to a bigger, maltier brews.
Sell-by and drink-by dates on cans and bottles do make for a solid reference point for a beer’s shelf life at its highest quality. But even when a beer outlives those dates, that doesn’t mean it becomes undrinkable. In fact, it might take quite some time for the brew inside to take a turn for the worse, and that can largely depend on what style of beer it is.
The short answer: Yes, you can safely drink beer past its drink-by date. Beer doesn’t expire in the same way milk does, in the sense that old beer won’t make you sick. Even if it’s an 80-year-old can of PBR, the worst that’ll happen is the beer will taste bad. Still, its flavor can taper off and turn tremendously. Below, you’ll find a breakdown of which styles tend to “expire” faster, and which ones will stand the test of (some) time.
All in all, pilsners are best enjoyed as fresh as possible — oxidation will take a toll on their light, floral quality rapidly and quite violently. Lagers and wheat beers tend to have more hops than pilsners do, so their flavors and aromatics can start to dull after about three months.
With IPAs, enjoying them as fresh as possible is always the golden rule. Even at its spryest, if a beer has a sh*tload of hops and plant matter in it, it’ll often taste “green” — a term often associated with hop burn and astringency from fresh plant matter. Greenness can be tough on the palate as well as the digestive system, but if an IPA is purchased within two days of its canning, letting it sit in the fridge for about a week will usually allow the harshness to mellow itself out. After a few months, though, an IPA will shift past the sweet spot and its hop aromas will become muted. Plus, if the IPA is using fresh, whole cone hops as opposed to hop pellets, that lifespan is even shorter.
Additionally, the more adjuncts an IPA has, the less stable the beer will be. A 12-percent ABV, coffee-graham cracker stout will taste better after a year in the cellar than a blueberry pie milkshake IPA — lactose, unsurprisingly, doesn’t age well. Either way, when it comes to adjuncts, the fresher the better.
IPAs and imperial stouts were both created out of necessity: Beers would go bad on long sea voyages, but alcohol is a great preservative, so upping the ABV made them less perishable. That said, heavier beers like stouts and porters fair relatively well with age, and can hold up in flavor after a couple years in the cellar. Still, stouts tend to lose their foam stability over time, as enzymes will break down the proteins that help foam to form. Clumps of sediment are also common in aged stouts. We recommend standing such beers upright for 24 hours before opening to minimize any sediment making its way into your glass.
Oxidation isn’t always the kiss of death. Take barleywines and tripels, for instance: As the liquid oxidizes and compounds break down, new and interesting flavors tend to emerge from the woodwork and steamroll any negative flavors that may have developed in the interim. Malt flavors that were once bread-like start to take on characteristics of toffee and roasted nuts before turning to leather, chocolate, and black licorice with further aging.
These styles are the biggest exception to the beer-doesn’t-age rule. Lambics, guezes, and saisons are typically fermented with only wild yeasts and bacteria found in and around the brewery. Lambics are typically aged in oak for one to two years, and guezes can stay in-barrel for even longer. Due to their intricate yeast and microflora at work, their aging can reveal unique, funky, and unpredictable notes over time. That’s why even 20 years after bottling, some lambics, saisons, and guezes can still taste amazing. Guezes use very little hops, and folks online have even called the style “indestructible.”
Very few people — if anyone — age kegs. Still, we feel it’s worth pointing out that most kegged beer brewed domestically is not pasteurized, and therefore only has a shelf life of roughly two months max if it’s kept cold. Bottled and canned beer is typically pasteurized — with exceptions like Heady Topper — which prevents bacteria from growing. Still, bacteria tends to have a hard time thriving in beer to begin with given its alcohol content and its ideally low-temp storage.
All this said, many factors of beer aging have yet to be fully understood. Compounds break down, new ones form, and esters rise to the surface — and it’s hard to know exactly when and if this will occur. But as long as you keep your beer chilled and out of sunlight, it should be fine for quite some time. And if you really don’t want to worry about touching said beer for a few years, invest in a Belgian ale and see what happens in a decade or so.
*Image retrieved from chokchaipoo via stock.adobe.com
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