For many fans of beer, there’s nothing better than cracking open a cold one on a warm summer day. But just like with any consumable product, there’s always the concern of – does beer expire? The answer is not as straightforward as you might think, and various factors impact the longevity and freshness of beer.
Beer doesn’t necessarily “expire” in the traditional sense, but it can go stale over time. The shelf life of beer typically ranges from six to nine months at room temperature and can last two to three years when properly refrigerated.
However, signs such as changes in taste, flatness, and an off aroma can all indicate that the brew is past its prime. The alcohol content (ABV) also plays a part in determining the shelf life of the beer, with beers with higher ABV’s tending to stay fresh longer.
In this article, we will explore the factors influencing your beer’s freshness, discuss how to spot a beer that’s started to expire and offer some storage tips to keep your brews as fresh as possible for as long as possible.
Beer Expiration Basics
Shelf Life of Beer
Beer does expire, but its shelf life depends on several factors, like whether it is in a can or a bottle and how it is stored. Generally, beer can last six to nine months after the expiry date listed on its label. Canned beer usually has a longer shelf life than bottled beer, and brown and green bottles preserve the beer’s quality better than clear ones.
Canned Beer: Up to one year in the fridge
Bottled Beer (dark): Six to nine months at room temperature
Manufacturers typically include a “best before” or “drink by” date on the beer’s packaging, which indicates the date approved by the manufacturers for optimal quality. Most beers have a drinking window of 60 to 120 days after packaging, although this may vary depending on the brewing process and beer style.
It’s important to understand that while beer may lose some of its qualities after the expiration date, such as the hop taste and aroma, it does not immediately become undrinkable or dangerous to consume.
Factors Affecting Expiration
The following are the 3 main factors that contribute to a beer losing its quality and eventually expiring:
Light exposure: Ultraviolet (UV) rays can break down hop-derived compounds in the beer and combine with sulfuric compounds, which affect the beer’s taste and color. This is more prominent in clear and lighter-colored bottles.
Oxygen exposure: When beer comes into contact with air, it can oxidize and cause off-flavors. This is more likely to happen in bottles with caps that do not create a tight seal.
Bacteria exposure: Contamination by harmful bacteria can also spoil the beer and create unpleasant aromas and off-flavors.
Storage and Temperature Impact
Proper Storage Conditions
To maintain the quality and freshness of beer, it is essential to store it under appropriate conditions. The following are some key storage considerations:
Temperature: It is recommended to store beer in a cool environment, ideally between 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. If refrigerated, beer can last for 2 – 3 years, whereas when stored at room temperature, it will typically last for 5 – 9 months.
Sunlight: Direct sunlight can negatively impact the beer’s quality by causing it to age faster, a process called light struck. Keep beer stored in a dark place to avoid UV light exposure.
Consistency: Choose a storage area with minimal temperature fluctuations; a constant temperature is important for maintaining beer quality.
Temperature Effects on Beer Quality
Temperature greatly influences the speed at which beer undergoes negative chemical reactions, ultimately affecting its taste and freshness. It’s important to understand the relationship between storage temperature and beer quality:
Warm temperatures: Storing beer at higher temperatures, such as 100°F, can speed up aging. Beer stored at this high temperature for just one week may taste as old as beer stored at 70°F for two months or beer stored at 40°F for an entire year.
Cool temperatures: Lower storage temperatures slow the chemical reactions and help keep the beer fresh longer.
Beer Oxidation and Flavor Changes
Oxidation is a natural aging process that affects the flavor and aroma of beer. When beer is exposed to oxygen, it begins to oxidize, causing chemical reactions that modify its taste profile. Oxygen can enter beer during different phases of its production; one area where it is impossible to prevent it completely from getting into the beer is during bottling. As a result, oxidation tends to happen faster in bottled beers, as they are more prone to air being penetrated by air.
Signs of Oxidized Beer
Oxidized beer undergoes several negative changes in its flavor and aroma. The following are some common signs a beer has become oxidized:
Cardboard flavor: One of the most recognizable signs of oxidation is a stale, cardboard-like taste. This occurs due to the reaction between oxygen and compounds present in the beer.
Loss of hoppy and malty flavors: Oxidation often removes the beer’s hoppy and malty flavors, leaving it tasting flat or bland.
Shift in bitterness: As beer oxidizes, its bitterness profile may also change, typically losing some of its bitterness which will make it taste off.
Aroma alteration: The aroma of oxidized beer can be affected as well, losing its freshness and making it smell as if it’s gone bad.
Dark beers: In dark beers, oxidation can convert malt flavors into sherry-like or rotting fruit notes.
To mitigate the adverse effects of oxidation on beer, it’s important to store it properly. Keeping beer upright and protecting it from sunlight, heat, and air exposure can significantly slow the oxidation process and help maintain its original flavor and aroma.
Bacterial Contamination and Spoilage
Sources of Contamination
Bacterial contamination in beer can happen at numerous stages of the brewing process. Some common areas contamination can result from are:
Raw materials: Contaminated grains, hops, or water can introduce bacteria into the brew.
Equipment: Poorly maintained or improperly cleaned and sanitized brewing equipment may contain bacteria.
Beer packaging: Contaminated bottles, cans, or kegs can introduce bacteria during packaging.
Lactic acid bacteria (LAB), such as Lactobacillus and Pediococcus, are the main causes of beer becoming spoiled, accounting for 60% to 90% of contaminations in beer.
Effects of Bacterial Growth
Bacterial growth in beer can result in numerous undesirable effects, including:
Off-flavors: Bacterial byproducts, such as acetic acid and diacetyl, can impart sour, buttery, or vinegar-like flavors to the beer.
Haziness: Bacterial growth can cause the beer to become hazy or cloudy.
Decreased shelf life: Contaminated beer will go bad much faster than beer without bacterial contamination.
Impact of Ingredients on Beer Expiration
Role of Hops and Yeast
Hops and yeast play a crucial role in the shelf life of beer. Hops provide aroma, flavor, and bitterness to the beer and contain natural preservatives that can extend its life. The higher the hops content, the longer the beer may last.
The yeast’s job is to ferment the sugars in the beer, producing alcohol and CO2. As the alcohol percentage level increases, the beer becomes less susceptible to bacteria.
In general, beers with higher levels of alcohol and hops, such as strong ales and IPAs, tend to have a longer shelf life than those with lower levels, like lagers.
Presence of Preservatives
Preservatives can also impact the expiration of beer. Some breweries add chemical preservatives to inhibit bacterial growth and extend the beer’s shelf life. These additives may not be present in all beers, but they can help extend the beer’s shelf life when used.
The following table provides a summary of the impact of ingredients on the expiration of beer:
|Impact on Expiration
|Hops act as natural preservatives; the higher the hops content, the longer the beer may last.
|Beers with a higher alcohol by volume percentage will typically also have a longer shelf life.
|Chemical preservatives can help prevent the beer from spoiling and keep it fresher longer. Keep in mind that not all beers contain these additives.
Physical Changes in Expired Beer
Color and Carbonation
When beer expires, you will be able to notice changes in its appearance, particularly in its color and carbonation level. Over time, beer will typically become darker in color as a result of oxidation and interaction with light, especially UV light. If exposed to heat or sunlight, it may become darker and develop a murky appearance.
Carbonation levels will also decrease as a beer expires. This is because older beer will experience a reduction in the level of carbon dioxide, which decreases its freshness and mouthfeel. The loss of CO2 is as a result of various factors such as storage conditions, packaging, and time.
Texture and Foam
The texture and foam of an expired beer may also undergo changes. As the beer loses carbonation, the foam it produces when poured may become less dense, meaning it may not have that familiar white foam or “head” that you would see in a freshly poured beer. The foam is important to a beer’s freshness as it plays a significant role in its aroma and flavor.
The breakdown of compounds in the beer, such as proteins and sugars, may also result in changes to the beer’s texture. This can result in a flat mouthfeel.
To summarize, expired beer may exhibit the following changes:
Darkening of color
Reduction in carbonation
Altered texture and mouthfeel
Decrease in foam density
Taste and Aroma of Expired Beer
Sweet and Malty Notes
As beer ages, some of the components that contribute to its flavor may become increasingly prominent or negatively noticeable. For example, the sweet and malty flavors in a beer may intensify due to the ongoing fermentation process. This can result in a beer with a much sweeter taste then it had when it was fresh.
It’s important to note that this change in its flavor can happen in any beer, regardless of alcohol by volume (ABV) or style of craft beer.
Off-flavors and Aromas
In addition to the sweet and malty notes that may develop, expired beers may also have off-flavors and aromas. These negative characteristics can result from the breakdown of the beer’s organic compounds. Common off-flavors and aromas include:
Oxidation: Results in a stale, cardboard-like flavor.
Skunking: Results in a skunk-like smell.
Metallic: Some beers can develop a metallic taste due to the leaching of metal ions from the can, bottle cap, or brewing equipment.
Risks and Benefits of Drinking Expired Beer
Drinking expired beer can pose some health risks, especially if the beer has not been stored properly. While the alcohol content may have diminished, leading to a sour or off-taste, it can also contain bacteria that could result in food poisoning. This risk is more prevalent in unpasteurized beer, as the lack of pasteurization means it does not have a long shelf life.
In some cases, ingesting expired beer may not pose significant health risks, and it can be perfectly safe to drink. While the taste might go off over time, it is unlikely that drinking it will result in any harm.
While drinking expired beer might not be ideal for taste or potential health risks, it does not automatically mean you will get sick from it. Consider the storage conditions, type of beer, and specific expiration information when deciding the risks and benefits of drinking expired beer. This is in no way an endorsement that you should drink expired beer, proceed with caution if you decide to do so.
Does Beer Expire: Top Takeaways
Beer does not technically “expire” in the same way that some other perishable foods do. Rather, beer can go stale or lose its flavor and freshness over time. As discussed, several factors contribute to the breakdown in the quality of beer, including its storage conditions and alcohol content.
Let’s examine some key takeaways about beer expiration:
Beer can become stale: While beer doesn’t expire per se, it can lose freshness and become stale. Stale beer might not taste as good, but it’s generally safe to drink.
Storage conditions matter: To get the most out of your beer, it’s essential to store it properly. Keep beer at a cool temperature, ideally refrigerated. Cans and bottles can last for 5 to 9 months at room temperature and 2 to 3 years when stored in the refrigerator.
Higher ABV beers have a longer shelf life: For example, bottle-conditioned ales with a 9% ABV or higher can be stored for over a year and may even improve in taste during that time.
Expiration dates are more like “best enjoyed by” dates: Most beer packaging will have a date indicating its freshness. However, these dates should be considered a “best enjoyed by” guideline rather than a hard expiration date. Consuming beer past these dates is typically safe, although the taste might not be as enjoyable.
To ensure you have the best possible beer-drinking experience, follow proper storage guidelines and consume beers within their best-enjoyed dates.
P.S. If you like to make your own beer, we have a gift for you. Grab Big Robb’s top 5 recipes from his brewery; details are on the side of the blog or bottom if you are on your phone. Cheers!