Does beer go bad?

Four refreshing beers in different styles of glasses on a marble surface

Fact: The longer most beers sit around in your fridge, the less delicious they taste. Here’s how to ensure you’re always drinking the freshest beer possible

The Beer Store carries more than 1,000 brands of beer, and they all have one thing in common: They’ve been painstakingly brewed to taste as delicious as possible. However, the longer a beer sits, the less it tastes how the brewmaster intended it to. Here’s what you need to know to shop wisely, store properly and ensure that the last beer out of the fridge tastes just as great as the first.

Does beer expire?

It’s easy to think that there’s no such thing as bad beer, but in reality, a beer’s flavour deteriorates over time — and life’s too short to drink beer that tastes stale or skunky or flat.

But how can I tell if my beer has gone bad?

Unlike milk, beer doesn’t technically expire. But a bottle that’s been kicking around in the back of your fridge for months will not taste as good as it should.

The most common culprits that cause beer to go bad are light and heat, which can lead to a process called oxidation. (By necessity, every can and bottle of beer contains a small amount of oxygen. Over time, that oxygen will alter its flavour for the worse, and warmer temperatures accelerate this process.)

Has my beer gone off? Four common signs you’re drinking old beer

  • The beer smells or tastes skunky

    Storing clear or green glass bottles in direct light will cause beer to develop a skunky taste and smell. This is also called being “light struck,” and it can happen minutes after exposure to UV light, when acids in the hops start reacting to the light rays. (Beer can even go skunky as you’re drinking it if your glass is exposed to direct sunlight!)

  • The beer tastes sweet and bready

    Malty beers like pilsners and stouts will often develop sweet, bready and toffee-esque notes over time, indicating that they may be past their prime. (This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not the flavour profile that the brewer intended.)

  • The beer doesn’t smell hoppy

    IPAs and other hoppy beers will eventually lose their signature grassy, piney, pineappley aromas, which also play a big role in how they taste. (Did you know you should always smell your beer? Here’s why.)

  • The beer is flat

    If the can or bottle doesn’t emit that satisfying hiss when you open it, it’s lost its carbonation, which can make the beer taste stale and cardboardy.

What’s the difference between a “packaged on” date and the “best before” date?

Most beers have a straightforward date stamp on the bottom of the can or the neck, shoulder or back label of the bottle. This date is usually the “packaged on” date, when the beer was canned or bottled, or the “best before” date, which is a more arbitrary future date by which the brewery believes you should drink the beer for optimal flavour. Beer experts maintain that a “packaged on” date is more useful than a “best before date.”

How long will beer taste fresh?

Both canned and bottled beer have a shelf life of at least three months from the day it was packaged when stored properly. (More on this in a minute.) Lighter beers, like IPAs, wheat beers and brown ales, are more sensitive to time than heavier beers, like stouts and porters.

The flavour of some stronger beers — typically those with at least eight per cent alcohol — will actually improve over time, but their labels will usually note that they are appropriate for cellaring.

Will beer last longer in cans or bottles?

Ever wonder why it seems like cans are more popular than bottles? For starters, cans are cheaper to buy and cost less to ship. They’re also often a better way to store beer, too. Bottles allow more room for oxygen in the neck — and, as a result, speed up oxidation — while clear and green glass can let in damaging light rays. (That said, big brewers who use clear bottles often use a special type of light-resistant hop extract to avoid off flavours.)

How can I prevent beer from going bad?

Buying beer in larger amounts is a great way to save money, especially during the holidays or other times when you might be hosting a crowd. But you don’t want to lose out on flavour. The good news? There are three easy steps to prevent beer from going stale:

  1. Before shopping, take a minute to estimate how much beer you actually need. Hosting a party? A general rule of thumb is one alcoholic beverage per guest per hour. (You also want to ensure you have plenty of non-alcoholic options on hand.) Learn more about buying beer for a crowd here.
  2. Store cans and bottles upright in a dark, cool place — whether that’s the fridge (the gold standard) or a dark, cool corner in your basement. Storing beer on its side increases its oxygen exposure; storing bottles on their side can also lead to the development of yeast rings, which impair appearance and taste.
  3. Serve within three months if you can.

Can I save an open bottle or can of beer?

A beer starts losing its fizz the moment you crack it open, and an open beer will never taste the same the next day. But if you can’t bear to pour out a special brew, seal the top as best you can before putting it back in the fridge. For bottles, you can use a vacuum pump — as you would for wine — to remove as much oxygen as possible.

What should I do with stale beer?

Don’t pour it down the drain — stale (but not skunky) beer may no longer shine on its own, but it will still play well alongside other flavours.

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