Can I drink old beer?
How long can beer last? Does beer spoil like milk? Can I cellar ales like wine? What’s the meaning of born on or drink after? Can I drink an expired beer? How do I know if it’s still good?
Of mass-produced lager beer, The Professor’s House says, it can last “…approximately 8 to 12 months if refrigerated properly and kept from direct light, or 4 to 6 months at room temperature…”
Up to twelve months for a fizzy yellow lager? I can see that, but only under “premium conditions.” In fact, I’ve gotten longer shelf life than that. I was given a Coors Light sample aluminum bottle with Mariners print. The Mariners? Heck, I had to keep it, so I tossed it in the meatkeeper, as that’s where my canned beers go. That meatkeeper keeps cans COLD! Colder than anywhere else in my fridge. And light? No effect on a can. Thankfully we’ve seen no temperature changes due to summer power outages. Oxygen exposure is minimal in normal cans, but it was good to taste there didn’t appear to be seepage in the aluminum can. This is abnormal. Nobody in their right mind would keep Coors Light in the bottom of their fridge for a year-and-a-half.
Granted, most lagers like this have a normal shelf life of about 3 to 6 months.
Pale lager beers are light in flavor. These beers are also unhardy in comparison to ale, their sibling, by different yeast strains. Lagers seem to keep longer when stored in cold, dark places… like a back corner or drawer of a fridge.
Many ales, on the other hand, can survive for years when stored a dark corner of the garage. Especially when they’ve got a higher alcohol content and/or are bottle-conditioned, like Belgian Tripels and Quads, Russian Imperial Stouts, and Barleywine Ales.
But how long will that beer last? That beer you’re looking to purchase but are likely to not drink right away?
Think about the beer before it reached you…
Once packaged, how many times did the beer go through temperature fluctuations? Shipping & trucking transport: Overseas, cross-country, the next city over? Storage & handling along the way: Brewery, warehouse, retail, home. How much did the temperature change along the way? It’s likely that locally produced beer has experienced the fewest temperature extremes.
Protected by cardboard during travel and storage? Light-protected warehouse storage. How long, and under what conditions, at the retail establishment? Exposed to sunlight; under fluorescent lighting? UV-filtration or LED optimal. Are the most susceptible beers protected? For example, green and clear bottles placed furthest from light. Light exposure gives beer a skunky smell. Does the place you’re buying that beer protect the beer from light?
What type of seal is on that beer? Screw-off caps are biggest oxygen exposure risk. Standard crown caps, O2 scavenging crowns, strong ales wax-sealed for the cellar, swing-tops, corked-n-caged, aluminum cans… growler fills from tap, or CO2 pressurized? Storage position of cellared beers: Standing or laying down. All of these things have an affect on the flavor of aged, or “old” beer. If that beer’s been exposed to oxygen, expect to taste a bit of old cardboard.
Quality, Processes & Alcohol
The beer’s starting quality has a lot to do with how it’ll hold up over time. Home and independent brewers seem to have the widest variation: Same recipe, different result. Seasoned professional brewers can dial-in those recipes to get the same result every time, like a skilled Master Chef. If the beer starts with flaws, its life will be shorter. Quality and type of ingredients, sanitization throughout the brewing and packaging processes, correct temperatures and proper timing during brewing… all these things have an impact on the length of beer’s life. Also contributing to a beer’s life are pasteurization vs. unpasteurization, sterile filtration and bottle conditioning of the beer. Further, higher alcohol beers hold up longer than lower alcohol ones.
When does beer go bad? The answer varies, depending on your beer and its treatment.
Does beer spoil like milk? Not like milk.
Can I cellar ales like wine? Some, yes.
What’s the meaning of born on or drink after? Born on is usually the packaging date; drink after indicates the beer should reach an optimal flavor profile by the drink after date.
Can I drink an expired beer? Most sources indicate that expired beer isn’t dangerous, it just tastes bad.
How do I know if it’s still good? Born-on and expiration dates help. For unmarked imports, travel distance gives an idea of minimum age — estimate days-to-weeks during each leg of travel: container export, ship, import; importer warehouse storage to cross-country transport; wholesale warehouse storage to inter-city transport; on-shelf condition and length of time at retailer*.
The best rule of thumb is: Drink your beer within the timeline advocated by the brewery and to be a good steward of beer while it’s under your care by storing it in a consistently cool, dark environment.
* Some states may allow storage the central warehouses of corporate chains and/or separated group storage via cooperatives. This is currently illegal in Washington State, but is likely on the horizon as liquor control laws evolve with corporate interest.