At this point in craft beer’s lively existence, many avid imbibers are aware that most beer should be consumed fresh. As in, as fresh as possible. There are some styles that fare well or even better with some age, and although that segment of the industry has grown exponentially in recent times, the vast majority of beer sold is designed to be consumed within a general rule of 90 days after packaging. Unfortunately, I frequently see bars, bottle shops and friends hang onto beer for far longer. I’m by no means trying to shame anyone who never knew or mistakenly shoved a lost can in the back of their fridge for x number of months, but it’s a point of respect to the brewery and all those who got their product to yours truly to know, understand, and consume within a peak timeline. Wouldn’t you always want to have the best you could have? Of course you do! So how do you make the most of beer? Let’s get to the gist of it, friends.
First, a quick recap on how beer got to you. It was brewed, packaged in cans, bottles or kegs (and possibly further packaged into growlers or crowlers). Depending on rules and distribution strategies, your beer sat at the brewery or brewery warehouse, distributor trucks, distributor warehouse(s), delivery trucks, coolers or storage sheds, shelves and end-caps, your car or panier and finally, yes, (hopefully) your fridge or glass. Lost? That’s fair. What seems simple is truly involved, especially for breweries with wide distribution areas.
And now: some general rules. For the majority of beer, there are several villains of storage. Temperature, light and oxygen. We could even add in one more–change. These three/four over time will elicit generally negative changes in the flavor, service and appearance of beer. Beer will last in good drinking shape much longer at a stable, cool temperature (32-55 degrees) in a dark location in an opaque or darkly-tinted package that excludes oxygen. Additionally, this package should have been carefully filled to minimize the inclusion of and exposure to oxygen. MillerCoors came up with a handy rule of thumb, the “3-30-300” concept. Basically, a beer exposed to three ranges of temperature will age similarly. 3 days at a hot temperature (90), 30 days at room temperature (71), and 300 days at a very cool temperature (33). But…it’s a macro’s rule of thumb, so let’s consider that this research may not have been done with craft’s hoppier beers in mind.
At this point I know you’re probably thinking–what about the warm-storage massive pyramids of beer in stores? The huge, decorative end-caps of pumpkin ale and summer lagers, Oktoberfestbiers? Some states, unthinkably, still have regulations preventing the sale of chilled beer (I’m looking at you, Indiana!). I’m sorry. I didn’t make those rules, and they’re wrong. Incorrect. Not good for promoting the carefully created products of small businesses from all parts of the country. And many retailers don’t have room for all their products or understand the importance of cold storage. If you can, always buy from the cooler. Unfortunately it’s possible/probable that even those beers weren’t held cold throughout their entire lifespan. Distributor warehouses often can’t accommodate cold storage for all their products onsite, and many retailers’ backstock areas aren’t refrigerated. So, with that in mind, your own treatment of beer and conscious effort to consume it within a short time frame is extra important.
Many breweries are now making a good effort to date or label their packages with an official package date, either on the bottom of a can, on the carton or on a bottle (this one is hard to find sometimes). A few breweries have chosen “best before” dates, which is far more nebulous and leaves the consumer reliant on what the brewery thinks is best. Which…normally I would lean towards indicating is totally right, but I’ve frequently found the best-by dates too long and inconsistent to allow them to be the guiding factor.
So, the ultimate answer to the question, “Does Beer Expire?” Yes, yes it does. Beer can become a chore to drink, downright gross, and a mere ghost of its previous ideal self. However, I will stress that it’s not dangerous to drink it. It won’t give you an illness (except self-loathing, which has a cure…doing better), it won’t cultivate brain-liquefying bacteria, although that would be pretty awesome, and it also won’t give you hair on your chest (I promise). The careful sanitary packaging environment and the chemical makeup of beer is such that any normally packaged beer will keep crazily well for years and years. So with that, I leave you to your (chilled and cared for) glass of beer.
Cheers! Fresh is best!