Beer 101

Does Beer Go Bad? We Asked an Expert

April 26, 2020 Drinks By Photo by Henry Phillips
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Editor’s Note: Due to COVID-19, many breweries and beer shops have begun selling beer online or allowing for delivery or curbside pick-up. If you’re able, support these small, local businesses with an order.

Does beer go bad? We chatted with ABC Beer Co. beer bar owner and Certified Cicerone Zach Mack about everything you need to know to make sure your beer haul stays fresh. Take notes.

Yes, beer can go bad.

“Definitely,” Mack says. “You have to look at it as the freshness of this as something like bread or like a food product because that’s what it is.”

What does skunked beer taste like? If you don’t already know, you’ve probably encountered it before. Mack describes it as a “skunky smell like fresh-cut grass or weed or skunk spray.” Basically, rotten beer.

What causes beer to go bad?

“Exposure to heat, air and light essentially,” Mack says.

These are the three enemies of fresh beer. In this day-and-age of 16-ounce cans being the preferred vessel, light isn’t as much of an issue as it used to be — it obviously still is for bottles though.

“Hops are photosensitive and they’re also sensitive to air, just like everything that breaks down in beer,” Mack says. “Even when beer is sealed in a can, and cans are better vessels than bottles, it still has some exposure to air that’s going to break down the compounds.”

Look at the bottom of cans.

While in-person shopping has decreased drastically, knowing how to spot beer that’s expired is crucial. “Nine times out of ten, turn the can over and look at the bottom,” Mack says. “Usually they print right on it the date that it was canned unless stated otherwise. If it just gives you a date and it’s recent, you can assume that’s the canned-on date.”

For bottles, especially those from larger breweries, Mack says to check the neck to see if there’s a bottled-on date or best-by date. Occasionally it’s on the bottom of the label, tucked away in the corner near the barcode or the address and information.

Be extra careful of beer from supermarkets.

We’ve all seen those giant stacks of beer cases in supermarkets and grocery stores. That’s a good sign there’s going to be some too-old beer there. “The big tell is those huge stacks — you’re inevitably going to be left with a bunch of beer that’s old. So if you’re ever in a place where there’s big stacks of beer, double-check the codes on those because that’s a huge tell that there’s going to be a good amount of expired beer,” Mack says.

Beer style matters, too.

Generally speaking, fresher beer is better beer, but some beers lend themselves to aging and some don’t at all. Mack says beer styles that rely on hop flavor are the most susceptible to going bad quickly. “IPAs are very much the most sensitive style to aging because hops die off exponentially quickly,” he says.

That’s because IPAs depend on hops for their flavor, and hops are photosensitive. Because of this, IPAs should typically be drunk within three or four weeks after canning/bottling, maximum. Not only will it taste different as time goes on, but it will also produce some pretty rank off-flavors.

“The oxidized taste that people talk about is if you’ve ever grabbed an IPA that’s been in your fridge too long and opened it without realizing, it tastes a lot like paper or cardboard. That oxidized flavor comes right through and it’s pretty nasty,” Mack says.

Beers like bourbon barrel-aged stouts, pilsners, sours — all styles not reliant on hops for flavor — age gracefully and should stay good long enough to drink.

Don’t store your beer on its side.

A simple way to extend the life of your beer: stand it up. “If space isn’t an issue you should always store your beer upright because that reduces surface area,” Mack says. “If it’s flat, it exposes more beer to the surface area and oxygen is going to turn it faster.”

Don’t be afraid to ask.

While observing social distancing and self-isolation norms is priority, Mack’s golden rule still holds true: “The best thing to do if you have any doubts is to ask. Most of the stores stocking beer that’s worth buying fresh will know. A good thing to say is ‘Do you guys have anything you just got in this week that you really like?’ And most times the staff love that because they can say, ‘Oh yeah. This is brand new and we really like it.’ It’s a quick way to find out what really came through.”

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Ryan Brower

Ryan Brower serves as Commerce Editor and also writes about beer and surfing for Gear Patrol. He lives in Brooklyn, loves the ocean and almost always has a film camera handy.

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