We’ve all been there: You pull something out of the furthest reaches of the fridge, and BOOM, there it is — that shiny, mouth-watering can of your favorite Hazy IPA tucked out of sight. Or maybe you grab the last family-size bag of potato chips and realize there’s an untouched six-pack of Lager that has been (unintentionally) neglected in the pantry. It happens to the best of us.
But when you are finally reunited with that long lost can of beer, there is a dreaded question that you have to face: just how long has it been hiding there? And more importantly, can you still drink it?
Well, if you’re a die hard beer lover, we’re here to tell you that it probably won’t be the last time you’ll find yourself in this predicament. So before you pour your favorite IPA down the drain, let’s get the facts straight on an important question: Can beer go bad?
What to Do When You Realize Your Beer is Expired
Quickly scanning your can or glass bottle of beer, you find the packaged date and realize (as your heart sinks) that the tasty brew in your hand has indeed exceeded its expiration date.
So, what do you do next? Is it safe to drink expired beer?
Take a deep sigh of relief, because the answer, in almost all cases, is yes. The fermentation process used in brewing beer, as well as its low pH level and alcohol content, make beer both delicious and an unfriendly environment for pesky microorganisms. Even if a beer sits on the shelf for years, as long as it’s sealed, it’s unlikely to make you sick.
Even with that good news, there are a couple of rare situations where you’ll have to throw out an old bottle or can. For starters, if you notice that your beer has lost all its fizz, it’s a no-go. That’s a telltale sign that the seal was broken at some point, so the flavor you’re used to tasting isn’t going to be remotely close to what you’ll get if you take a sip. And, if a beer that isn’t supposed to be tangy or acidic has a vinegary taste, it’s an immediate alert to the tastebuds that bacteria has gotten in, and you’ll definitely want to toss it out.
Even though drinking beers beyond their listed expiration date is totally fine for your health, over time, the taste of beer changes, and what was once a refreshing treat could become a real stinker (literally). So make sure you check your can or bottle of beer to make sure it’s not too far gone past its recommended shelf life or else your palate might be hit with a rude awakening.
How Can You Tell if Beer Has Gone Bad?
Ever crack open a beer, take a sip, and immediately, you know something is off? It might make you scrunch up your nose or even cause you to spit it out. This is what we call a bad beer. And when we say that beer goes “bad,” we don’t mean it spoils, like rotten milk or moldy fruit. We mean it tastes bad. And as far as we’re concerned, taste is the most important part of the beer experience.
Sometimes, beers past their prime taste like “wet cardboard,” whereas others might turn overly sweet, and then of course, there’s the dreaded skunkiness (a flavor well known to anyone who has ever left a beer out in the blazing sun for too long.) What’s to blame for this unfortunate flavor change and how can you help prevent it?
Keeping Beer Fresh: Watch Out for Oxygen, Heat & Light
First, a little science, for the real beer nerds out there. Your beer, in all its tasty glory, has three main culprits that can cause flavors to go awry: oxygen, heat, and light. Oxygen interacts with the compounds from malt, yeast, and hops — the building blocks of what makes beer delicious. This causes oxidation and that disappointing papery taste. Despite all the advanced techniques and newfangled technology brewers use to package beer, there’s still a tiny amount of oxygen that’ll make it into a can or bottle, which means change in flavor is inevitable. And we’re sorry to say that the longer it’s stored, the worse it gets!
Once you crack open your bottle or can of beer, oxidation goes into hyperdrive, and if you leave your beer out for long, you’ll be left with a pretty sad version of the beverage you were looking forward to enjoying. This is true of kegs as well: The pumps used to push the beer out also push oxygen in. You’ll want to polish off that keg within a day to get the most flavor.
Next up is heat. Heat speeds up oxidation, so storing beer in a refrigerator is an absolute must (plus, we all can attest that beer is just better cold.) Major changes in temperature — like from an ice-cold cooler to a sun-roasted car — make it even worse. And, sadly, this can’t be reversed. Once beer has been left in a hot trunk or in the summer sand, you’ll have to say sayonara.
Lastly, be mindful of light. Most people assume skunkiness also comes from changes in temperature, but it’s actually caused by UV light. Hop compounds are especially sensitive to light and can become “light struck,” a chemical reaction that gives off that unpleasant skunky taste. That’s why beer usually comes in dark bottles, which is helpful, but not as good as aluminum cans at blocking out those piercing rays.
All things considered, some beers are innately better at outlasting the test of time than others. Hop aromas, in particular, are time-sensitive; for those citrusy, floral, tropical notes that you love from our Hi-Pitch Mosaic IPA, you’ll want to stick pretty closely to “drink-by” dates. The sweet, grainy, caramel notes of a malty beer (like our Bed of Nails Brown Ale), on the other hand, increase as the beer ages; that’s why heavier beers with higher ABV contents have greater longevity.
Only YOU Can Prevent Bad Beer
If you’ve made the mistake of leaving your beer in a hot car or not sheltering it from sunny rays, now you know what’s been causing your beer to go bad/funky/skunky. To make sure your beer stays drinkable and flavorful, here are our top four tips to remember.
- Keep your beer in a cool dark place, preferably the refrigerator.
- If you’re storing at room temperature, make sure the sun can’t get to it.
- Leave your beers standing upright — this allows for less exposure to oxygen than when the bottle or can lies on its side.
- Most importantly — and we’re really driving this one home — enjoy it fresh and as close to its “born on” date as you can. This way, you’re leaving it to the real experts: the brewers who made your delicious beer.
Here at Hi-Wire, our beers come with a package date to help ensure your drink is in peak shape. You can check the bottom of the can, which is stamped with a canning date; if you’re enjoying a keg, the collar will have a number stamped on it that includes the batch and “kegged on” date (for example, 0700122821 is batch 700, kegged on 12/28/2021).
If you’re an IPA drinker, our draft and packaged IPAs are best within 120 days (or about four months) of packaging, in order to take full advantage of all that delicious hoppy goodness; all others are in good shape for 150 days (closer to five months). So, on the off chance that a six-pack that you bought for a 4th of July shindig somehow manages to go un-sipped and stored in a cool, dry spot (preferably the fridge), it’ll still be plenty tasty on Memorial Day or Halloween — even Turkey Day, if it’s not an IPA.
If you have a cold, dark place in your home, like a cellar, beer typically has a longer life there. We’re talking years. A lot of people like to cellar our sour bottles and even our 10W-40 series to enjoy later. If you have a certain bottle you love, this is a great way to save it! So whether you stumble upon some hidden beer in the fridge or you want to save it in the cellar, we hope this helps you keep your beers in good shape and ready to enjoy.
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