Does Beer Go Bad?

So you have a few bottles or cans of beer sitting in the pantry for a few months already. The best-by date is soon approaching, or the beer is already past it. Does beer go bad?

Common sense would suggest that beer retains its quality for as long as you don’t open it, but that’s not true. Not unless we’re talking about vintage beers that are meant for aging.

There’s also a lot of misconceptions about storing beer and how temperature and light affect it.

If you’d like to learn more about storage, shelf life, and going bad of this beverage, read on.

Beer in the fridge
(author: asurroca)

How To Store Beer

The most important thing you need to know about beer is that it doesn’t like light and you should keep it safe from it.

Beer, in most cases, gets its flavor from hops, which are sensitive to light. If you expose them to light for long enough, beer will undergo a chemical reaction that results in the skunky taste. The time needed for that to happen depends on the hops, and the kind of light the beer was exposed to. Direct sunlight is the worst.

But beer isn’t entirely defenseless against the UV light that causes the reaction. Cans, kegs, and casks prevent the UV light from getting into the beverage entirely, and bottles provide some protection too. Clear and green bottles offer the least protection, and quite popular brown bottles are noticeably better.

Some beers are exposed to sunlight for a specific period in the process of manufacturing. The brewery is doing that on purpose so that the beer acquires a particular taste.

Long story short, if you prefer bottled beer, make sure you protect it from light all the time. That means on the way home, in storage, and even when you serve it. Clear glass in direct sunlight for 10 or 20 minutes might make the beer go skunky, so some form of shade is called for in such a scenario.

Drinking beer during sunset
(credit: Wil Stewart)

Let’s talk briefly about beer that got warm. Many people overestimate how temperature affects the beer.

If your beer sat in the trunk for a few hours and the cans got somewhat warm, the beer would likely be fine. If beer goes from cold to warm to cold again, even for a few times, that’s okay too.

Beer isn’t transported in cold stores, so in many cases, it already went through a few cycles of being warmed and cooled before it got into your pantry or fridge. Temperature indeed affects the taste, but the effects are noticeable only after prolonged exposure to warm temperature.

Storing beer is quite similar to storing wine. You should store an unopened beer in a dark and cool place. The pantry, the fridge, or the cellar are your top choices. Once you open the alcoholic beverage, you should store it in the refrigerator.

A glass of beer
(credit: Jonas Jacobsson)

How Long Does Beer Last

Beer, unlike hard liquors like vodka or whiskey, doesn’t last forever. Most brews on the market retain quality for about four months at room temperature, and maybe 6 to 8 months in the fridge. While some producers stick with the usual best-by date, others put the bottling date and a message that says for how long the brew keeps its freshness.

Tip

Beer won’t spoil in a way it’s unsafe to consume after those couple of months. But over time, the flavor profile slowly degrades, and at a certain point, the beer won’t quite hit the spot. In short, you should enjoy your beer fresh.

One distinct kind of beer is vintage beer. This variety is meant for aging. Some craft beers share this characteristic too. This kind of beer isn’t meant to be consumed fresh, but rather to be stored in a cellar for a few years. Breweries that brew such beer often inform on the label for how long you should age their product for best results. If you’d like to read more about aging beer, check out this article.

I think it goes without saying, but just to make sure: once you open a can or bottle of beer, you should finish it within a day for the best flavor.

 Pantry/CellarFridge
Beer (unopened)4 – 6 months6 – 8 months
Beer (vintage, unopened)5 – 10 years 
Beer (opened) 1 day

Please note that the dates above are for the best quality only.

Five beer mugs filled with beer
(credit: Quentin Dr)

How To Tell If Beer Is Bad?

Beer rarely spoils in a way it’s no longer safe for consumption. Unless the bottle or can is leaky, it will stay safe to use for years.

However, once you open a bottle that you stored for a long time, give it a good sniff. If the smell is off or funny, discard the beer. Otherwise, pour a glass and check if there are any masses or change in color.

If everything seems to be okay, drink a bit, and decide if it’s good enough for you. If you stored it for a few months past the date on the label in proper conditions, chances are it will be okay. Or at least okay-ish in terms of flavor. If it tastes flat or stale, it’s past its prime, and you should get rid of it.