Did you know that beer can go stale? Yep, just like bread.
But staleness in beer presents in slightly different way. (We’ll talk about the flavour changes brought about in beer as it ages, or stales, in a separate article linked to from the end of this one.)
The big picture here is that beer is best consumed fresh and when it’s released from the brewery, it’s ready to drink.
(That said, certain types of beers may age in ways that make them interesting to drink months or years later if properly cellared, but for the most part, fresh is best.)
Key data: the date code
So how do we actually know if our beer is fresh?
We want to look for a date code on the bottle or can.
Most date codes indicate a best-by date – this is the date by which the brewer believes the beer will no longer represent the brewery-intended flavour due to the effects of aging, or staling, on the beer. (In many countries, this is actually required for alcoholic products under 10% ABV.)
But sometimes you will find that brewers include a “bottled on” or “packaged on” date instead. If this is the case, look for beer with a date that’s as close as possible to the bottling date – within 3 months of packaging is ideal.
Some beers may include both, but it’s actually the latter, the bottled on date, that’s more helpful to us.
We don’t often know what length of time brewers are setting as their shelf life – from 6 months, to 12 months or longer. So while a beer may still be “in date” according to that best-by date, we don’t actually know how hold that beer is.
With a bottled on date, we do.
Just be mindful that not all date codes look the same. Some brewers use a traditional date format (MM/DD/YY or DD/MM/YY, depending on the country of production). Others use Julian, or ordinal, dating, which lists the day of the year out of 365 followed by the last 2 digits of the year (for example, December 30, 2021 translates to 364-21). Finally, some brewers may use a proprietary format.
What to do with this information
Once we know a beer’s age, it’s important for us to use this information.
Breweries, bars, and retailers should be rotating their inventory – simply following the old adage “first in, first out” (and not first in, last out!) – to make sure deliveries are being used up in the order they’re received and that products don’t get forgotten about at the back of the fridge or cellar. (It’s good to keep this principle in mind with your at-home beer stash, too!)
It’s also important for bars and retailers to remove out of date products from their inventory, as beer that’s past its best by date should never be sold to consumers. This isn’t a safety concern, but it’s not fair to the brewery or to the consumer, as the product will no longer taste the way the brewer intended it to.
Another helpful tip is for staff to be trained to promote and sell all beers on offer, in order to make there’s not one style that doesn’t shift.
I mentioned earlier that ideally, we’d like to consume most bottles and cans within 3 months of their packaging date, if possible.
That’s because when not refrigerated or subject to stresses (like high temperatures or temperature swings), bottled and canned beer can start to taste noticeably stale after only 3 months. (How can you tell? Simply taste the aged beer against a fresh one.)
When kept refrigerated though, bottles and cans can remain fresh for up to 6 months.
The role of refrigeration
What difference does refrigeration make? Much like with food, refrigerated storage keeps our beer fresh for longer.
With time, all beers will start to stale, hence why a best-by, or expiration, date is so important. But a beer’s expected shelf life can easily be shortened by exposure to warm temperatures.
Non-refrigerated storage can cause beers to age up to ten times as fast!
This is why refrigerated storage (3 °C / 38 °F) is best for all beers at all times.*
When it comes to kegged beer, non-pasteurised draught beer can remain fresh for 1.5-2 months and pasteurised draught beer can remain fresh for 3-4 months, but, again, only if refrigerated. When not refrigerated or subjected to other stresses, its shelf life decreases significantly.
The best approach to beer storage: keep it cold and consume it fresh. (And if it’s not possible to keep your beer refrigerated, keep your beer stash small and only replace beers as they’re consumed.)
So what actually happens to beer’s flavour as it stales? Learn more here.
*Cask beer is an exception here, as it’s best stored at cellar temperature of 11-13 °C (50-55 °F), but our focus in this series is on other package types.