A common question asked by many beer drinkers is “Does beer go bad?” Despite what you think, beer actually does go bad. Take a look on most cans and bottles and you will often see a bunch of numbers, usually in black, and sometimes with a labeled “expiry date”.
There are a number of reasons why beer goes bad, age is certainly one, but exposure to light or even air can turn the nectar of gods into something ugly. The truth is that all beer, like wine, continues to age and change after fermentation. Most beer is at its best around three months after bottling, after that flavors will generally start to fade, the body will also dissipate and oxidation – exposure to air – may even happen.
Expired vs. Spoiled
Ok, so I am going to let you guys in on a little secret here: Beer doesn’t expire. When it comes to food and beverage, expiry means to become unsafe to consume. Consuming “expired” beer (drinking after the expiry date) will not normally make you sick. So, when brewers put an “expiry” date, it is actually a best-by date – when the beer will begin to lose flavor or become flat (think Coke without the bubbles). You can still drink the beer, but it will not taste as good, or it may even taste downright horrid.
I remember when I was working at a liquor store in my hometown. I was in charge of the beer fridge and got to know the Labatt – Labatt is owned by InBev – sales representative quite well. One day I was stocking shelves and was looking at a 12 pack of a popular Lager from a large Belgian company, and trying to figure out the expiry date. The rep happened to be in the store, so I asked him about the date, turns out the beer was beyond its best-by date. I asked him whether it would be bad, his response was something along the lines of “Oh, it has a shelf life of about 2 years. We put a best-by date one year from bottling on it to indicate when the beer will start to decay. From there, it takes almost a year before people will notice a massive difference in taste.”
Two years! But then I got to thinking about it: If beer is stored correctly, and the seals of the caps don’t degrade; letting air in, there should be no reason as to why the beer won’t last that long.
Now, there is one caveat with this lack of expiry, and that is unpasteurized beer. Pasteurization will kill bacteria in drinks, extending the shelf life. Beer that hasn’t been pasteurized will have a short shelf life – 6 months max – before it starts to degrade, and it will spoil a lot quicker than pasteurized beer. An example of this is almost any fresh craft beer, take a look at the label. If it says unpasteurized, it will likely spoil quicker.
Spotting spoiled beer
Ok, so maybe “spotting” isn’t the best term to use, you likely won’t see that the beer itself has gone bad. Instead follow the rule of 3 Ss: Sight, Sniff, Sip. Take a look at the beer’s sell by or expiry date. If it is past that date, the beer may be a bit off – proceed with caution. Pour the beer into a glass and smell it. Does it smell like beer? If yes, then go ahead to the next step. If it smells a bit soapy or like rotten eggs don’t drink it.
When you take a sip, if it tastes fine – carry on. If it doesn’t taste good, you are better off chucking it out.
So, what is this “Skunky” beer I’m always hearing about
When beer goes bad, one of the most common terms used to describe it is skunked. Skunky beer is actually used to describe beer that smells like rotten eggs. If you have ever had the misfortune of smelling a skunk, you will know that smell well.
When beer has gone skunky, it will contain a chemical compound that is commonly referred to as Skunky thiol. This compound (3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol incase you were wondering) is nearly identical to the compounds found in a skunk’s anal glands. These compounds have a high amount of sulphur – which humans are very sensitive to.
The reason beer will develop these compounds is from light exposure. Well, it’s not the beer itself, its the compounds leftover from the hops. Hops are sensitive to light, and the flavor or oil left behind by the hops, when hit by light, will degrade causing beer to go skunky. The less hops in the beer, the lower the chance the beer will be skunked. For example, many Britsh Ales or stouts.
Curious as to how to properly store your beer to prevent it from going bad as quickly? Stay tuned as we will cover that next week!
Wish of the week
Are you looking for something that ratchets up the hops? This beer has hops coming out of its ears, if beers had ears that is. If you are looking for a summer sipper that is easy going and light, best avoid this. But, if you are looking for something that sets the bar for Double IPAs and use of hops, this is something to try – after all, it did win gold in the Imperial IPA category at the 2010 World Beer Cup. Give it a try today!