How Long Does Beer Last?
You felt like drinking beer, so you’ve bought a six-pack or two in the supermarket. You’re not a beer guy or gal, so going through the entire thing takes not days, but weeks or months. And if you’ve bought too much, or didn’t drink the alcoholic beverage as often as usual, you started to think about beer’s shelf life. Or if those unopened bottles will go bad anytime soon.
I don’t know if that story resonates with you, but if you’re like me and buy beer only every so often, you’ve probably had such a situation at least once. If that’s your current status, you want to know how long past the date on the label the beer will last. Or if that beer needs to stay around for a couple of months, what are the best storage practices.
In this short guide, meant for the average beer drinker and not a beer nerd, we go through shelf life, storage, and spoilage of beer.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, you should know that this article covers beer in general, and doesn’t include much specific advice for various beer types like ales, lagers, malts, and stouts. Reason being, this piece would be much too long to read. Plus the average drinker often has no idea what type of beer they are drinking, and that’s okay.
Photo by Jonas Jacobsson.
Most regular (not-vintage) beers retain quality for about 6 months (ZB, HN). Of course, some of them, especially those with higher alcohol content, will last a bit longer. Others, like unfiltered and not pasteurized ones with lower ABV (alcohol by volume) will last only a couple of months.
Fortunately enough, you don’t need to know to which category your beer belongs, because there’s always some sort of date on the label. Most bottles and cans come with the best-by or drink-by date, but some manufacturers are fancier than that. You can find beer with bottling date and info that it’s good for X number of days. That leaves you to calculate that date yourself.
As you know, it’s not like the beer will go bad a day or a week past that date. Or that its taste will be completely off. Like with many other beverages, beer loses its flavor gradually. If you take good care of it, it should keep peak quality for at least a couple of months past that date. And yes, it’s impossible to say up how long exactly.
When it comes to vintage beers, the bottle clearly says that they’re meant for aging, and usually suggests how long you should age them for optimal results. Look for a “cellar up to” date, or something similar. That date should be between 5 and 20 years, depending on the brew.
If you’re not sure if your beer is a vintage one, chances are it’s not. It’s difficult to find aged beer in most supermarkets, so unless you’ve bought it in a liquor store, it’s most likely a regular one. Consult the label to make sure.
If you don’t finish the can or bottle in one sitting, the drink should stay reasonably good for a day or two. After a couple of days, it will be completely flat and possibly tasteless. You can probably still drink it, but there’s probably no point in doing that.
Okay, now that you know how long (approximately) your beer lasts, it’s time to talk about storage.
Photo by Seth Weisfeld.
You should store beer upright in cold and dark place, away from light and heat (ZB, HN). A cabinet in the pantry or the basement is perfect, but the kitchen should be okay too, as long as it’s not super hot and humid there, of course. If you want your beer to last longer, keep it in the refrigerator. That’s the bottom line, let’s get into details and reasons behind all of these practices.
First, upright storage. You should store the beer that way because it minimizes the surface area that’s in contact with air. And, as you probably know, oxidation changes the flavor of beer for the worse.
The upright position is essential for long term storage. If it sits in the fridge for a couple of hours on its side, nothing bad will happen.
When it comes to cold temperature and being away from sources of heat, that recommendation holds true for almost any food out there, so no surprise here.
Last but not least, the absence of light. I’m sure you’ve read on many different food products that you should store them in a dark place. Beer is no different. Ever had a skunky beer? That’s the result of the golden liquid exposed to light for too long. And by light, I mean both sunlight and fluorescent light (HB). It’s worth noting that some beers are more susceptible to it than others, so if yours have turned into a skunk fest, either avoid it or take special care when it comes to storage.
Speaking of skunky beer, cans generally do a better job protecting the beer than bottles do. And when it comes to the latter, they aren’t created equal either. Typically, clear glass is the worst, and green is only slightly better. Brown glass used for most beer is pretty good, but not ideal (HB). Did you notice that I said typically? That’s because there’s an ongoing search for the perfect (and cheap) beer bottle, and some transparent, green, or brown bottles are surely better than others. And there’s no way for you to know which are.
If there’s one thing you take away from all this talk about how light affects beer, it’s that you should avoid buying bottles that are on displays. They are in fluorescent light the whole day, so chances of getting a skunky beer are quite high. Instead, open up a container that’s in the back and grab a couple of bottles from there. Or the whole package, if you wish.
Photo by Brett Jordan.
Unless the seal has been broken, chances are your beer is perfectly safe for consumption. Yes, even a couple of months after its date. The real question is whether or not it’s good enough to drink, and you’re the one who needs to answer that question. Open it up and give it a taste. If it’s up to your standards, congratulations, you got yourself a drink. If not, get rid of it and grab the next one.
One thing that confuses some people is sediment on the bottom of the bottle. Its presence is quite common in unfiltered beer. It consists of yeast used in the fermentation process, and drinking it is perfectly safe (SC, ZB), so no worries. If it grosses you out, leave it at the bottom of the bottle, or filter it out.
- Regular beer stays at peak quality for about six months, depending on the brew and how you store it.
- Vintage and aged beer can be aged for years. Check the label to learn how long you should keep it in the cellar for optimal flavor.
- Store beer upright, in a cool and dark place. Make sure the beer you buy doesn’t sit in light on a retail display the whole day.