None of us here have ever had any formal training in the art of home brewing. Most of what we’ve learned is through reading, Youtube, homebrew club meetings, and trial and error. So over the summer I decided to take a “Brewing 101” course a friend was teaching in hopes of learning a little more and giving our brew days a bit more structure. While attending, one of the students asked whether or not the 5 year bottle of Heineken above his fridge would still be good. Needless to say, in this case, the answer was a definite “no”. It’s not the first time I’ve heard questions about the shelf life of beer though. This gentleman’s beer was long past its prime, but does that mean all beer has a shelf life? The answer is a clear and uncomplicated “it kinda depends on a bunch of different factors”.
What kind of beer is it?
This is probably the biggest factor in determining the shelf life of a beer. Typically lighter and lower alcohol beers are best served fresh. Mainly because any kind of flaw is much more noticeable in lighter styles like American Lights and Pilsners. The common flaw that occurs in beer that’s passed its prime is oxidization. This is when oxygen works its way back into the bottle and into the beer.The result is a cardboard taste that’s definitely not complimentary to the beer. This can start being noticeable around the 6 month mark in bottles while cans may give you a few more months.
Hoppy beers like IPA’s or West Coast Pale Ale’s will also start losing that awesome hop aroma over time. We’ve noticed it starts to disappear after 3 months so best to drink them as fresh as possible.
Because of the strength of the darker malts used, Stouts and Porters seem to mask the oxidized off-flavors for longer then lighter styles. It’s still there, just more subtle and less noticeable depending on the style.
High gravity (high alcohol) beers like Russian Imperial Stouts, Scotch Ales, and Barleywines are actually ideal for aging. Most high gravity beers can have a strong alcohol or “hot” flavor when served fresh. Aging them for 6 months or more can help mellow out these flavors for a silky smooth finish. Oxygen can and will creep its way into the beer, but since these tend to be complex and rich beers (usually good with desert) it’s barely noticeable. That being said, most brewers will try and fend off oxidization as much as possible by dipping the top of the bottles in wax to help seal it.
What Colour is the bottle?
Clear bottles may have “nothing to hide”, but they are far from ideal when it comes to beer. Exposing your beer to UV (ultra-violet) light is a bad thing. That’s why brown bottles work best since they block most of the UV light. If your bottle is clear or green it can begin taking on a skunky smell and taste less then ideal. It’s this very reason that certain large breweries recommend serving their beer with a lime wedge. The acid from the lime has a way of counteracting the skunky character, turning your beverage into something much more pleasing.
So how long does it take for UV light to skunkify your beer? Put it this way; if you’re picking up a case of beer that has clear or green bottles, then there’s a high chance they’re already skunky and you’ve just gotten used to the flavor. That being said, if you find a fresh case and want to experiment for yourself then simply put that clear bottled beer next to a window for an hour or two and see what happens. Just make sure you’re within spitting distance of a sink when you try it. This skunky effect can still happen with brown bottles it just takes longer.
What about growlers?
Depending on the type of growler and how it was filled you may get a different longevity, but typically it’s best to open them within a week of filling and consume the contents within 24 hours after opening. This has less to do with possible off-flavors and infections and more to do with the loss of carbonation. Growlers are not designed to store beer for the long term. Having a quick look at the quality of the caps will make that glaringly obvious on most offerings. However, most breweries do offer higher quality options with better seals and insulation that keep your beer fresher and colder for longer. If you’re willing to cough up and extra $50-$80 during your next fill it’s well worth it!
Another factor, when dealing with growlers, is how it’s been filled. Most breweries will fill using a counter pressure system that purges the oxygen from the growler using CO2 before filling it right to the top with beer. This is, by far, the best method of filling a growler and will give your beer the longest life span. These systems are easily recognizable since they’ll either look like a filling chamber from the future or they will have some type of seal around the top of the growler when filling.
Filling a growler from the tap does still happen from time to time, but an extension of some kind should be used to prevent too much head. It’s better then nothing, but it’s still best to plan accordingly and drink the contents of your growler sooner rather then later.
That’s it for now! Have more questions about the shelf life of your beer? Do you have an idea for a future post? Comment and let us know!