How fresh is your beer?

by: BeerAdvocate on 12-24-2003
Beer is a fragile product. It should be treated like any other perishable food. You do ingest it, right? Despite popular belief, beer does have a shelf life. In time, even if the brew has been pasteurized and triple cold-filtered, there will come a day when the beer will kick its heels up and go sour. There is nothing worse than tasting a bad brew. It will ruin your drinking session when that mouthful of bacteria hits your taste buds and then the floor when you spit it out. You will never forget the invisible ninja organisms that assassinated your beer months ago.

Here are some tips when buying beer at your local package store, and how to avoid dead beers:

1) Buy brew from the cooler; it keeps the beer fresh. Beer sitting out at room temperature, even for a few months, may start to degrade and become stale - plus, chances are that same beer was transported cold and allowed to warm. Not good. Cold storage also slows oxidation in beer. Even the tightest bottling system will allow minute amounts of air into the bottle, which, over the months, will start to destroy the beer and give it a wet paper/cardboard flavor.

2) Look for a freshness date. Some will have a “packaged on date” and some will have a “best before date.” Some breweries will ink-print the "bottled on" date right above the label as well as on each case box. Some notch the side of their label, noting which month to consume the beer by, while others will employ the freshness date in different places on the bottle and/or packaging. If they don't use a freshness date ... consumer beware.

3) Dust. It's a sure sign the beer has been sitting, dead, for a long time. Put it down, and walk away from the beer calmly.

4) Avoid buying beer that is kept in direct light, which allows damaging UV rays in. Both excessive direct sunlight and heat can give the brew a “skunky” stale flavor, which is a by-product of the delicate hop oils spoiling.

5) There is no such thing as "beer on sale." It's a package store, not a Wal-Mart. There's probably a good reason that 6-pack is only $4.99. Don't take any chances by being a cheapskate.

Of course there are always exceptions to these rules. Generally speaking, the higher the alcohol, the longer the shelf life. So higher-octane beers like Barley Wines, many Belgian Ale styles, German Bocks, hefty Porters and Stouts, etc., do not go “bad,” for the most part. These brews tend to gain character with aging for many months, even years. Highly hopped brews also tend to benefit from a longer shelf life due to the preserving quality in the hop oils.

So think before you grab any old beer. Buy only fresh beer, consume before expiration and make a point to notify package store owners, or even the brewer, when you come across bad beers.

Respect beer.
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