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How Long Does Beer Last?

Connoisseur's Corner (Issue 35)
Pat Evans Connoisseur's Corner
Pat Evans


With age often comes a variety of unflattering characteristics – much more than just flavor degradation. It can oxidize, creating a wet cardboard-like flavor. Beers can also become “skunked” if left in the presence of direct light.

Styles such as pale ales, light lagers, wheat beers and brown ales are best within 120 days of packaging, whereas darker, heavier beers, like stouts and porters, are good for up to 180 days. 

Styles such as barrel-aged beers, sour ales and imperial beers are much more robust and last longer on shelves. Time helps mellow out big, boozy beers and can also help sour beers evolve, as the leftover souring elements can continue to evolve in a beer for years -- creating fascinating new flavors.

Blonde de l'Enfer, a Belgian Golden Strong Ale from Unibroue, has a printed "best before" date of 9-11-2022 on the side of the bottle. Belgian Golden Strong Ales are highly cellarable, hence the much longer lifespan of this brew.

Barrel-aged beers are pulled from the barrels ready to drink, but one may age them for considerable periods of time for additional complexity.

Belgium’s Cantillon, one of the world’s most renowned breweries, and several other Lambic producers will put “best by” dates on beers many years into the future, as they have sugars and yeast that continue fermentation with a full maturity after three years. Still, these statements vary in size and placement on the bottle, and they aren't overly apparent to everyday drinkers.

For sour and multiple French- and Belgian-style beers, a brewery is likely to put a statement of how long a beer might continue to evolve. Goose Island Beer Co. prints “develops in the bottle for over five years” on bottles of some of its beers, such as Matilda and Lolita.

One way around this clustered world of various "best by" and "packaged on" dates in beer is to create a standardized method of beer dating. Perhaps craft beer's governing body, the Brewers Association, could take on this important task, as making a consistent process for breweries to label their beer would benefit the breweries themselves, as well as consumers at large. Beers also need to have a uniform place where "best by" dates can be found, so that befuddled consumers don't have to inspect every inch of a can's surface or squint at the fine print on a bottle's label.

Until some sort of reform takes place on how to easily tell when a beer is best consumed, follow this simple rule of thumb: After you purchase a beer, drink it relatively quickly in order to get the most enjoyment out of its freshness. Though a beer's freshness isn’t guaranteed in a world where hundreds of beers sit on retailer shelves untouched, it’s better to be safe and drink up as soon as possible than to wait too long and be thoroughly unimpressed.

You don't have to tell me twice.