Can You Drink Expired Beer?

Picture the scene. You’re cleaning out your garage and come across a box of beer, stored for a party that happened long ago. You check the label. There’s a “best before” date – and it was six months ago.

Your heart sinks. But should you risk it? Can you drink expired beer without suffering ill effects?

We’re here to answer that questions! So read on and find out what to do if you encounter expired beer.

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Is It Safe to drink expired beer?

The first thing you’re probably wondering is whether expired beer will harm your health. Even the tastiest beer isn’t worth spending ages in the bathroom for!

Well, the good news is that you probably don’t need to worry about that. The beer will have been treated by being filtered or pasteurized before bottling or canning. Those processes will have eliminated bacteria, so there won’t be any nasties present to upset your tum.

In fact, the fermentation process itself is a very good way of eliminating pathogens from your drink. It’s for that reason that beer was frequently drunk where water sources were unclean. For the ancient Egyptians, for example, it was their staple drink.

Check the Packaging

Careful readers will note that we said expired beer was “probably” safe to drink. So why not “definitely”?

That comes down to the packaging. As long as the beer is in packaging that hasn’t been damaged, you’ll be fine. It won’t contain any bacteria to make you ill.

But if the packaging has been compromised – a dented or punctured can, for example – that might not be the case. So check the exterior carefully before deciding whether to drink the beer. If the packaging is intact, you’re safe to proceed.

What About Flavor of Expired Beer?

If wine gets better with age, you might be thinking that older beer might have a great taste. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case.

Beer generally tastes better the fresher it is. If there’s any oxygen inside the packaging, it will interact with the compounds that give the beer its flavor and aroma. Some of the compounds will break down and just disappear. Others change form and create a stronger taste.

That’s why manufacturers put expiry dates on their beer in the first place. It’s their estimate of how long it will taste good for. Usually the date is set somewhere between four and six months after the beer has been brewed.

A new beer should have a refreshing sharpness and a bright flavor from the hops. But over time, those flavors will change. The beer may taste stale or flat. You may also find there’s a sweeter flavor, more like sherry than beer.

Does That Mean I Need to Stick to the Expiry Date?

If you’re about to throw away a beer bottle that’s past its expiry date – wait up! The date is a guide to whether the beer will have a good flavor, but it’s just that – a guide.

The precise longevity of your beer will depend on a range of different factors. These include the way it’s been stored and the storage temperature. Of course, the manufacturer won’t know either of those things at the point they put the label on the bottle.

The quickest and simplest way to check the flavor is, of course, to taste it. But if you’d like a better idea of what you might be letting yourself in for first, read on!

What Determines How Long Beer Stays Tasting Good?

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There are a number of factors which influence how long any beer will stay tasting reasonably fresh. Some of those relate to the beer itself. Others have to do with the environment in which its kept.

In terms of the beer, a good guide is the amount of alcohol it contains. The more alcohol is present, the longer it will last. Neat alcohol will stay tasting pretty much the same forever. (Although you wouldn’t want to drink it!)

When it comes to beer, there are some good rules of thumb that you can apply. According to the Approved Food Blog, standard strength options stay fresh for between 6 months and 2 years after brewing. Standard strength beers include pale ales, IPAs and lagers.

Stronger beers, like porters or imperial stouts, can stay tasting good for between 5 and 10 years after brewing.

There’s quite a big range in these periods. Exactly how long you can expect it to last depends on the precise characteristics of the beer.

And of course, you won’t have an exact brewing date. But if you work on the basis that manufacturers usually give an expiry date of 4 to 6 months after brewing, you can make an educated guess.

So if you’ve found a bottle of imperial stout that “expired” 3 years ago, it will probably still taste fine. (That’s as long as you like strong beer in the first place!) And if you’ve unearthed an IPA a year after the date on the label, that will probably be ok too.

But it will depend on some other factors as well.

How Has the Beer Been Packaged?

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We’ve already seen that damaged packaging can mean your beer isn’t safe to drink. But the type of packaging can also affect how long the beer will maintain its flavor.

Glass bottles will usually have some air at the top. And they won’t be 100 per cent airtight. That means that oxygen can get inside and interact with the beer.

As we’ve already seen, oxidation destroys some of the compounds that give the beer its flavor. The result will be a flat taste. And other compounds become more intense as they’re exposed to oxygen. That can create a sweeter, more syrupy flavor.

Cans, on the other hand, are airtight. If there’s a can and a bottle of the same beer, with the same expiry date, go for the can. It’s more likely to still taste fresh.

And a good sign is whether it “cracks and fizzes” as you open it up. If it does, the chances are that it will taste pretty good.

There’s also some evidence that light affects flavor too. Generally speaking, the darker the storage conditions, the better the flavor will survive. So beer in clear glass bottles may not last quite as long as that bottled in brown glass.

What About Storage?

So far we’ve seen that the alcohol content of beer, and whether it’s bottled or canned, affects its longevity. But there are also things you can do for yourself to keep your beer tasting fresh for longer.

If you’re used to storing wine, you might imagine that storing beer on its side is a good idea. Not so. Beer should always be stored upright. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that it reduces the volume of beer that comes into contact with any oxygen inside the packaging. The less beer is exposed to the air, the fewer compounds interact with it, and the less the flavor changes.

The second reason relates to the yeast in the beer. Stored upright, the dead yeast cells will settle at the bottom of the bottle and won’t interfere with the flavor. If you store it on its side instead, they’ll form a crusty ring around the bottle.

Temperature Matters

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It’s not just the position of the bottles or cans that matter. The temperatures the beer is exposed to will also make a big difference to how long it stays tasting fresh.

In most cases, the best option is to keep the beer refrigerated. That will slow down the oxidation process and keep the flavor and aroma for longer.

For some beers, though, refrigeration won’t be the right choice. If you’re storing beer with live yeast – like wild or sour ales – the flavor needs to develop. The same goes for some imperial stouts and barley wines. It will be too cold for that to happen in a fridge.

A good rule thumb is to store the beer at the same temperature, or slightly warmer, than you’d drink it.

And always make sure you keep the beer away from sources of heat. A sunny window ledge or anywhere near a heater are obvious no-nos. But remember that the back of a refrigerator has an exhaust vent that will emit hot air too.

All this means that if you find your beer in the corner of a cold cellar, there’s a fair chance it’s stayed fresh. If it’s tucked away next to the exhaust vent of a fridge, your chances aren’t so good.

Ready to Sample Your Expired Beer?!

We hope you’ve enjoyed our answer to the question of “Can you drink expired beer?”. And we hope it’s helped you decide what to do with your old cans or bottes!

Remember, an expiry date is just a guide. As long as the packaging is intact, the beer will be safe to drink. And the easiest way to check that it still tastes fresh is to sample it!

But follow our clues and you’ll have a reasonable idea whether it will be stale before you try it. And you’ll never again need to waste good beer!

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