Have you found yourself at your local craft beer retailer with a 6 pack in your hands when you glance down and see the “bottled on” date. You get concerned because it was bottled about 3 months ago and you start to wonder if it is still good. If so, you aren’t alone. We want to buy beer that is going to taste good.
There are many factors that go into which beer I decide to take home and freshness is rarely high on the list until I see a date printed on the can or bottle. Then it becomes the most important factor. And why shouldn’t it? A premium is paid to drink craft beer so we should demand that it tastes as the brewer intended.
Reading Craft Beer Shelf Life Codes
First things first, before you try to determine if a beer is still drinkable, you must first know where to find a date on the bottle or can. On bottles, it can be on the label or neck of the bottle. Warning, dates printed onto a bottle are often hard to read. For cans, it is almost always on the bottom.
Sierra Nevada has a great online resource explaining how to find and read their dating. Check it out here.
Now that you’ve located the date . . . wait, you say that you found a number but it doesn’t look like a date? There is a good chance that the brewery is using the Julian date format. And while it is considerably less convenient, it is easy to understand. The first number or two represent the year – 7 or 17 means 2017. The rest of the numbers refer to the number day out of 365 days (or 366 in a leap year). For example, December 31, 2016 could be 6366 or 16366 (remember that 2016 was a leap year). Again, not as convenient but not impossible to figure out either.
Also be aware that there is a huge difference between a “Bottled / Canned On” date and a “Best By” date. It’s pretty self-explanatory but I mention it to ensure that you are reading the entire label. If there is no phrase like this, then the date almost always refers to the date it was put into the bottle or can.
And to make things even more confusing, breweries are not required to provide this information. While most breweries do label their products, some do not.
Related Post: Why 15,000 People Went To A Brewery Grand Opening
Craft Beer Shelf Life
So now that you have bottled or canned on date, what is an acceptable length of time before the beer will no longer be good to drink?
There isn’t an easy answer here but I think there are some guidelines that you can follow. First off, realize that rarely will a beer go bad and be undrinkable. However, it is possible that it will lose its intended flavor or take on new flavors. So you can buy an old beer and still drink it but the flavor may be off.
Not all craft beer styles are equal. So it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that different styles do better over time. And I am not referring to aging/cellaring craft beer. I am referring to the fact that some beers need to be drank fresh while others can last on a retailer’s shelf for months without any issue. Much of this is based on the style of beer.
I reached out to Mike Stuart at MadTree Brewing in Cincinnati, Ohio to get some input on this topic. They are serious about quality control and shelf life is part of that process. For MadTree, most of their canned craft beer has a shelf life of 120 days. This includes their IPAs, Pale Ales, Kolsch, Amber, and many others. Darker beers can sit on shelves up to 180 days. And there are even a few that they say will stay good even after a year or more – mainly high ABV stouts and barrel-aged beers.
Southern Tier also has a good resource for this; it can be found here. They break their products down into two categories; 6 months or 12+ months. The 6 month beers include hoppy and other styles that will see dramatic flavor changes after 180 days. For the 12+ month beers, they can be aged much longer but want retailers to note the vintage when it passes 12 months.
Type Of Packaging Matters
The great debate over can or bottles continues to be a relevant topic. While cans are definitely on the rise, bottles are still common. How a beer is packaged impacts shelf life.
Bottled beer has been around for a long time. Many still prefer this traditional method of packaging craft beer. It has good weight and feel to it. However, glass can let in light; specifically UV light. UV is an enemy to beer. And while darker bottles are better than clear or green, they all let in UV. So bottled beer cannot be put anywhere that would allow UV light to get to it. If it does, the shelf life drops dramatically. So much so that I wouldn’t recommend beer that is displayed where UV light can get to it.
That is an advantage that cans have over bottles, light is not able to get to the beer. However, I still would recommend to keep it away from sunlight since temperature changes are not ideal either.
So What Is Old?
Fresh is best. But it seems like craft beer enthusiasts have taken this idea to an extreme level. I see reviews, posts and comments saying that a beer “fell off” (aka; lost its flavor) after a week. Some of this is meant as a joke while others are quite serious.
Consuming fresh beer is ideal because it taste just as the brewer intended. But since we can’t buy the beer and drink it the same day it is packaged, here is a quick list of ways to ensure you get good tasting beer:
- Buy it from a retailer that keeps their beer away from UV light
- Keep it cold once you get it home – being cold slows the aging of the beer
- Prevent UV light exposure by storing it in a dark area
- Drink it within 4 months of the bottled / canned date
For most styles, anything over 180 days is old. But be aware that even after 180 days, the beer can be sold and consumed. It just is not the ideal manner that most breweries, distributors and retailers want to sell craft beer.
Related Post: Three Questions To Ask Before Aging Craft Beer
What To Do If You Find Old Beer
Now that you know all about how to tell if a beer is old or not, what should you do when you find beer that is old?
First off, don’t make a huge deal about it. Things like this happen when there are so many different brands and type of beer on shelves. The first thing you should do is make sure that the retailer is aware of the issue. It is often times the distributor’s responsibility to remove old beer (called out of code) off of shelves. So they will work with the correct distributor to fix the issue. If you feel that this is a recurring issue then contacting the brewery can be helpful as well. It is a collective effort, so everyone from the customer to the brewer can help.
What you shouldn’t do is make it into a bigger deal that it should be. It’s not necessary to post issues like this all over social media. An email or private message to the brewery can normally get a really fast response. They will appreciate your help because it is very hard for them to control what happens with their beer once it leaves the brewery. Craft beer is a friendly community and a helping hand goes a long way.