How Long Does Beer Last?
Most beers have a limited shelf life. While they don’t perish as quickly as bananas, you can’t keep them around indefinitely like wine or spirits.
There are a few exceptions like barley wine and some dopplebocks, which can be aged for years like wine. However, for the most part, beer should be consumed within a few weeks or months of brewing to ensure the best quality.
Why Pasteurization Extends Beer’s Shelf Life
There are two categories of beer: pasteurized and unpasteurized, each with its own distinct reasons.
When Anheuser Busch introduced pasteurization to beer in the late 19th century, it was revolutionary. Prior to that, beer had a very short shelf life, with most breweries unable to transport their beer more than a few miles before it spoiled. Adolphus Busch changed this by pasteurizing his beer and using refrigerated railcars, allowing him to ship his beer across the nation.
Soon, pasteurization became the norm for brewers. Ironically, refrigerated railcars made pasteurization less necessary, as beer could now travel longer distances without spoiling.
Why Isn’t All Beer Pasteurized?
Pasteurization stabilizes beer by killing microorganisms, particularly bacteria, which are detrimental to beer. However, the process also kills yeast, which is integral to the flavor of beer. In a way, pasteurization kills the vitality of beer.
Although pasteurized beer is still drinkable and tastes similar, it lacks the life and character of unpasteurized beer. Pasteurized beer should be consumed within a few weeks of brewing to avoid flavor deterioration.
The Pros and Cons of Unpasteurized Beer
Unpasteurized beer contains living yeast suspended in the liquid. This yeast contributes to the flavor profile of many beer styles and is cherished by some drinkers. While there is a slight risk of bacterial infection, modern brewers follow sanitary methods, keeping the chances low.
Beer with living yeast will continue to develop and evolve while sealed. In most styles, these changes are subtle but discernible to attentive drinkers. However, after a few months, the beer’s vitality fades, and a stale, lifeless quality emerges.
Why Heat and Light Are Detrimental to Beer
Beer has three primary enemies: heat, light, and infection. While we cannot control infection entirely, we can manage heat and light exposure.
In addition to promoting bacterial growth, heat can also adversely affect the flavor of beer. Brewers carefully manipulate temperatures during the brewing process to achieve specific flavors, so even a few hours in a hot, parked car can disrupt this delicate balance.
Light is responsible for skunking beer. Even in brown bottles, which offer the best protection, beer can become skunked within a day or two of sunlight exposure. Green and clear bottles are even more susceptible, spoiling beer in just a matter of minutes.
The Best Way to Store Beer
Considering all of this, the simple answer is to store beer in a dark, cool place for a short period of time.
If you have space in your refrigerator, that’s the optimal spot. Otherwise, store the beer in your basement or a centrally located closet if you’ve purchased more than intended. Avoid storing beer in sunny areas, such as a baker’s rack in your kitchen, as prolonged exposure to light and heat will degrade its quality.