Beer Shelf Life: How Long Does Beer Last?

My favorite beer was on sale sometime last year, so I bought three cases.  Don’t judge me, It was a really good sale.  Anyway, I only had room in the fridge for two cases and the third I found a nice cool place in the back of my paint cabinet. 

beer shelf life

Well, time passed, and I forgot about the “paint” case of beer for over a year. (apparently, I don’t paint as much as I should). 

When I found it, I wondered if it was still good.  I have a buddy who brews and bottles his own beer, so I asked him what the shelf life of beer is.

He joked at first,  “Around here, not very long! A lot of times I drink it before it hits the shelf.”  But then he said saw I wanted a serious answer.

If you want a short answer, It is about 6 months on average, from the time of packaging.

However, you will hear that the shelf life of beer is between 2 months and 2 years and maybe even longer.

There are 4 key factors that will ultimately determine the shelf life of a particular beer. 

Those beer shelf life factors are:

  1. Is the beer pasteurized?
  2. What type of container is it in? Bottle or can?
  3. Is the beer refrigerated?
  4. How discerning is the person drinking the beer?

These days a lot of beers have date stamps on them.  Some are “born on date”  which is when the beer was bottled or canned, others have “best by” or “enjoy by” dates which are clearly the brewers’ way of suggesting a date before which you should consume a beer.   These dates are your best gauge as to how fresh a beer is.  Beer is meant to be enjoyed fresh, so pick a beer that has a “best by” date that is the furthest in the future.

I was intrigued by what my buddy was telling me and I pressed him for more.  I wanted to know if my “paint cabinet” beer was still good or not.  He said, the only way to tell for sure was to open a can and smell it, but that the answers to these questions would certainly factor into the verdict…

Is the beer pasteurized?

The first variable for how long the shelf life of a beer is whether it is pasteurized or not. Generally speaking, a pasteurized beer is going to have a longer shelf life than a non-pasteurized beer.  My brewing buddy told me that most of the big brands pasteurize their beer.

Pasteurization is the process of heating beer that has been bottled or canned.  The bottled or canned beer is passed through a spray of hot water (140-160 degrees F) for a period of two up to fifteen minutes.  This process helps to kill any bacteria in the beer and it extends shelf life.  So, a commercially brewed beer that has been pasteurized would have the longest shelf life. 

What type of container is the beer in?

A can will keep beer fresher for a longer period than a bottle will.  As we know, oxygen will expedite the staling of beer.  The canning process is more effective than bottling at removing more oxygen from the container.  Additionally, the seal on a can is more airtight than that of a bottle.  So, as a bottle of beer sits on a shelf or the fridge, it will allow more oxygen to seep in than a can of beer will.

Beer in a can is also more protected from light, especially UV light than beer in a bottle.  UV light causes oxidation which contributes to the foul taste of a beer that is considered to have gone bad.  While some brown and green bottles will block some UV light, they can’t do as good of a job as a can.

My case of Budweiser was pasteurized and it was 24 CANs of beer.  So far I am 2 for 2.

Is the beer stored in a refrigerator?

This is where my hopes started getting dashed.  My beer had not been refrigerated.  It had been stored in a paint closet in the garage.  

Temperature is very important for the longevity of a beer.  First is the heating process and the pasteurization process.  After that, the beer should be refrigerated until consumed in a perfect world. In this imperfect world, beer could be warmed, cooled, warmed again, and almost frozen before it even gets to the store we buy it from.  For optimal freshness, however, it should be cooled and remain cooled until consumed. 

Anheuser-Busch, the makers of Budweiser, Busch Beer, Natural Light, and many other brands, knew that refrigeration was so important in the shipping and storing of beer, that they were the first brewery to use refrigerated railcars. This way they could control the temperature and quality for as long as possible.  While I’m tooting their horn, they were the first to use the pasteurization process as well.

The bad news is that this does not bode well for the beer in my garage. I told my buddy that I was planning to try the beer anyway.  I asked him if it was SAFE to drink it.  He said yes, as long as the cans aren’t damaged.  He warned me that if I opened one up and the stench was bad that I shouldn’t even try.  He did alleviate my biggest concerns by saying, the pasteurization process most likely killed all the bacteria that could have an adverse effect on me.

How discerning is the person drinking the beer?

This is really where we get to the crux of our discussion on the shelf life of beer, according to my brewing buddy.  How much am I, Joe Sixpack, going to notice if my Budweiser spent an extra day on the shelf, or an extra week or month?  Will I really be able to tell the difference between a 2 week old Bud and a 2-year-old Bud?

I can hear some of you out there shouting, “I’d know!”  you scream.  “I know it would taste and smell all skunky.” 

Well, this is why it is important to consider WHO is drinking the beer.  I put my case of Buds into the fridge and planned my own private taste party for later in the day.

I also bought  a brand new six-pack with a “best by” date nearly 2 months from now, so I could compare a fresh Bud to my paint closet Buds.

I could tell the difference right away.  But, I have to tell you, by no means was the old beer undrinkable.  It seemed a bit flatter (maybe), and it was slightly more bitter.   But It was good enough for me and my BBQ.

Final Thought on Beer Shelf Life

A beer’s shelf life is a relative term.  Brewers want you to drink the best they have to offer.  They, like most, think beer should be enjoyed as fresh as possible.  They even make it easy for you to pick the freshest beer off the shelf with their “best by” dates.  If you overbuy and need to store beer for a while, make sure you keep it refrigerated and away from UV light and you should be good to go.

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