Can Beer Go Bad?
When beer ages, you get skunky suds or tasty gold
In this era of food-safety mania, there is one perishable no one speaks of. Yes, beer can go bad. Fortunately, it usually gets drunk before it can turn. But if you’ve ever cracked open a bottle that somehow managed to languish at the back of your fridge for a few months too many, then you know the horror of skunky suds.
So, how does one avoid such a fate? We consulted David Cichowicz, the founder of craft beer shop-slash-bar Good Beer NYC in NYC's East Village, to find out.
“With hoppy beer — like wheat beer, lager, IPAs — you notice the flavor starts to drop out after three to six months,” he says. “With some very fragile IPAs, I wouldn’t go longer than three, to be safe.”
It’s a limited window, especially when you consider how hard it is to figure out when the three to six months starts. For some reason, breweries use highly undecipherable codes to identify the sell-by date on their bottles. Cichowicz recommends Googling these if you’re really worried about your beer being past its prime.
“It’s difficult to see it on the bottle, because it’s usually printed in black on brown glass,” he explains. “It’s usually a pull date, which means you have to take it off the shelf by a certain time. It doesn’t mean it’s bad by that date, just that it could be sub-par compared to the brewery’s quality standards.”
Some craft breweries, like Bell’s and Oskar Blues, have started using more straightforward bottling dates. Even Budweiser has its “Born On” dating system, which allows the consumer to easily tell when a beer will be at its freshest.
But not everyone likes his brew brand-spanking new.
“High-gravity beer — as in, beer with a high alcohol content — can be aged for years and still be good. They change over time, pick up different characteristics,” Cichowicz says.
He adds that anything over 8% ABV can be aged. Imperial stouts and porters do especially well on the shelf, as do barrel-aged ales. Certain hotter IPAs, like Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA and Founders’ Devil Dancer, also stand the test of time, generally getting milder as they age. Cichowicz himself is currently aging cases of Brooklyn Black Ops and Dogfish Head’s Bitches Brew in his store’s basement. He expects them to be ready after about a year. They’ll fetch a higher price, but he’s not quite sure how much higher just yet. The key, especially if you aren’t privy to a cellar, is to age your beer in a cool, dark, dry place (read: not on top of your fridge or cabinets).
“People are aging their beer more,” he says. “For me, it’s difficult because I’m impatient. Some people sit on stuff for years."
You don’t have to be a beer sommelier to know that there are times when you want some fresh, young thing. And others when you crave something a little more mature. Whatever you’re in the mood for, be sure to read the label.
Are you aging any beers? Which ones? Tell all in the comments.
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