The Taste Test: How To Know If Your Beer Is Fresh?

Young couple with beer and guitar sitting on rooftop. Photo: Westend61 (Getty)

It’s pretty much a no-brainer that the freshest beer is beer that is consumed as close to its packaging date as possible. “Just as fresh baked goods that sit out for too long get stale, the flavor stability and flavors of beer drop out and shift as beer ages past its brewery recommended freshest by date,” says Max Bakker, Anheuser-Busch Master Cicerone®.

But, just because the label says your beer is fresh, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is. That’s because there are a few ways beer’s freshness can turn before its brewery recommended freshest by date. “The first is driven by age and accelerated by warm storage temperatures above 55° F for extend periods of time,” says Bakker. This change in temperature will cause the hop aromas and hop bitterness to decrease and the malt flavors increase. This will make your beer sweeter and less fresh tasting. “Eventually, this increased malt sweetness shifts into honey-like flavors before eventually tasting papery and stale.” Sometimes, this is referred to as the “oxidized papery” beer flavor. “Beers without specialty treated hops which are exposed to natural and artificial UV light can become light stuck and are often referred to as skunky,” says Bakker. “This reaction can happen within two minutes of direct light exposure causing beer to take on aromas of fresh brewed coffee and skunk.”

The other way beer can go bad before the freshest by date is due to wild yeast or bacteria contamination. One of the ways this can happen is if a draft line at a bar isn’t properly cleaned. “This contamination causes beer to become sour taking on flavors of vinegar, yogurt, and often buttery popcorn,” says Bakker.

taste test beer

Empty glasses on bar table. Photo: Cultura RM Exclusive/Liam Norris (Getty)

How do I know if my beer is fresh?

To go back to the original idea, the first step to determine if your beer is fresh is to check for a code date. “There should be a freshest by or produced on date listed somewhere on the bottom, label or neck,” says Bakker. Produced on dates may also come with a note from the brewery as to how long from packing they have found for that beer to stay brewery fresh under ideal cold storage 50-55° F conditions. “If you are drinking a freshly poured draft beer it should be free of any sour vinegar or buttered popcorn aromas.”

If you want to ensure that your beer is fresh, always buy it from the cold shelf and always check the date. “Try to keep beer cold and avoid moving it from cold storage to warm storage multiple times,” says Bakker. Also, avoid buying beer that has been placed in front of a window for an extended period of time. Constant sunlight gives you a sunburn and skunks the heck out of beer.

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How do I decode the packaging?

Sometimes, beer packaging can seem confusing. Code dating on beer comes in many forms. The most common is a produced on or freshest by date listed in a Month/Day/Year format. It is common to see imported beer listed in a Day/Month/Year format or just a Month/Year format. “Some breweries use a Julian date code which looks like 18001 or 00118 and 18365 or 18365,” says Bakker. “Translated this is 2018 Jan 1 or Jan 1 2018 and 2018 Dec 31 or 2018 Dec 31. Along with one of these date codes will be a recommendation from the brewery on the beers freshness range.”

How long does beer remain fresh after it’s produced?

Your best bet is to go with the brewery’s recommendations. “If there is a date and no freshest by recommendation a good practice is to consume as soon as possible and store the beer cold,” says Bakker. “Once the beer is cold try to consume within 180 days from the produced on date.” There are even stricter rules for hoppier beers. “Try to consume IPAs within 60-90 days.”

Beers with lighter flavor notes tend to age more quickly and noticeably than beers with stronger flavors. “The best way to keep all beers fresh is to store cold and avoid high temperature swings and prolonged storage,” says Bakker. The best place to store beer is in a dark, dry, cool environment between 38-55° F.

Another tip is to make sure that when you fill your fridge, pull older beer forward and place the new beer in the back. “This will ensure you always have fresh beer code dates in your fridge,” says Bakker.

While most beers are best consumed as fresh as possible, there are exceptions to the rule. Many beers are designed to be aged and even take on interesting, unique flavors through a prolonged ageing process in a cool, dry environment. Buying these special beers and opening them right up when you get home is a disservice to the hard work that went in to creating them. Plus, you are doing yourself a disservice as you won’t really get to enjoy them as intended. The more time they spend aging, the more nuanced and pronounced their flavors will become. “These styles include barrel aged beers and Barley Wines,” says Bakker. “Again, always consume beer fresh and never age IPAs.”