You may want to check the expiry date on that beer before you pay

Business Insider SA
  • Booze sales are back next week.
  • Spirits can stand on a shelf for a long time, but beer has a shorter lifespan, especially when it is subject to light and higher temperatures.
  • After a long lockdown, a not-insignificant portion of beer on the shelves of some liquor retailers is past its sell-by date.
  • Your beer will probably taste exactly the same even if it is technically expired.
  • Probably.
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Once bottled, high-alcohol spirits – including whiskey and vodka – are considered shelf-stable. Bottles may carry dates on their packaging, but from a consumer point of view, all that matters is an unbroken seal.

That is less the case with beer.

"I'd say you probably have at least a year after the best-before date to drink it, but personally I wouldn't try it," one liquor store owner says. "Beer absolutely goes off, and it can be pretty horrible."

Beer is complex, so complex that the way it changes in the bottle is not entirely understood. But "nonbiological instability" can cause haze, foaming, and changes in flavour. Due to the way oxygen, carbohydrates, proteins, and other elements interact, temperature and light are particularly important in how long beer will actually be good for, and the extent to which changes may spoil the experience.

Interference by light is significantly reduced by brown and green glass bottles, or opaque cans. (Without UV blocking, beer can turn "skunky", though anti-UV coatings mean the actual colour of the glass is no longer that important.)

But during lockdown, several liquor store operators said, they didn't keep expensive fridges running: every beer was basically sitting on a room-temperature shelf, even if it was technically locked in a fridge.

What that means will differ from product to product, brand to brand, and even store to store. Complaints about beer that has gone off, experts say, are few and far between. But never in modern brewing history has so much stock sat for so long on so many shelves across South Africa, so a grand experiment is about to take place.

And it will be up to buyers to watch out for trouble. Not all booze sellers even track expiry dates to being with, because they are so rarely an issue, liquor store owners say. Those who do are about to face a rough ride, as consumers demand instant satisfaction while supply lines are still catching up. The level of incentive to make sure they don't sell expired product?

"Zero," says one experienced liquor trader.

By anecdotal counts, anything between 5% and 10% of the short-life booze products currently on liquor store shelves may be close to, or past official expiry dates.

So you may want to check the expiry date on that case of beer.

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