Sell by dates - a bugbear
Modern packaging, beer bottles included, is extremely sophisticated and keeps the product in tip top condition. However, food safety rules dictate that there has to be a date before which the product is declared optimal. For many food products this is well in advance of the date at which the food starts to develop off flavours or to deteriorate, unless of course the packaging is compromised in some way. I'm not going to write at length about other types of food as my main focus for this piece is beer.
Beer comes to you in a sterilised bottle and in many cases with a pasteurised product, once it's inside the bottle it is in a pretty sterile environment, unless of course the beer is bottle conditioned, which means that it contains live yeast and continues to mature inside the bottle - effectively like a real ale does in the barrel. Beer sell by dates are largely governed by the fact that a lot of beers are sold in clear bottles under the harsh neon lights of modern supermarkets and these lights can affect the product in the bottle, creating off flavours. This is the reason many brewers prefer brown bottles as they are more effective at keeping out artificial light.
Beer kept in cool dark conditions will not go off anytime soon, regardless of the best before date. I keep all my beers in these conditions and I am drinking beer that is over two years 'out of date' but is still as delicious as the day I first received them. I even have beer that is over 10 years old in a bottle conditioned format and they are still good to drink.
I am often asked how I can sell the beer that is supposedly past its best and the simple answer is that if I can guarantee the quality of what's inside the bottle then I can still sell it. So don't be put off by the best before labels and keep your beer in the right conditions to ensure that it avoids strong light that can have a detrimental effect on whats inside the bottle.
For the record, I currently have some excellent bottle conditioned beers from Wooha, (in brown bottles), with a 2 year shelf life. I think that these can be laid down for 2 - 3 years and the beer will be as good as it is now - but time will tell.....
In the meantime, enjoy your beer!
For further reading on this subject, have a look at the link below to the Amstein website as they have a very good piece on this subject.