At some point or another, in an unkempt dive bar, a sprawling chain restaurant, or a lightly attended holiday party, we’ve all had one. Perhaps we were trying something new for once, and were unfortunate enough to have our curiosity swiftly punished. Or maybe we were going back to the well for an old favorite and found nothing but despair. Either way, we’ve all had a bad beer, and aside from pouring it down the sink or waving a server over, we don’t really give it much analysis. No use crying over spilled whatever, after all.
But it’s worth considering that bad beers go through exactly the same processes as good beers do. There is, of course, the small exception of whatever random event caused the beer to become extremely sucky, but it’s not as if there are Objectively Bad Beer factories cranking out 100 percent of the misfires (Shark Tank rejected their pitch). Point is, even the good guys goof up occasionally! Luckily, these red-headed step-beers are almost always flagged by quality control, but a few lemons are bound to sneak through — and I’m not talking about shandies!
Every brewery, restaurant, or bar is going to have some small variations in process and method, so without being there in person it’s impossible to determine why one particular beer wasn’t up to snuff. Nevertheless, here are a few general hiccups that could have been the culprit(s) behind your most recent stinker.
Your Beer Got Skunked
Perhaps the most familiar flavor of beer disappointment, skunkiness is thankfully only a realistic potential outcome for the handful of brews that continue to be shipped around the world in clear or green glass bottles. But at this point, with Corona and Heineken at least widely available in cans if not in more fanciful containers, you’re playing with fire when you pick up these labels.
If you haven’t had the unmistakable displeasure of tasting a skunked beer, here’s some context: Have you ever tasted a rodent’s ass? Or smelled it, at least? Well, skunked beers come by the pejorative honestly: In the nostril, they genuinely resemble the sulfuric off-gassing of a smooshed-flat worm-eater. The taste is not quite that bad, but still, you wouldn’t drink a Pliny The Younger with a dirty diaper pressed up against your nose, right? So why chug something way less good while smelling something even worse? Doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense.
Fortunately, a skunked beer isn’t like a rainbow; science actually has an explanation for it (please don’t tweet at me about this joke). The condition of being skunked is the result of a chemical reaction that occurs when ultraviolet light interacts with the hop compounds in the beer, and since brown bottles are better at filtering out UV rays than green or clear alternatives, well, you get the rest.
Your Beer Went Flat
Beer gets carbonated in a variety of ways: generally through added sugar, carbonation tabs, or bottle conditioning. Bottle conditioning is the practice of adding a special yeast right before the beer is packaged, which produces the necessary CO2 inside each individual unit. By design, this is a more labor-intensive process than other methods and is therefore objectively superior, just like straight-razor shaves and long division!
But however the carbon dioxide got in there, once it’s gone, it’s gone. Don’t try shaking it up or putting it in your soda maker. You’re just gonna make yourself sad and possibly sticky. Pour the poor little guy out, say a few words, and try to find a damn sealed beer to drink for crying out loud.
Your Beer Exploded
Did you ever try the move where you put the beer in the freezer to cool it down faster? Did you also then do the corollary to that move, which is forgetting to set a timer to remove the beer, resulting in a beer bomb coating the inside of your ice maker with booze goop? Well, that sucks, but it’s irrelevant. You not understanding physics is a problem for incoming U.S. Secretary of Education Starscream From The Transformers, not me.
The tendency of water to expand when frozen is a problem for delicate, static containers of liquid, to be sure, but so are lots of other things: bad cap seals, a surplus of oxygen, carbon dioxide, or any other of those crazy gasses that get mixed up in bottles coming into contact with the ground at a high speed. These will all result in extremely cool explosions and undrinkable beer.
Your beer doesn’t necessarily have to explode in transit, either. We’ve all gotten the server who looks like he got the croupier and bartending schools mixed up in his GPS and pours a pint like he’s shooting a come out roll, and nothing explodes a beer faster than yanking the damn handle clean off the tap. Guy pulls a draught like he’s trying to take the bar to warp speed. C’mon man.
Your Beer Expired
Strange but true: Beer doesn’t live forever. In our hearts, sure, but on the shelf, it’s getting old and confused and watching a lot of cable news. Remember that meddlesome UV light from before? Well, your local bottle shop is probably using fluorescent lighting in its aisles and walk-ins that emits UV rays, which can speed up the aging process and skunk an improperly shielded beer. LEDs and regular old incandescent bulbs don’t suffer from this design flaw, but CFL bulbs multiply it; hopefully your favorite bottler has adopted a simple best-by system that spells out clearly what kind of timeline you’re working with (we prefer side label notches to stamped date codes for legibility).
Best-by dates aren’t necessarily expiration dates, however, and beer tends to get gradually worse over time rather than spoil overnight (think cheese, not milk). But it’s still very possible to unconsciously crack one that’s past its prime. And it’s not too great!
Now those aren’t the only ways your beer can end up a write-off. In the interest of time, we’ve excluded: a factory worker dripping some of his gamma ray-exposed blood into a bottle, aliens tampering with shipments via undetectable thermal technology, and just, like, the grains being really crummy or whatever, among others. But it’s enough to make you really marvel at the next good beer you get — all that planning, time, and energy, and just enough luck working together to avoid every pitfall along the way, only to get whizzed out a couple hours later. Sad!