Do beers actually skunk?

Answered by Robert Flynn

Beers can actually skunk. Skunking is a term used to describe the unpleasant taste and smell that can develop in beer when it is exposed to light. This phenomenon is caused by a chemical reaction between the hops in the beer and the ultraviolet (UV) rays from light sources.

To understand how skunking occurs, we need to delve into the science behind it. Hops, one of the main ingredients in beer, contain compounds called hop oils. These hop oils give beer its distinct flavor and aroma. However, when these hop oils are exposed to UV light, they undergo a chemical reaction with sulfur-containing compounds present in the beer, forming a new compound called 3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol, or MBT for short.

MBT is the culprit behind the skunky smell and taste in beer. It has a similar chemical structure to the odor compound found in skunk spray, hence the term “skunking.” Even a small amount of MBT can have a significant impact on the flavor and aroma of beer, making it unpleasant to drink.

It’s important to note that skunking can occur even in cool and breezy conditions. While heat can accelerate the skunking process, light exposure is the primary cause. This means that even if you store your beer at a cool temperature, if it is exposed to light, it can still become skunked.

So, how can you prevent your beer from skunking? The easiest way is to keep it away from light. The most damaging light is the UV light found in sunlight, but even artificial light sources like fluorescent bulbs can cause skunking. That’s why many beer bottles are made from amber or brown glass, as these colors are more effective at blocking UV light compared to clear or green glass.

Another option is to store your beer in cans. Cans provide excellent protection from light as they are completely opaque. However, if you do choose to drink from a can, pour it into a glass to fully enjoy the aroma and flavors of the beer.

If you find yourself with a skunked beer, unfortunately, there’s no way to reverse the process. The skunky taste and smell are permanent once they occur. It’s best to discard the skunked beer and open a fresh one to fully enjoy your drinking experience.

Beers can indeed skunk, and it’s primarily caused by light exposure rather than heat. The chemical reaction between hop oils and UV light leads to the formation of MBT, which results in the unpleasant skunky smell and taste. To prevent skunking, store your beer in a dark place or choose cans over bottles. And if you do encounter a skunked beer, it’s best to replace it with a fresh one for a more enjoyable drinking experience.