Dear Mr. Wizard
I have tried (quite unsuccessfully) to make Belgian-style ales reusing Chimay and Ommegang bottles at packaging time. I can’t seem to find the right cork for them. I have tried the plastic champagne tops and wine tasting corks to no avail. Some bottles are flat and a few were even contaminated. The portion of the same batch put in regular 12-oz. bottles and capped turned out fine. I really want to recork these Belgian styles for my dubbels and tripels. Any suggestions?
Commack, New York
The Wiz Responds:
Your attempt to recreate the entire package at home is admirable and more challenging than using crown caps on normal beer bottles. For-tunately, the challenge has more to do with finding the proper tool for the job than honing a delicate technique. The type of cork used to seal bottle-conditioned beer bottles is virtually identical to a champagne cork — the market for the cork is the only thing that really differs! The making of this type of cork begins by forming high-quality granulated cork into a high-density composite with uniform mechanical properties. Often, two to three discs of fine natural cork are then laminated to the end of the cork that ends up on the inside of the bottle. Their mushroomed tops make beer and champagne corks easily recognized and this shape forms when the cork is inserted into the neck of the bottle with a special type of corker. The wire cage covering the cork is very important because it holds the cork in place and prevents the bottle pressure from ejecting the seal.
Pretty simple . . . if you want to create the ultimate in package presentation for your Belgian-style ales, you need to purchase the proper tools for the job. A quick web search will yield numerous suppliers of champagne corkers as well as the special corks and required wire cages. Your past failures are almost certainly related to the types of closures you used. The wine corks you describe sound like the type used to loosely close opened bottles. These will not seal tight enough for this challenge. Plastic corks should work quite well unless you are using recycled tops or are mismatching the cork with the bottleneck diameter.
I wish Mr. Wizard could claim to be omnipotent, but I am a mere mortal. I do have some pretty handy contacts, however, and do like to research answers to my questions. I contacted a kindred secretive brewer regarding the ins and outs of corking beer bottles. The first thing I learned is that keeping the cork in the bottle is just as important as getting it out. My anonymous reference told me his brewery once used a 30 mm composite cork to seal their bottle-conditioned ales. This cork worked great except it was extremely hard to remove the cork at the appropriate time.
Not all corks for beer and champagne have the same diameter before cramming them into the neck of the bottle and the cork diameter was changed to 27 mm. This cork worked well at first, but cork is natural and seems to morph over time. The corks that worked at first began to change. Their memory, or ability to flex out after insertion began to falter and they started shrinking over time. The result was flat beer. The other occasional problem that began to surface was the dreaded “corked” off-flavor caused by the compound trichloroanisole (TCA) that is associated with a combination of mold growth in the cork and bleach used to sanitize the cork. This compound has an incredibly low threshold of detection of ~5 parts per trillion — that’s five nanograms per liter. A very small concentration indeed!
Anyhow, the recommended cork for your mission is a 27 mm Sabaté Altec composite cork from France equipped with a solid disk end. This cork reportedly has good memory and will seal your bottle for a long time and will free itself when beckoned. You do need to buy the special corking tool to get this bad boy into its temporary home. The basic solution to your quest is to begin by sealing your bottles and I do not believe you are currently doing that.
Dear Mr. Wizard,
On a trip to Germany, I recently tried a Kilkenny red ale and really liked it (I know it’s an Irish beer). Since then, I have been trying different Irish style red ales. Recently, I was in a brewpub and ordered one, but they didn’t have any red ales. Instead, the bartender recommended an Oktoberfest. I thought that was odd, but tried one anyway and it reminded me of the Irish red. Today I purchased a Sam Adams Oktoberfest and it too reminded me of the red ale. Are my taste buds wrong or are there similarities between these two styles?
The Wiz Responds:
I wish I could travel to a different place in time when beer styles were truly tied to geographical regions, a time before globalization of brewing techniques and brewing ingredients. Based on what I know and what I have read about brewing, the concept of beer style often has much more to do with differentiating beers within a given region rather than between regions. Your sensory experience goes along with this notion. When the entire range of beer flavor is viewed graphically, like on a spider web plot used to display quantitative data collected from sensory panels, commonalities are found among most beers. Brewers use universal descriptors like malty, hoppy, bitter, roasted, fruity, acidic, sour, phenolic and the likes to describe beer flavor. Throw in color and we have a spectrum ranging from pale straw to deep burgundy, the latter appearance usually described as black when viewed in a typical beer glass.
It goes to reason that within a region brewers used the local ingredients and brewing practices to offer a range of beers to their customers. Bavarian brewers formulated beers including helles, Pils, weizen, dunkels, Märzen, doppelbock and schwarzbier to cover a wide range of colors and flavors. Beers emerged in the British Isles somewhat independently of what was happening in Bavaria — I say somewhat because the history of regional brewing centers did not develop in total isolation — and these styles included brown ale, porter, stout, amber ale, barleywine and old ale. Meanwhile, the Belgian brewers were off doing their own thing and developed beers that tend to fall outside the norm. The number of traditional beer styles is quite large, as is the palate of colors and flavors.
Within this huge assortment of styles is considerable overlap and the key flavor notes found in a Bavarian dunkels brewed in the 1800’s, for example, may have also been found in a brown ale brewed somewhere in England. There were certainly differences due to yeast strain, fermentation temperature, malt type, mash technique and so on, but both of these beers occupy a slot in the regional beer menu of the day. After all, there is a limit to the range of color and flavor brewers can obtain from our chosen raw materials.
In today’s world, brewers all over the globe typically have a pretty good idea of what goes on in other breweries — and if they don’t, the information is readily available. This fact has certainly led to a melting pot of beer style. I have no idea what Irish red ales tasted like 150 years ago. If I apply historical stereotypes, I would assume these beers to be low in hop bitterness, full in malt flavor and perhaps contain detectable levels of diacetyl. Since these beers were fermented cool for ales (it gets pretty chilly in Ireland) I would also guess the Irish Ales of yesteryear were low in esters, similar to the cool-fermented lager family. Who knows, but it really doesn’t matter because Kilkenny Irish Ale did not exist until 1990 when it was developed by the Smithwick Brewery (part of Guinness since the 1980’s) to be exported for the global market. According to Michael Jackson, most Irish Ales, including Kilkenny, use a portion of caramel malt and roasted barley to provide a toffee-like malt backbone with roasted overtones.
The bartender at your local brewpub did a good job matching their selection with the general flavor profile of your request. Oktoberfest/Märzen, a relative of Vienna lager, is a style known for its full malty flavor, amber color and judicious use of hops. German brewers rely on Munich malts for flavor and color and do not use crystal malt or roasted barley. I describe the malt character in these beers as nutty, toasty and rich. The Oktoberfest style has become a mainstay for many domestic craft breweries and is one of the more common lager styles found in brewpubs.
When it comes to brewing technique, we craft brewers in the U.S. pick and choose our ingredients in an attempt to replicate beer flavors. We sometimes take liberties when it comes to adhering to the traditions of certain styles. Many craft brewers use crystal malt in addition to Munich malt when brewing Oktoberfest beers. This is certainly not traditional, but the result is pretty darn tasty. A quick search for Oktoberfest recipes on the net yields a boatload of recipes and almost all contain crystal malt.
Likewise, Munich malt has become a staple specialty malt that is perfect when you want that special maltiness that isn’t so pronounced in many other malts. It doesn’t matter to today’s brewer if we are brewing brown ale, amber ale or traditional lagers like dunkels or Oktoberfest. If the beer imagined in the mind’s eye has a nutty, malt flavor, then Munich malt is the go-to malt! In closure, your palate is working just fine. Even though there are dozens of stylistic descriptors, there is considerable overlap in beer flavor and the ingredients among the styles.