Dear Mr. Wizard,
I would like some helpful info on using twist-off bottles for homebrew. Have you ever tried or know anyone that has used twist-offs with success? I have searched the Web and all the homebrew shops tell you not to use them because the rim of the bottles are too thin, they break, you cannot get a good seal and carbonating in the bottle builds up too much pressure on a twist-off. However, some homebrewers on various posts on the Web say they have used them without any problems by using twist-off style caps and a bench top capper (and I did find a few shops that sell these caps). It seems it is getting harder to find the old style 16-oz bottles and most beer comes in the newer 12-oz twist-off style bottles anyway. I would hate to find out that you couldn’t use them at the expense of a batch of my finest ale. I like to drink commercial beer, I did before I was a homebrewer and I will continue this ritual — if I could only use the twist-off bottles that hold a lot of it, I would be a happy brewer. I guess my question is if the big boys of brewing and even a lot of microbreweries use them, why not us homebrewers? Can you break it down for me, give me the pros and cons? What’s the scoop?
West Terre Haute, Indiana
Mr. Wizard replies:
For starters, when it comes to bottle conditioned beers, there is very little difference between methods used at home and those used by commercial brewers. If a brewery like Sierra Nevada can add yeast and sugar to beer and package it in a bottle with a twist-off cap, then it follows that the same practice can be used at home. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it!
The key here is recognizing a few things about bottles, caps and cappers. There are two types of bottles sold for use by brewers: one-way and returnable. One-way bottles are intended for only one use and are lighter in weight than returnable glass. In this country, returnable glass, mainly in the form of long neck bottles, has all but vanished. The reason for this primarily relates to the logistics.
If a bottle that has the name of the brewery molded into the bottle or has a special shape, like the now extinct Michelob hour-glass bottle, the end user must somehow get this bottle back to the brewery who wishes to re-use the package. The most common re-used package in the United States is marketed to bars that can reclaim empties. The distributor then picks them up and returns them to the brewery. The brewery then has to verify the glass is what they expect (getting another brewery’s bottle is obviously going to occur) removes the label, washes the bottle, inspects for cracks and then refills those bottles that can be re-used. These bottles show wear over time and can get down right ugly. Since a big part of good packaging is appearance, ugly bottles are not the best thing from an image point of view and the pressed shirts in marketing probably view this package in a negative light.
In Germany there is a standardized half-liter bottle that many breweries use and the logistics of having to get your package back to the brewery is eliminated. This makes recycling more convenient but prevents custom packages that help sell beer. In recent years even the environmentally proactive Germans have begun using more one-way bottles and recyclable cans.
The long and short of returnable glass is that these bottles are becoming more difficult to come by as the popularity of one-way glass continues to increase. The most important thing to recognize about re-using glass is that bottles fatigue after each use and they have a limited life. One-way bottles are designed for one use and are much lighter than their returnable cousins. This means that the first thing you need to find is a source of one-way bottles with a twist-off neck. I recommend finding a local brewery using this type of glass and asking if you can buy bottles from them. The price of new glass including the box and six-pack carriers is surprisingly expensive. We pay about $5.50 per case for our glass. This includes the case box, 6-pack carriers and delivery to the brewery. You can knock off about $2.00 per case if you can get bulk glass.
When you go to put a cap on a twist-off bottle you can use a standard style crown and do not need to worry about finding special twist-off crowns. I have heard this rumor before and know that any standard crown will work. Commercial brewers do like to have the words “Twist Off” accompanied by an area on twist-off bottles to let the consumer know that twisting will indeed remove the cap and permit consumption!
What you do need is a capper that does not grab the neck of the bottle when used. Most hand-held cappers grab the small ring around the perimeter of the neck and use that ring to hold the crowner tight to the bottle. In my experience I have found that this ring on the one-way, twist-off bottles we use breaks when capped with a hand-held capper. The ring on the bottle is simply too thin and too weak for use with hand cappers (at least the one I have). Bench top cappers do not grab onto this ring and are the preferred type of capper to put crowns on twist-off bottles.
The last thing to consider about bottles is carbonation level. One-way glass is designed for normal carbonation levels. If you want to do a beer with high carbonation, such as a Belgian-style or hefe-weizen, you should use a stronger bottle. This is where your collection of returnable half-liter bottles or an investment in flip-top bottles comes in handy.