Like your favorite brew recipe, bottling is a matter of taste and imagination, and the subtle interaction between the two. One guy named Fred at the University of Michigan would, every January, bottle a batch of amber in those keg-shaped Red Stripe bottles, turn up the Bob Marley, barbecue some jerk chicken, and pretend he was in Jamaica instead of Michigan. It always worked until the police came and asked him to turn the music down.
Myth: The shape of the bottle matters.
Reality: Traditional bottle shapes are dictated by the technologies of the countries and eras in which the brew developed.
Those soft-shouldered bottles that contain weiss beer or pils may or may not coddle the gentle carbonation as the purists claim, but they were readily available in Germany in the early part of this century. Here in the States there is a certain romance of the longneck that owes more to early mechanical bottling equipment than anything else. Just as you get used to buying flour in a five-pound sack, you get used to seeing a standard beer bottle But when you’re a homebrewer, you have options.
There are lots of bottles out there, from those fat little lambic vessels from Belgium to the broad-shouldered stout bottles of Britain.
Bottles come in lots of shapes, but sizes are fairly standard: 12-ounce and 22-ounce are the most common.
The advantage to buying 22-ouncers is that when filled, they’ll have less head space over the batch, which means less oxidation. You’ll also end up capping fewer bottles, so the process will go a bit more quickly. Adds Andy Grace of Northern Brewers, a homebrewing supply store in St. Paul, Minnesota, “Your friends are more likely to save them for you instead of tossing or recycling them.”
The drawback of filling only 22-ounce bottles is that most homebrew is not meant for guzzling and, unless you’re sharing, you might not want to drink 22 ounces of beer.
There’s a woman who puts her brew in seven-ounce ponies because where she was raised women drink pony-sized beers while their manly mates drink out of standard bottles. But that’s an outdated concept of thirst and gender.
On the other end of the size continuum is what goes by le Méthode Champenoise, a tongue-in-cheek name adapted from the label of French champagne bottles. “Tastes great, less filling!” says Byron Williams, a homebrewer in Missoula, Montana, about using champagne bottles for homebrew. He’s right: These 750 ml monsters will cut your bottling time by half. A champagne bottle also makes for nice presentation.
Champagne bottles are more easily obtained than you might think. Steven Vandervere, also of Northern Brewers, advises would-be bottlers to seek out a place with a good champagne brunch—“Your local Marriott, say”—and ask them to save the bottles for you. He cautions, however, that European bottles require a 29-millimeter capacity from your capper. American brands match the 28 mm standard.
Vandervere’s suggestion for asking local bars or restaurants to save bottles need not be limited to champagne bottles. Places that serve Grolsch are a good, cheap source for cage-cap bottles. Vandervere cautions, “If you do make a deal with a restaurant, make sure you pick the bottles up promptly, say thank you, and bring them a six-pack.”
If you’ll forget to pick up the bottles, you can always dumpster dive. Find a bar that serves a variety of microbrews and poach the empties before the trash gets picked up. Make sure they aren’t returnables: You don’t want to be charged with theft. If you live in a neighborhood with curbside recycling, you can make the rounds before the trucks do and scavenge your neighbors’ old bottles. Better yet, get to know your neighbors and have them save bottles for you.
You can also improve your beer exposure while expanding your bottle collection. With the widespread popularity and availability of microbrews, more liquor stores are allowing “mix and match” six-packs. The cost breaks down to about 90 cents per bottle, depending on the beer.
If tradition is important to you and the look of 24 longnecks lined up in a cardboard box makes you think of summertime fun, not returning your returnables is a cheap, efficient way to get a good supply of bottles.
The advantage to buying bottles new is time and slime. Chances are you need to bottle your brew before it gets to tasting yeasty and you’ve procrastinated—errr, been too busy—so you don’t have the energy or organization to clean and sterilize the smelly load of bottles you’ve got sitting in your garage.
While you don’t have to spend hours over the sink with new bottles, you can’t ignore the sterilization process. You should crank up the temperature of your water heater and run them through a long rinse cycle on the lower rack of your dishwasher.
The drawback of new bottles is that your selection is limited by what’s available at your local supply store. Most likely, they will have 12-ounce and 22-ounce traditional brown bottles, as well as larger cage-cap bottles.
Crown Cap, Cage Cap
In 1891 in Baltimore, Maryland, William Painter invented the universal beverage bottle cap or crown cap and changed the way America drank its beer. You have him to thank for the widespread availability of good beer (and bad), but also for hours of wrestling with slippery bottles in your basement. The cage cap, which Grolsch uses, is an older, easier method of capping.
The difference between the two is one of ease and cost. It’s a lot easier to use the plug and gasket of the cage-cap bottle than it is to crimp a lot of crowns. But unless you have years of Grolsch bottles saved, the cost difference is significant: New cage-cap bottles are $1.50 each, while standard bottles are about $11 a case when purchased new.
Another downside to cage-cap bottles is their lack of longevity. The new bottles manufactured in the U.S. have plastic plugs instead of the traditional ceramic ones. These tend to deteriorate. Not only do you have to replace a more expensive bottle more often, but you run the risk of losing your brew when the seal fails unexpectedly.
Which brings us to screw caps. In a word: avoid. While some homebrewers may swear by them, the risks of the seal failing are higher than acceptable.
The Allure of Green
Beer is a volatile substance. Light will affect the taste. One culprit to beer’s volatility is the hop oil, which interacts with light. Brown glass is the only color that effectively screens out the fluorescent spectrum and therefore limits light damage.
Green bottles do nothing to stop light damage. They owe their popularity to Heineken, which introduced the bottle as a distinctive marketing device. It was picked up by other European breweries and became the mark of distinctive “Export” brews.
Advice: Avoid both green and clear bottles unless you store your brew in the dark or drink it very quickly.
Crockery Comes Back
There are advantages in tradition. Some crockery bottles made in the 1860s in Milwaukee advertised that they could keep beer air and light tight for 10 years. If you have antiques hounds or bottle collectors as friends, you’re in luck. But be careful: Some glazes are unstable and can leech into stored liquids. Many state agricultural extensions have testing services for ceramics that will test your stoneware for reactivity.