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.