August 11, 2010

Why champagne bottles

In spite of the title I actually want to talk about Belgian-style 750ml bottles. Aren't they cool? They are mysterious; they have a feel like you're about to pop open a centuries old bottle of awesome beer. And they have the impressive POP of the cork without the fuss of a corkscrew. And if that wasn't all, you can bottle pretty much any kind of beer in them because they can withstand so much carbonation pressure.

For homebrewers, they can be a disappointment. If you do a google search (and maybe that's how you found this) you'll find the question asked on every beer forum out there: "How do I cork Belgians?" Unless you have a Corona capper with the modifications to cork Belgian/champagne bottles, a champagne bottle corker, or modified a wine bottle corker, it's pretty much impossible to cork these bottles. You can't cap them. You can't trick your wing capper or agata capper into doing it. And since those bottles are not produced uniformly with the same opening, you can't trust those plastic champagne corks to do the trick. (I have heard from people that they can be used without a problem, absolutely do not fit, or only fit with a tremendous amount of pressure to force them in and pull them out, or the cork would go in but the mouth was too big so they wouldn't carb. That suggests there is substantial lack of consistency in the bottles, and I have no way of knowing which brands make bottles that are successful.)

Sure, you can find those Belgian bottles with built in flip-top Grolsch-style lids, and I've seen a Canadian shop sell flip-top lids that you can attach to your own Belgian bottles. But let's be honest, other than the need to carb your beer beyond 3 volumes the real reason people want to use these bottles is for their appearance (and size). I don't even know if those flip-top lids can support more carbonation. They look tacky and cheap, like putting platic wal-mart hubcaps on a lexus.

However, champagne bottles also offer the same volume, the same ability to withstand pressure, and the same ability to be corked. However, they are more versatile than the Belgian bottles. Obviously you can find champagne in that style of bottle, but you can also find lambics, saisons, and other western European styles in these bottles. (The only downside seems to be that most of them come in green glass, which risks skunking. However, you can find some beers in brown champagne bottles. Petrus oud bruin comes to mind.)

Not only can you cap those bottles, or cork and cap them, by replacing the bell in your capper (not wing cappers, sorry) but easiest of all you can cork and cage them with either real cork (if you have a corker) or with the plastic corks, which can be inserted, literally, by hand. While some people may think it looks cheap, you can't deny that synthetic corks are becoming more and more accepted and commonplace for both champagne and wine. So not only can you get that POP but you can reuse the corks and cages for a very long time. In that case, it's actually a very cheap bottling option.

I suspect champagne bottles will start to appear more and more as an option for bottling "upscale" beers over Belgian bottles. I suspect they are cheaper to purchase, and definitely look classy. If the world of beer continues to make inroads as a quality drink, it will make it easier for skeptics to accept a beer coming out of a fine champagne glass is something other than a lawnmower beer, and you may start to finally see a better beer selection show up in fine restaurants.

It's a win-win for homebrewers. Better beer in restaurants and easier ways to get presentable bottles with high carb capability.

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