When it comes to choosing a bottle of beer for a special occasion, nothing screams quality more than a cork-topped bottle with that exquisite wire cage and, often, a luxurious foil wrapper. It’s like you’re buying the champagne of beer. You’re never gonna find a Bud Light or Coors in a cork-topped champagne style bottle!
Just like a bottle of champagne, the cork and cage beer bottles stand out on the shelf of your local retailer in the same way a champagne or prosecco stands out from a cheap $4 bottle of chardonnay!
And when you get that bottle home, nothing beats the sound of a cork popping to let everybody in the room know what a special beer you have. It’s so much more satisfying than the subdued hiss of popping a crown cap!
But does beer in a corked bottle really taste better? Does a cork signify a better beer or is it just a marketing gimmick? Are there any beers which are better suited to a cork and cage bottle?
Did Old Beer Bottles Have Corks?
Beer is a popular drink that has been enjoyed by people all over the world for centuries. Prior to 1880, nearly all bottles of beer which were commercially produced and bottled were topped or sealed with a cork.
Initially a string or wire would be used to secure the cork to the bottle, but later a wire bail or cage became the standard, as on a bottle of champagne.
When Did Bottles of Beer Stop Using Cork Tops?
In 1860, the Putnam closure, a cork fastener which reused a wire bail, meaning the brewer didn’t have to rewire the cork with every filling of the bottle, was invented. These bottle closures still used corks though. Typically a beer cork would be about one-inch long.
In 1875, the lightning closure revolutionized beer bottling and was an early version of the bottle top now known as a swing top. Although their were many imitations of the original patent, they all worked on the same basic principle of leveraging a rubber disk into the lip of the bottle for a perfect seal.
The next big development was the crown cap, which we know today, in 1892. Originally known as the crown cork, it had a corrugated-flange edge and was lined with a very thin cork disk and a special backing paper to seal the bottle and prevent the beer from coming into contact with the metal.
As technology improved, production costs went down and the crown cap was used by almost every brewer to seal their beers. The cork disc was replaced with a PVC liner, the cap’s teeth was reduced from 24 to 21, and the skirt’s height was shortened.
The advent of the metal caps in the 1890’s meant many breweries abandoned cork in favour of the newer, easier advancement in beer bottle sealing. This was most commonly seen on 12 oz beer bottles, as is standard today. Although cork-topped beers still remained, they dwindled with the rising cost of the technology needed to cork a bottle.
That’s slowly changing, however, with corks becoming popular again on the craft beer scene with many of the US craft brewers often turning to local wineries that have bottling lines capable of putting corks into a beer bottle.
Which Beers Use Cork-Topped Bottles?
Cork stoppers are mainly used with craft beers that have a fermentation which continues even after bottling, known as secondary fermentation.
Secondary fermentation allows brewers to create unique and complex flavors that cannot be achieved with other methods. When beer is fermented in the bottle, it is allowed to continue to develop its flavor and carbonation, resulting in a beer that is often more complex and flavorful than other types of beer.
This is because the yeast in the bottle continues to work, consuming residual sugars and producing flavors and aromas that are unique to that particular beer
In addition, a corked beer can be aged in a cellar in a fashion similar to wines or champagne, and can improve over time.
Another reason why beer with a cork has become popular is that it is often associated with high-quality, artisan beers. The use of a cork adds an element of sophistication and elegance to the beer, making it a popular choice for special occasions or as a gift.
Most Belgian beers which have a secondary fermentation use a cork topper on the bottle, and Belgian beers are by far the most common style of beer you will see with a cork. Even the craft brewers of the US who are adopting the cork toppers again tend to reserve them for Belgian or Trappist-inspired brews.
Although it no doubt adds to the historical look and elegance of the beer, it is also more practical for styles of ale which go through a secondary fermentation in the bottle.
Why is Cork Still Used in Beer Bottles?
The cork is used to seal the bottle and allow the beer to continue to ferment and develop its flavor and carbonation.Although crown capped bottles can be used for secondary fermentation, they can also be more prone to exploding if too much is gas created during the secondary fermentation.
I’m sure we have all had the occasional beer bomb when accidentally adding to much priming sugar to a bottle for that natural carbonation (I certainly have, which the wife will quite happily tell or moan about to you!).
That secondary fermentation in the bottle, which is essential for the improvement and exquisite flavors in some beers, produces extra gas which is maintained by the cork stopper with it’s flexibility, allowing for small variations in pressure (like with champagne) but without losing it’s tightness of seal.
With a crown cap, any extra pressure is either stored in the bottle, which can cause the glass to shatter, or in some cases slowly weaken the crimped seal of the cap.
The glass bottles which are used for cork-stopped beers also tend to be of much higher quality and stronger glass, similar to a champagne bottle. If for any reason the secondary fermentation should be too active, the glass bottle can better withstand the extra pressure.
For beers which plan to be stored for longer periods in a cellar, only a cork stopper has the required superior sealing qualities and performance. Standard crown caps will eventually lose that seal, and some critics argue the beer can sometimes take on a metallic taste of the cap, especially if stored incorrectly or on it’s side.
Crown caps are economical and, for standard beers which are normally consumed within the year, more than suitable for the job. For those artisan beers, you should try to go for a cork.
Beer with a cork also offers the benefit of being a natural product. Unlike other types of beer that are artificially carbonated, beer with a cork is carbonated naturally through the fermentation process. This gives the beer a softer, more subtle carbonation that is often preferred by beer enthusiasts.
Which Breweries Have Embraced the Cork?
The Boston Beer Company contacted a New York State winery when they wanted to bottle their Infinium ale, a collaboration with the German brewer Weihenstephan. A brewery spokeswoman, Michelle Sullivan stated the beer needed specialist equipment to achieve a unique quality for the beer.
While most bottle-conditioned cork-topped beers allow for some sediment to remain at the bottom of the bottle, Boston Beer wanted a bottling line that would leave Infinium clear and sparkling like a champagne, something their own equipment couldn’t do.
Sierra Nevada even installed a full cork and cage bottling line over 15 years ago in anticipation of their Trappist-inspired beers they were to release in 2010.
Although founder Ken Grossman acknowledges corks can be trickier to work, with more variables to control like the depth of the cork, the pressure applied in corking, and the speed of a corking line, they still sell their Belgian bottle conditioned ales in a cage and cork package today.
As Grossman himself says “There is something to be said for the corks, though. They make a beautiful package. The cage and cork bottles do a great job of making a special beer even more special”
Cork-finished bottles are also used by other craft brewers for their limited release or collectible beers. Beer aficionados often seek out rare beers like North Coast Brewing’s Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale, Russian River’s Damnation and Supplication and an ever growing number of releases from Maine’s Allgash Brewing, all in cork-topped bottles.
Even Diageo have got in on the corking act to give a beer a more exquisite image with the release of an upmarket signature Guinness 1759 stout. A limited edition, it boasts an ABV of 9%, and one reviewer on beeradvocate.com was quoted as saying: “Guinness would rule all stouts on the planet if this was mass produced. Best beverage to date from Guinness.”
Although it’s not strictly speaking a bottle conditioned ale, the cork and cage adds to the premium image of the product and certainly lends itself well to storing for longer periods for special occasions.
Can Beer Be Corked?
The scourge of the wine world is corked wine. Rather than just using a cork to seal the bottle we are talking about wine which has been tainted by the cork used. Years of production and quality control can all be overpowered by an evil, funky mixture of chemicals.
Can the same thing happen to beer? Can beer be corked or suffer from cork taint? Yes, unfortunately it can. Bummer!
Generally speaking, cork taint isn’t really anybody’s fault, it’s just down to bad luck. A naturally occurring fungi which interacts with the cork tree absorbing cholorophenols, often through pesticide, can react to produce some nasty chemicals.
One chemical in particular, TCA (or 2,4,6-trichloranisole) is involved in about 80% of cork tainted cases, and although it’s extremely potent, it can be hard to detect in the corks.
Think of leavers of wet cardboard, mouldy newspaper, wet dog or mushrooms and you have a general idea of what corked wine or beer will taste like.
Cork taint in beer is real but less common than wine. While most wine drinkers turn their nose up at corked wine, for some styles of beer it can add an earthy quality which isn’t totally unpleasant.
Also corked beers are encouraged to be stored upright so it prevents the beer from coming into contact with the cork, unlike wines which are normally stored on their side in a cellar.
How to Store and Serve Cork Finished Bottles
When it comes to storing your cork-topped beer treasures, you should keep them in a dry cool place that isn’t susceptible to wild temperature changes. A wine locker would work, as would a cellar.
Ray Daniels, director of the Beer Cicerone certification Program, says it is best to store cork-finished bottles standing up and not on their sides as you would with wine. This prevents any cork taint and also prevents air from entering the bottle.
Although wine needs some exposure to oxygen to mature and the cork helps with that, it’s not quite as desirable for beer.
The ingress rate for cork-topped bottles can be five to six times greater than a beer cap, which means the beer matures far more rapidly. Unless the beer is specifically designed to be aged for longer periods, it is probably best to drink the beer within a year and half of them having left the brewery.
Finally, when opening the bottle, if it is not “mushroomed” at the top it is important to use a corkscrew designed for beer, as these are designed to prevent the cork from breaking or crumbling.
Beer With a Cork – Is It Really Better? Final Thoughts
In conclusion, beer with a cork is a unique and complex type of beer that has become increasingly popular in recent years.
Its popularity can be attributed to the unique flavors and high quality associated with this type of beer, as well as the elegance and sophistication that comes with serving beer with a cork.
If you are brewing your own Belgian-style ales at home, corking a bottle can be a great way of avoiding those bottles exploding from the secondary fermentation and be more of a talking point when you next present your home brew to your beer-loving buddies.
It’s quite simple to do with a standard home wine corking kit. Its much easier to cork a beer on a small scale than a large industrial bottling line, which is why so many smaller produced artisan ales use corks.
Whether you are a beer connoisseur or simply looking to try something new, beer with a cork is definitely worth a try.