(A practical discussion of modern bottling methods for the SCAdian brewer)
by Lord Wolfgang Starcke, Guild Master AE Brewers Guild
based on a presentation at the College of Three Ravens
Over the course of my time in the SCA I have seen and heard many horror stories about exploding bottles, popped corks, leaking bottles and other messy problems from gifted bottles or competitions. As modern brewers we share the challenges of transporting fermented beverages with our historical counterparts. The basic problems that need to be overcome are:
• Air must be kept out of the vessel to prevent oxidation.
• The vessel must be strong enough not to easily break, without being so heavy that it cannot be easily moved
• In many cases, the vessel needs to be opened and then resealed.
To be blunt, unless you are talking about a very late period beverage, any form of glass bottle is really not appropriate. The ‘modern’ glass bottle is widely considered to have been invented by Sir Kenelm Digby and was not in general use for the storage or transport of alcohol until well into the 17th century.
Various forms of clay, pottery, earthenware and stoneware jugs and bottles in many sizes and shapes were used throughout our period and beyond. All containers of this type were at least slightly porous and if they were meant for storage or transport they had to be lined with some form of wax or resin or glazed.
Storing fermented beverages in wooden barrels was/is common across all of Northern Europe until well into modern times. Generally the wood was untreated and the barrel would impart different flavors to the alcohol over time. Various woods were used with oak becoming the preferred material by the 17th century or so but many others were used.
Leather is typically fairly porous and does not insulate well, so without treatment of some sort it makes a poor container for wine. The Spanish ‘bota bag’ and other equivalents were made by lining an outer leather skin with an animal bladder and then coating the outside with pitch. A spout of horn or bone completes the assembly. Various forms of this have been found and dated back to ancient Mesopotamia.
Most beverages would have been transported and served “still”. Carbonated beer in bottles can be documented to at least the 1500s but was not the general practice. A form of sparkling wine can likewise be documented but the reinforced glass ‘champagne’ style bottles are again a 17th century invention.
So with all these containers, the question remains of how do you keep it closed? The short answer is, any way you can! Surviving examples of stoppers made from wood, clay, grass/straw, rags and cork have all been found. The stopper would then be sealed over with wax, resin, lead or even clay. Although cork was used as a stopper (especially for barrels) as early as the Roman Empire, the ‘modern’ cork as we know it was not in regular use until the 17th century.
Although the ‘flip top’ or ‘grolsch’ cap is very popular with SCA brewers it is a purely modern invention. They first appeared in the mid-1800s.
Bottling as a “Medievalish Brewer”
(or what does this all mean to me?)
First, I am a brewer not a glassblower or potter. As both head of the Æthelmearc Brewers Guild and an occasional judge in competitions, I do not believe in judging brewers on how pretty or period their bottling is. That said, there is no excuse for entering an unsafe or improperly bottled beverage in a competition.
So what are we trying to accomplish with our bottling?
For the purpose of discussion, I’ve broken down the possibilities into four main categories:
• Storage: we want the beverage to be able to age appropriately without oxidation
• Transport: it has to survive transport to the event without breakage or leaking
• Serving: it needs to be able to be opened and served reasonably
• Presentation: at a minimum it needs to inform the recipient of who made it, when it was made and what is in it.
I am a minimalist when it comes to labels, I often have cases stored with nothing more than a note card stuck in with them. However, when it comes to competition or gifting the bottle should be individually labeled. As a bartender I will not serve something without knowing who made it and ideally, when.
There are entire books on what style of bottle and color of glass is best suited to a particular wine, read them if you care! I’ve never noticed any great difference between the shape or color of modern bottles if they are being properly stored. What does matter is that the bottle is structurally sound, clean and that you are using it for the intended purpose. Champagne bottles and several styles of cider/beer bottles are designed to take higher pressures than normal. In general, beer bottles will take higher pressures than wine bottles.
Corks & Stoppering
Beer Caps and Screw tops are both options especially for smaller bottles, with these it is important to use new tops and make sure they are free of damage or defects.
Swing tops are convenient and reusable, but you have to watch for damage to the ceramic top and the gasket will eventually wear out.
Champagne cages & corks: Any beverage you expect to actively ferment in the bottle needs a proper cork & cage to contain the pressure. (As well as the proper bottle, otherwise you have made a grenade!)
Corks and artificial corks can both be used, the key is to use the right size and style for the bottle you are using them with. Natural cork must be checked for condition and soaked before using.
Did I mention size? There are a lot of different sized corks out there, especially when using randomly sourced bottles you need to make sure the cork is the right size. As a hint, if you can get the cork into the bottle without a corker, it is too small!
A lot of brewers like to wax over their corks to improve the seal and prevent oxidation as well as for appearance. While this is fine, there are a couple of things to consider when using wax. Firstly, wax is NOT a substitute for using the proper cork or cap in the first place! Wax will not adequately compensate for gaps due to a small or damaged cork, nor will it hold against pressure. Secondly, all wax is not created equal.
• Beeswax & paraffin are both very soft with low melting points and can just rub off
• “Candle” wax is slightly better but can still be easily damaged
• Cheese or ‘sealing’ wax is the best bet as it will withstand casual abuse.
Hopefully this will help as you bottle for the summer festivals and competitions ahead!
The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby (html version on Project Gutenberg)