Beer: Savor some bubbly

Want to pop a cork on some bubbly? You can do it with beer


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This New Year's Eve, if you're looking to pop a cork and savor some bubbly, why not do so not with Champagne or some other sparkling wine, but with a big, corked bottle of beer?

More and more brews are being packaged in what most people still think of as Champagne bottles, sealed with actual corks and wire cages.

Just wander into your Giant Eagle or a good bottle shop or beer bar and you'll see a dazzling array of them. Big bottles seem especially prevalent at the holidays, when many famous Belgian seasonal brews look especially festive packaged that way, "coiffed" with shiny foil on their necks. The big bottles -- most priced in the $10 to $15 range, though you can spend a lot more -- are well-suited for gifting and for sharing at holiday meals and other gatherings.

You're likely to keep seeing more of them after the holidays, too.

"There's just a lot of energy and excitement in the bigger bottle category," says Ed Haubrick, brand manager for imports and craft beers at Frank B. Fuhrer Wholesale Co. He manages most of the brews that come in bigger-than-12-ounce packaging: 22-ounce "bomber" bottles popular with American craft brewers, 16.9- and 18.7-ounce bottles of some imports, and what he refers to as the "cork and cage" segment -- the 25.4-ounce (or 750 milliliter) corked bottles that are increasingly popular with craft brewers everywhere, but that are traditional with those in Belgium.

As he points out, Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster and beer authority Garrett Oliver has famously pointed out that brewers used those thick, heavy bottles before wine-makers did.

Mr. Oliver will be in Pittsburgh soon to headline the first annual Pittsburgh Brew 'N Chew on Saturday, Jan. 11, at the Monroeville Convention Center (http://goodtastepittsburgh.com/pittsburgh-brew-n-chew-2). Some of his and Brooklyn's brews that are readily available in Western Pennsylvania include Local 1, Local 2 and Sorachi Ace. They're part of a series that Brooklyn calls "Big Bottles" and describes as "the largest bottle refermentation program in the U.S.A." -- that is, the beers are bottled with live yeast that continues to ferment the beer in the bottle. (One practical aspect about the bigger bottles: They can withstand higher pressure from the carbon dioxide gas that results within.)

Brooklyn is just launching what it calls the "Brooklyn Quarterly Experiment" offering big versions of special brews conditioned in 25.4-ounce bottles "that take an extra measure of time, space and dedication to pull off."

As Mr. Haubrick notes, the refermentation and bottle-conditioning are why these brews can be very age-able -- they'll "cellar" or keep for years, maturing and developing flavors as they do.

On the sales shelf, however, many big bottles of beer don't last very long, as, increasingly, brewers use the special packaging for special, limited releases, such as Brooklyn's Black Ops barrel-aged imperial stout that will be available, briefly, in January. The brewery helps fuel intense demand for it by denying that it exists.

Three highly rated and popular big bottles Mr. Haubrick personally likes this time of year: Gorsendonk Christmas, Chouff N'Ice and St. Bernadus Christmas, all from Belgium.

One of the hottest big bottles? Cooperstown, N.Y.'s Brewery Ommegang, which corks many of its Belgian-style brews, quickly sold the first and second editions of brews themed to the popular HBO series, "Game of Thrones." A third, dragon-themed Fire and Blood Red Ale is due out as the show returns this spring and Mr. Haubrick expects it to disappear even more quickly.

But again, you should have no trouble finding plenty of choices of big bottled brews, including local ones. Lawrenceville's Church Brew Works has for some time corked big bottles of Cherry Quadzilla and Millennium Trippel.

Relative newcomer Helltown Brewing, in Mount Pleasant, has corked its Belgian-style releases, as well. They wanted their packaging to safely withstand the beer refermenting inside, says owner Shawn Gentry, but "there's always the affect of opening a corked product that is a little more special, almost like it's a present."

He just several days ago picked up an automated filler/corker from Oregon so he and his colleagues will no longer have to fill and cork bottles by hand.

Troegs just got a new cork-and-cage filler, too, and released this fall LaGrave, a triple golden ale that is the first of a series of limited cork-and-cage releases.

Not all big bottles are sealed with corks. Some, like the bottled brews of East End Brewing Co., are sealed with caps (Scott Smith notes that his new pneumatic crown capper, which might support corks, meanwhile will mean more consistent capping).

In Pennsylvania, where distributors still have to sell beer by the case, the recent proliferation of bottle- and six-pack shops, including those in supermarkets, have made it much easier to buy big bottles, which can be prohibitively expensive by the case. But better beer distributors offer cases of some big bottles, and most of them can order them, if you'd like a volume discount for your holiday giving of popular brands such as Chimay or Lindemans and Delirium Noel.

"These beautiful bottles make the perfect Bow & Go gift or they can be the star in a gift basket," notes Marianne Logsdon, office manager of Bado's Pizza Grill and Ale House in Mt. Lebanon, which offers a wide variety, including, newly, Scaldis Noel and Brasserie Dupont Bon Voeux ("Best Wishes").

The latter is a favorite of Phil Inzurriaga at Whole Foods Wexford, which sells a lot of big bottles, too. "It is yeasty, very complex, and effervescent. It also comes in a very elegant bottle perfect for the dinner table. It's one of those beers that bridges the gap between beer lovers and wine lovers."

Mr. Haubrick says that while he sees the big bottles continuing to get more popular in 2014, one place where he'd like to see more of them is at restaurants, where he thinks customers could be educated about the charms of ordering and sharing a bottle of beer, the way diners do with 750-milliter bottles of wine.

The price is right for beer, he believes. "You can get one of the better bottles made in the world ... for $15 or $20," he says. "It's very accessible to the average consumer."

Restaurants that do push the big bottles include Point Brugge Cafe in Point Breeze and Park Bruges Cafe in Highland Park (both of which are doing New Year's Eve beer dinners), as well as the area Sharp Edges, all of which have Belgian sensibilities.

Other bars that are big on big bottles include Hough's in Greenfield, where Wednesdays' special is "Wing Night & Big Bottles" -- the former are 50 cents and the latter are $2 off.

These big boys can be pricey. My photographer friend and I liked the look of one bottle at the Sharp Edge Bistro, Downtown, until we learned that it was about $75. The bottle of new-this-year Gulden Draak Brewmaster's Edition (aged in whiskey barrels) that we decided on was $45 (but it was good, agreed the couple we gave the two glasses to).

Mr. Haubrick also thinks the big bottles are great for opening at home. This holiday season, his family might pop open five or six different ones, pouring them into nice chalice-style glasses, and sharing them, which might be one of the nicest things of all about bottles that are a little big.

Or a lot big: The Sharp Edge has bottles of 1.5 and 3 liters. You can buy a comically large 9-liter bottle of Piraat -- for a mere $350 -- if you have a lot of money and a lot of good friends. You'll need them just to lift it.

 


Bob Batz Jr.: bbatz@post-gazette.com and 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr.

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