After promising few, if any, early posts on actual homebrewing process and recipes, here's a bit of my process. I know there are already some resources out there for folks who are interested in bottling their beers with a cork and cage, but here’s a pretty good rundown of my method. Hope it helps if this is something you are interested in doing.
In addition, I think it looks really good. To some folks it might not be worth it (~$0.35/closure, versus a couple of cents for a normal cap), and maybe if I had an inexhaustible supply of high pressure capped bottles and I never had any doubts with the seal, I wouldn’t C&C bottles. But since neither of those are the case I’m happy to cork. And I do like the way it looks. When giving beers to friends, it makes your homebrew look that much more professional. It shows that you really take pride in brewing and care about presenting your beer well. Alright, that’s probably enough rambling on why I like corking… On to the process.
Process: This corker isn’t designed for the most elegant process with Champagne and/or Belgian high pressure bottles because like most corkers it isn’t set up to leave some of the cork sticking out. But on a homebrew scale this is a pretty easy problem to get around. Sanitizing bottles works the same as you would do for normal bottling. I use starsan and a bit of foil over the top so I can shake them and keep dust out. I let my bottles dry in a tote with holes drilled in the top to hold bottles. This is another idea I’ve adopted from Dylan and I seriously recommend it. It cost me about $5 and 1 hour to set up (all you need is a hole saw and a drill, and maybe sandpaper to smooth the edges), and it works really well.
Lower the arm until the bung reaches the the cork compressor. You'll notice the active depth of the cork pushing rod is adjustable and after a bit of trial and error you'll figure out what amount of external cork works best for you. I don't have a measurement for what I leave, but see the picture and description below. Then I raise the arm enough to remove the bung, but don't raise it all the way (this is important) and I remove the book. With the arm partially lowered the spring-loaded bottom will stay in place, giving you enough room to push the rest of the cork through while lowering the bottle.
|Example of my level of external cork
Alright, so now we have the corking part of corking and caging done. On to the caging. One of the first things I noticed when comparing my early attempts to commercial cork and caged beers is that my corks didn't have the nice mushroom shaping. Part of this was likely due to the cork being in the bottle for a shorter time, but not vertically compressing the top part of the cork plays into it as well. So I started leaving a bit more cork sticking out. This also helped a great deal with removing the cork from the bottle. You may feel kind of like a fool when you excitedly show your friends your cork and caged homebrew, then spend forever trying to get the cork out and finally give up and use a corkscrew. Pushing the corks too far into the bottle proved to be the main culprit here (but increasing carbonation also helps when removing corks), so leaving more cork sticking out of the bottle helps in two ways. I leave enough cork out that the cage won't quite reach down below the lip of the bottle without vertically compacting the cork.
With the cage on the bottle, I pull the bottom cage loop out to the side while shaping the legs so they are where I want them to sit on the final bottle. You can adjust a bit later but it is easier to adjust them at this point. Then while pushing down with a pretty good amount of force with one hand, I twist the bottom cage wire clockwise in half turns while pulling the wire away from the bottle the whole time. Note for the vertical pressure part - in this interview with the Brewing Network (15 January 2006) at ~1 hour and 18 minutes in, Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River starts talking about corking his bottles. They have a corking machine that mushrooms the corks for his normal bottles; however he has to cork the large format bottles by hand. In order to mushroom the cork for the 3L bottles, he pushes on the cork with a piece of wood under his entire body weight. So this vertical pressure helps the cork mushroom, also getting the cage low enough for it to sit under the lip of the bottle. Pulling the cage out while twisting helps the loops form cleanly. This looks better and it increases your chances of not breaking the wire while removing it. Generally I've heard recommendations of 6x1/2 turns. I kind of play it by ear and if the cage is still a bit loose I may do an extra 1/2 turn, or if I didn't twist the loops very cleanly I may only have 5. But too many and the wire may snap. Finally, bend the loop up out of the way and you're done!
My first couple runs were a bit more rough, with corks going a bit too far into the bottles and poor wire twisting causing some cage bottom wires to snap while I was removing the cages. But after a bit of practice and some cork depth adjustments you should have the process running smoothly.
Feb 2015 edit (see below as this is outdated):
I had to edit this post to include an excellent trick that I picked up from my friend Jeffery (the same one with whom I have this 60 gallon barrel) regarding mushrooming the corks. He pointed out that a bench capper does a really good job of this, simply push down on the cork with the capper for a few seconds. This will then hold its form long enough to cage. That means when you're twisting the cage you don't have to push down so hard (saving some sore palms, and I also had this fear that one day the neck would crack from the pressure while mushrooming the cork with my hand leading to serious injury, and this prevents that as well) and you can focus on setting the cage and twisting it well. It looks better and is easier this way.
|The finished product
|Mushrooming with cage in place
Oct 2015 edit: I've been meaning to update this for a while. I only separated the mushrooming and caging for a short time. It is much easier to place the cage on and then mushroom with the bench capper as described above. Then I hold the bench capper arn down with my left shoulder/armpit and I have both hands free to orient the cage and twist the wire. This is the best way I've found to far to get a good looking finish and make sure the cork is properly mushroomed and the cage is properly in place.
Also, now I typically don't use the book and simply depress the pedestal with my foot after putting the cork into the bottle. And finally, I've gradually been leaving more and more cork out. Some day I should take a measurement, but the cage regularly reaches to around the middle or base of the upper lip of the bottle but not to the second cage lip without cork compression.