Hard Cider Tip #20: Bottle Cappers

As a home hard cider maker, there are a variety of ways you can package your cider. By package, I mean putting it in a container from which you intend to serve it. Surprisingly, there are a number of ways to actually package your hard cider. They have canning machines now. You can also package it in box or bibs. This seems to be a common approach in the United Kingdom. You can keg your cider and serve it directly from a keg or through a kegerator setup. Some even serve it from barrels. I’ve seen pictures of a barrel that even had a CO2 line connected to it in order to minimize the oxygen exposure. However, the most common method of packaging still seems to be bottles and while some use flip-top bottles that have an integrated cap, most use a pry-off style or crown cap bottle.

  • Flip Top Bottles
  • Crown Cap Bottles: Before Crimping

You find two sizes of crown caps around the world. One is a 26mm cap and the other is a 29mm cap. I have read people call the 29mm cap as European. However, I see a different trend, which is based on carbonation. I tend to find the 26mm size cap is used on bottles for drinks that are Still to pettilant. Just a reminder, pettilant is a carbonation level that you would find in many beers and ciders (1.0-2.5 volumes CO2). The 29mm size caps tend to be found on bottles for drinks that are sparkling. This is not 100% and you should always assess the bottle and the cap size to make sure it is okay for your intended use. The main point is to realize that there are two common crown caps sizes.

Crown Caps: 26mm & 29mm
Crown Caps: 26mm & 29mm

Just as there are two common sizes of crown caps, there are also two common tools used by home hard cider makers to crimp the caps: winged and bench cappers. The lowest cost and generally most common option is the winged style. These are often made from plastic, though you can find some metal versions on the market. They are usually red in color, but I’ve seen black and a few other colors at times. They can be quite versatile as you can swap the bell on some as well as the plates that grab the collar on the bottle neck. Winged cappers clamp plates under the collar on the bottle. The bell contains the crown cap and presses it down over the rim of of the bottle. Crimping the cap and sealing it. The force used to crimp the cap around the rim its transmitted through the plates on the capper and the collar on the bottle. The height of the bottle doesn’t matter but the collar design on the neck plays a critical role.

  • Winged Capper
  • Winged Capper: Bell & Clamping PlateS

The other model of capper most home cider enthusiasts would use is a bench capper. Again, you can find a wide array of product offerings, maybe even wider than the winged models. The main differences being the materials used to make the capper, which can range from plastic to cast iron and stainless steel. The bench cappers are also versatile with many capable of capping both 26mm and 29mm crown cap but require different bells for the different size crown caps. The bell presses the cap over the rim of the bottle and crimps its to provide the seal. Many have a spring mechanism to help mitigate the crimping forces, which are transmitted through the bottle to the base of the capper. So, the real question is why would you use one over the other.

Bench Bottle Capper
Bench Bottle Capper

I used a winged capper for years before switching to a bench capper. The winged capper can be a great options for some people. If you plan to use one type of bottle all the time and that bottle works well with your capper. It can be a great option because it is inexpensive, takes ups very little room, and is easy to use. I found that standard 12 ounce (355ml) long-neck beer bottles would generally work well, but not always. Clamping on the bottle collar and using this as the support for crimping the cap means you are susceptible to cracking the bottle necks. I found some bottles were more susceptible. The 12 ounces (355ml) short-neck bottles were the worse for my winged capper. I hated opening a bottle of hard cider and finding a cracked neck.

Cracked Long-Necked Bottle
Cracked Long-Necked Bottle

The other issue I found, though not as prevalent, was a poor seal of the cap. If you are worried about breaking the neck or you don’t get a good grip on the collar, the force used to crimp the cap may not be sufficient to seal it. This will result in your hard cider bottle not being able to hold pressure. Over time, oxygen will enter and it will oxidize and potentially turn to vinegar. Here is a great example of two bottles from the same batch of hard cider. We were going to use it for cooking as a white wine replacement. When my wife opened the bottle, she found an amber hard cider instead of the clear golden cider it should have been. It leaked the carbonation and ultimately oxidized.

Oxidized Hard Cider
Oxidized Hard Cider: Cider that didn’t seal versus one that did.

These issues are driven mostly because of the force that is applied to the collar on the bottle neck in order to successfully crimp the crown cap. The bench capper doesn’t apply any force to the collar on the bottle neck, which limits the risk of breakage. However, not all bench capper are the same. Besides some not being able to cap both crown cap sizes, some are made of plastic or low quality metal that bends or breaks. Also, if the design is poor, you may find it’s not easy to apply the appropriate amount of force to ensure a good seal. My Grifo brand bench capper has a spring that will compress once you’ve applied enough force to ensure it is fully crimped. It does cost about six times the price of my original winged capper (US$120 versus $20). However, it is so much easier to use and more effective. It is adjustable to cap small 187ml to large 750ml bottles and came with both a 26mm and 29mm bell. It is now my preferred tool and I never want to use a different capper.

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