Drinkers mourn, vintners rail against the Fates, sommeliers empty bottles with grief and shame. Years of production, finesse, terroir, all over-powered by an evil, funky admixture of chemical compounds and plain bad luck. Wine has been corked.
No offense to wine lovers—or producers—out there, but what about beer? Can beer be corked (or, in a slightly weirder turn of phrase, suffer from “cork taint”)? Especially with the rise of craft beer, we’re seeing plenty more 750 mL bottes stopped with a cork enclosure. Could these (often high quality) beers suffer the same bad luck of their wine brethren? Yes. Bummer, we know.
The best way to understand why beer is just as subject to cork taint as wine is understanding how cork taint happens. Generally speaking, cork taint really isn’t anyone’s fault (at least, after the industry stopped using certain chemicals that encourage cork taint in production). It can happen in any bottle, anytime a cork is used, because—at its most basic—it relies on naturally occurring fungi interacting with a cork tree that’s absorbed chlorophenols (which can be absorbed through pesticide). Those guys react to produce some nasty chemicals.
There are six chemicals generally associated with cork taint, almost all of them with chunky chemistry class names full of dashes and numbers, but the major player, the one implicated in about 80% of wine cork taint cases, is TCA (or 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, your call). Like all cork taint compounds, TCA is extremely potent, detectable at levels like 2 parts per trillion in white wines and 5 parts per trillion in red wines. (And, tough luck, TCA can actually occur naturally, as in by itself, anywhere from water to vegetation to wood. The war on cork taint is real, people.)
For those who’ve never had the pleasure of encountering the distinctive must of cork taint decimating their favorite bottle, a heads up: think of wet basement, mushrooms, cardboard, moldy newspaper, wet dog. Like you went away on vacation for a week but left a stack of wet newspapers and your dog in a partially flooded basement. And then came home and tried to drink it.
Cork is actually a pretty significant scourge of the wine industry, spreading from bottle to bottle and sometimes contaminating the entire production of a certain wine. And beer is absolutely a possible casualty, especially as more and more specialty craft beers finish their beers with a cork and a cage. As Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman told CraftBeer.com, “They make a beautiful package. The cage and cork bottles do a great job of making a special beer even more special.” And sure, it makes for a more flourishing open (just point it away from you). But the presence of that cork absolutely puts the—probably expensive, specially crafted, delicious beer—at risk for taint.
We searched some internet forums to see how common the phenomenon is in the beer world and (according to the Internet, anyway, which is never wrong, right?) not many serious beer lovers have encountered cork tainted beer. Likely the reason is corked beers are encouraged to be stored upright – unlike wine which needs to be stored on its side – which would keep the beer from getting into contact with the cork, if in fact it’s tainted. And it’s sort of a risk to cork beer, since it turns out the alcohol in the beer will actually try to pull out some of the natural cork flavors, and if that cork is tainted, well, the beer is going to be a funky, musty shadow of its former self. This being the world of craft beer—where some seriously unlikely flavors come to play—that may not turn everyone off. But it may not be worth the risk. As one beer site commenter put it, “I’ve had several bottles that had TCA cork taint. Beer shouldn’t taste like cardboard.”