Bottling beer is both fun and tiresome. The excitement of seeing how the beer’s turned out is tempered by the annoyance of cleaning bottles and capping them.
To help you with this balancing act, here is the Home Brew Manual guide to bottling beer.
The final stage in the brewing process for most home brewers is bottling day.
Although kegging is in some ways preferable, most brewers start out bottling because it’s easy, cheap and a good way to distribute the beer amongst your friends.
As with brew day, you need to reserve a decent chunk of time as there is a lot to do. Amongst other things you clean and sanitise bottles, prepare a solution of priming sugar and, of course, transfer the beer.
Before starting, make sure your beer is actually ready for bottling.
We’ll go through all the stages that take the beer from fermenter to bottle:
- Choosing Bottles
- Preparing priming sugar
- Preparing bottles
- Preparing beer
- Siphoning into beer bottles
Before you even think about bottling, you of course need to gather something to put the beer in.
As you would expect, many home brewers recycle old beer bottles. This is an economical way of approaching this, but time consuming when it comes to cleaning.
Most home brew stores sell purpose-made home brew bottles, but remember to sanitise even though the bottles are clean.
Types of Bottle
If you use standard beer bottles avoid ones with a screw top.
Although they can be capped as any bottle it’s harder to get a good seal.
When gathering your bottles bear in mind that a standard 20 litre batch will use 60 x 330ml, 40 x 500ml or 20 x 1 litre bottles.
The most convenient size is 500ml (330ml can break easily during bottling).
As well as standard beer bottles, you could try to get hold of Grolsch-style bottles. These have a swinging top with rubber seal that saves a lot of trouble on bottling day.
Types of Glass
Because some hop compounds can react badly to sunlight it’s best to use brown bottles to protect your beer.
Of course, many beer bottles are green or clear. Store the brew in a dark place if you use these .
Care of Your Home Brew Bottles
After enjoying the beer immediately rinse the bottles with hot water to remove all traces of sediment.
This will prevent a crusty beer scum forming around the beerline at the bottom of the bottle, and will save you from unnecessary scrubbing later.
Having gathered enough bottles, you can start bottling.
Preparing Priming Sugar
The first task is to prepare the priming solution.
You’ll have seen during fermentation that yeast give off gas as they convert sugars into alcohol.
This is released from the fermenter through the airlock so little remains in the beer, and the beer will be pretty much flat at this point.
To perk it up you add more sugar for the yeast to ferment in the bottles. Because they are completely sealed, this time the gas can’t escape and becomes part of the beer.
The amount of priming sugar needed will depend on the amount of carbonation you want, a combination of target beer style, personal preference and tradition.
I don’t go into detail about priming sugar calculations here because there are so many variables.
Your recipe may include guidelines, or you could read this description by John Palmer for an indication of how much to prepare.
For this example I boiled 70g of brown sugar in 450ml water for a 15 litre batch of lightly carbonated English bitter. The boiling is essential to sterilise the water, and to a certain extent the sugar.
The important thing is to prepare the solution first so that it has time to cool. When you add it to the beer both should be at the same temperature.
As it cools get ready the rest of the things.
Preparing The Bottles
Count out enough bottles for the size of your batch. Prepare two pints/a litre more than you think you’ll need to allow for breakages or misjudged quantities.
Clean your work area before the bottles. The beer is very susceptible to bacteria and other infections during bottling so take care.
1. Cleaning Beer Bottles
If your bottles are dirty, quickly scrub inside them with a bottle brush. Make sure there’s no residual debris.
If you rinsed them straight after pouring the last beer you shouldn’t need to bother with the brush and a quick rinse will suffice.
Although annoying, it’s essential the bottles are clean.
When you’ve gathered, rinsed and drained the bottles, it’s time to sanitise.
Because your beer could potentially stay in the bottles, conditioning and improving, for several months it’s vital that there are no bacteria inside. Otherwise, with all that time, there’s a good chance they’ll destroy the beer.
I do all my sanitising with Star San and set aside two or three bottles of mixture on brew day for use in bottling.
To sanitise, transfer the liquid from bottle to bottle. Pour it vigorously so that the neck and mouth of the bottles are splashed. Also spray the mouths with sanitiser to avoid any doubt.
Leave the liquid for at least twenty seconds in each bottle so that the anti-bacterial action happens.
The foam also kills bacteria so don’t worry about bubbles.
Preparing the Beer
By now the priming solution should be cool.
1. Prepare Beer
Remove the lid of the fermenter. All being well, it will look and smell pretty much like beer.
2. Check Gravity
To check that fermentation has taken place, and to investigate the nature of it, take a gravity reading.
If bubbles have only recently stopped leaving the airlock, or if there haven’t been any bubbles, check the gravity before starting with the bottles and priming solution. If the gravity hasn’t reduced the beer’s not ready for the bottles.
I usually wait at least two weeks before bottling.
You can measure the density with a sanitised floating hydrometer, sprayed with Star San before imersion in the beer.
I drop the hydrometer straight into the bucket to save on equipment, but some brewers take a sample of beer into a sanitised test tube.
You can see in the photo that the density is around 1.016. The beer has indeed fermented.
3. Add Priming Sugar
The next step is to mix in the priming solution into the beer.
Minimise the oxygen that enters the beer, as this will cause off-favours. Don’t let the solution splash and bubble.
Give the beer a gentle stir with a sanitised spoon, replace the fermenter lid and leave for twenty minutes. Dispersion will mix everything evenly.
Siphoning Into Beer Bottles
In this guide I’m showing you how to bottle with minimal equipment. Therefore, you’ll siphon the beer into each bottle individually.
You could alternatively siphon into a second bucket fitted with a tap for pouring beer into bottles, an easier method that’s worth considering if you have space.
You will find siphoning easier if you fit a racking cane and bottling wand to the rubber tube.
The cane provides rigidity to the end that goes in the fermenter, preventing the tube from moving. The wand has a valve which stops the flow of the siphon, very useful when moving from bottle to bottle.
1. Rinse The Siphon
After every use thoroughly rinse and dry the siphon and it will be good to go when you need it. It should only need a rinse to clean it on bottling day.
To start the flow of beer the siphon must be filled with water. Run water through the tube for a few seconds to rinse and leave the tube full.
Sanitise the inside of the tube with more of the Star San.
1. Sanitise The Siphon
Quickly introduce the silver racking cane of the siphon, still filled with tap water, into a pot of sanitiser.
It’s important at this point to maintain the liquid in the tube. If you don’t, the suction potential will be lost and you’ll have to start again.
For the siphon to work the part that draws the liquid must be higher than the discharging end.
2. Start siphon
Now with the other end, start the flow of the siphon to fill it with sanitiser. Simply push down on the bottling wand to open the valve and start the flow.
Run the water into a pot until you’re sure the tube is filled with sanitiser. Stop the flow and leave the Star San to act.
Spray the cane and wand with sanitiser as well so they don’t introduce anything nasty to the beer.
Now quickly transfer the racking cane from the sanitiser pot to the fermenting bucket. Again, don’t let the liquid out of the tube or the syphon system will break.
If you have a bottling wand there’s no need to rush or panic. Nothing will flow as long as the valve is closed, and the end of the racking cane is in liquid.
Press the bottling wand into the small pot again until the sanitiser has been completely replaced by beer.
Inevitably you’ll lose some drops of beer in the process.
Working from bottle to bottle, fill each one with beer, regulating the flow with the bottling wand.
As the bucket empties you’ll have to move the racking cane from time to time to avoid sucking up the trub (yeast and hop debris) from the bottom, and to stop the racking cane from leaving the beer before you’ve siphoned all of it.
You can work alone but siphoning with two is much more pleasant.
When the transfer is complete, drain the beer left in the siphon into a glass for an early tasting!
Now seal the bottles to protect the beer.
1. Sanitise Bottle Tops
As usual, begin by sanitising. Pouring over sanitiser while the tops are in a colander works well.
I use a manual capper. It’s fine for relatively small quantities of beer but tedious for many bottles.
Using it is simple: put the sanitised cap on top of the bottle and cover with the capper; hit with a hammer until it’s sealed.
Hit more than you dare.
You’ll know it’s on properly because the capper will grip tightly to the bottle neck. Before that it will easily come away and flop around while you’re trying to hammer.
Obviously if you strike too hard the bottle will shatter: brewing is all about balance!
A tea towel under the bottle is a good way to cushion blows, and catches the spillages that inevitably happen at some point.
That’s it! You’re done.
Put the bottles in a cool dark place and leave them alone. The yeast will ferment the priming sugar and continue to condition the beer for some time.
There’s a small chance that excessive gas will build up and explode the bottles. If you’ve roughly calculated the sugar quantity it should be OK, but put the beers somewhere safe just in case.
Before you relax, scrub and rinse everything. If you don’t do it now it will take twice as long the next time you brew.
The only thing left now is to wait at least two weeks before enjoying your well earned brew.
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