Bottling Beer : An Illustrated Guide to Bottling Day

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.

brown beer bottles on bottling day
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
  • Capping
  • Cleaning

Choosing Bottles

Before you even think about bottling, you of course need to gather something to put the beer in.

Home Brew Bottles
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.

boiling priming solution before bottling beer

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.

cleaning bottles on bottling day

When you’ve gathered, rinsed and drained the bottles, it’s time to sanitise.

2. Sanitising

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.

sanitising bottles before bottling beer

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

fermenting bucket

Remove the lid of the fermenter. All being well, it will look and smell pretty much like beer.

beer fermenting bucket with lid off

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.

sanitising a hydrometer before putting it into 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.

measuring gravity with a hydrometer

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.

adding priming sugar to home brew prior to bottling

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.

filling home brewing siphon with water

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.

sanitising syphon prior to bottling

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.

starting syphon to start the flow of beer

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.

drawing beer through a siphon

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.

3. Bottling

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!

Capping

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.

sanitising bottle caps before bottling beer

2. Cap

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!

capping beer bottles with a hammer

A tea towel under the bottle is a good way to cushion blows, and catches the spillages that inevitably happen at some point.

3. Store

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.

bottled home brew

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.

Cleaning

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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Comments...

  1. James Sutton

    When I bottle I never let the bottles dry completely to prevent foaming as the bottles are filled.

    Jim

    • John

      Thanks for the tip!

      When I do it the bottles usually have a bit of sanitiser still in there keeping them wet. That does tend to foam ever so slightly.

  2. Ted Mihajlich

    Are you familiar with the bottles sparkling fruit juices such as Martinelli’s or Knudsen’s come in. They appear to have the same lips and caps as beer bottles. I’d like to use them unless anbody knows of reasons why they wouldn’t work well.

    • John

      Hi Ted,

      I’m not familiar with those, but if they have a similar top to beer bottles there’s no reason why they shouldn’t work.

      Hope it works out well.

      Cheers.

  3. Craig McClymont

    Hi John

    Fairly new to home brewing. Started with a kit from Homebrewtique which was a great, if expensive way to start. Found this site and it’s been a great help in letting me understand what I’ve been doing.

    I’ve just finished my first non-kit recipe (your English Bitter). It seems to be fermenting away nicely!

    Just one thing that interests me, you alway seems to use brown sugar for priming (apologies if I’ve generalised here). In other recipes I’ve seen different sugars, honey or syrup. How much difference do the different primers make?

    Regards

    Craig

    • John

      Hi Craig,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I often use brown sugar as a lot of the recipes on this site are for darkish beers. Darker sugars don’t completely ferment and leave behind a little bit of extra flavour. For lighter beers I would use something else.

      The effect priming sugars have is small (especially if you’re not totally in control of the rest of the flavours) but I do think it makes a difference. It’s definitely something worth experimenting with.

      Good luck with your bitter.

  4. Craig McClymont

    John

    Thanks for taking time to respond. I realised after posting that you’d covered priming sugars in another article, which was also very helpful.

    Your site has been a great resource in reassuring me that I’m getting things (mostly) right.

    Kind regards

    Craig

  5. Matt

    Hi John,
    This is incredibly helpful and also a rarity as it’s free!
    One question – I have purchased carbonation drops for the bottling process, should these be plonked into each bottle after sanitising (immediately before filling the bottle)?

    Also –

    • John

      Hi Matt,

      Yes, that’s right.

      Was there a second part to your comment that got cut off?

  6. Matt

    Hi John,
    Thanks for the quick reply, almost ready for bottling! There was going to be a second part but I changed my mind as you covered it earlier!

  7. Eventual beersmith

    Hi,

    Do you do single container fermentation?

    I’m doing some brewing in a closet and trying that to save space and wary of too many transfers.

    Does the gentle stir and wait 20 minutes always work or sometimes wait longer for more mixing/ clarifying? Thanks

    • John

      Hi,

      Yes, I nearly always use one container only.

      Twenty minutes is usually enough, although you could wait a bit longer if you wanted. The trub should be fairly well compacted on the bottom, so if you’re very gentle with the stir there should be no need to let it resettle.

  8. I keep seeing comments (not just here, but) everywhere that Star San is “nature’s nearly perfect sanitizer”.
    I’m starting to believe it should be fed to babies in place of colostrum in the delivery room.
    I rarely, if ever, see reference to things that are rinsed with it being let DRY.
    Is it SO perfect that even “perceptible” amounts of it can enter our myriad fermented beverages at almost every step of the way (primary, secondary, siphoning, bottles, caps, corks, whatever) and still not have any detrimental effect on the end product?
    I ask this after realizing that immediately after bathing my siphon with it, inside and out, I’m not prepared to wait three days (maybe weeks?) until my transfer syphon AND my bottling siphon become bone dry before finishing an arduous bottling day.
    So, just how much is too much?
    It seems the majority of municipal water supplies in North America (no offense, Britain and/or elsewhere) would be “pure” enough for the ‘final rinse’. No?

    • John

      Hi Michael,

      You may be right, but if you’re concerned about anything getting into your beer and are going to do a final rinse, you may as well sanitise with something like bleach.

      Star San is relatively expensive, partly because it has the benefit of not needing to be rinsed off at the end.

      Thank you for commenting.

      (Personally I’d boil the rinsing water first to be on the safe side).

  9. Eventual Beersmith

    Thanks, checking since its hard to find single fermentation stuff on a few areas where things are different. Anything that would make you go to a second?

    Seems like there’s a lot of other places to work first on better taste alone, forget about easier brewing or lower material cost.

    • John

      I wrote a bit about that here.

      In summary, I would only use a secondary fermenter if I could see a benefit from starting with another clean container. I guess in practice that would be when adding an additional, delicate ingredient, such as fruit or honey, or if I was planning to leave the beer for a long time before bottling.

  10. Val

    How long do/can you leave beer in the fermenter after it stops bubbling before you have to bottle?

    • John

      Val,

      At least another week is ideal. Here‘s a longer answer.

  11. Brian

    I’m a novice home brewer (kit brewer at the moment) I made up a batch of “Shire Mild” a “Dark” mild beer, the instructions said to put “(Amount X) per xxxMls of sugar in each bottle or xxgms per barrel” , as I was using various sizes of bottles I prepared the amount of sugar per litre and dissolved it in boiling water, after leaving it to cool I added that to the prepared brew, I stirred it in with a long handled plastic spoon, but, to ensure it was thoroughly mixed I then transferred it from one brewing bucket to another quickly to ensure it mixed. This was before I read your tips on bottling.

    Am I likely to have oxygenated to the point where it may spoil the beer? I was thinking of leaving it for a few months and bringing it out for a BBQ in Summer, should I just start a new batch?

    Thanks in advance.

    • John

      Hi Brian,

      From what you describe it sounds as though the beer will have survived. You haven’t done that much to expose it to oxygen, unless it was really rocked about, but one concern would be whether you sanitised the other bucket before transferring the beer into it.

      I’m not sure when you brewed, but try one or two bottles at some point before the summer and you’ll know whether you want to do another batch or not. It will quite possibly taste great, and you’ll want to brew again anyway.

      Good luck.

      • Brian

        Thanks for your reply.

        I did actually try one last week and I’m happy to say it tasted fine ;-).

        I won’t chance it in future though, maybe I just got lucky.

        I always ensure all my equipment is spotless and use steriliser/sanitiser on it all.

        I’m just waiting for an Alcoholic Ginger beer to finish its primary and then it’s time to start bottling again.

        I have recently found a really good deal here in the UK, there is a supermarket called “ALDI” (actually a German supermarket chain with branches here). They are at the moment selling carbonated flavoured drinks, coconut and lime, lemonade, orange etc. These are sold in the “flip top” type re-sealable bottles, a wire device tightens the rubber sealed lid in place, and these 1 litre bottles are selling for £1.24, an empty bottle of the same size/type in a brew shop is £1.40!

        My daughter thinks it is great as she has a hoard of drinks for the summer and it’s a win/win for me .

        • John

          Glad it worked out OK, and thanks for the tip!

  12. Mark

    Hi John,
    Have you ever had a beer clear completely in the bottle during warm conditioning (not sure that’s the right term: I mean the 2 weeks at room temp for carbonation). Mine have always got more cloudy as the yeast get to work on the priming sugar, and have only cleared after a couple of weeks in cold storage. But my latest batch (a Youngs APA kit) is crystal clear after a week in the airing cupboard. I am getting worried something has happened during carbonation.
    Still, I guess I will find out in a week when I crack one open to sample. :)

    • John

      Hi Mark,

      Yes, I have had clear beers which have been kept out of the fridge. There’s no reason to worry just yet.

      Hope it turns out OK!

      • Mark

        Thanks John,
        I’ll try and be more patient and stop fretting.

  13. Graham Smith

    Hi, I used an immersion heater set to 20c for primary fermentation. Now bottled my indoor room temps are a cool 12-13c.

    Is that temp OK for carbonation?

    Thanks

    • John

      That´s a little cooler than I’d usually do, but you may be alright. If it gets too cold the carbonation may not happen.

      Good luck.