A close-up look at the bottling process shows how to turn that flat beer in the fermentor into a lively, finely conditioned drink.
After numerous bottling sessions the honeymoon ended, and I began looking for ways to streamline the process. The following overview of the bottling process is designed to give beginning brewers a strong base from which to develop individualized techniques. Some of the time- and labor-saving hints in this article may be of interest to all brewers, regardless of experience level.
The first step in any bottling routine is, not surprisingly, the collection of bottles. A 5-gallon batch yields about two cases of finished beer (48 12-oz bottles), but it’s a good idea to clean and sanitize about 55 bottles so you have a few extra as a safety margin. There is nothing worse than realizing that you have more beer than you thought and need another bottle or two late in the filling process — or dropping a bottle or two. Trust me.
Bottles come in all shapes, sizes, materials, and colors. Most brewers develop personal preferences or even collections of certain types of bottles. I prefer to use Martinelli bottles for Belgian ales and the like because these are “happy” beers (i.e., high-alcohol, altered-state kind of brews), and I always split the bottles with someone else. To my palette, beers seem to age better in larger bottles. When I am planning on entering a competition, I use brown, long-neck glass bottles. The size of the bottle is also a matter of individual preference and is somewhat dependent on the style of beer being bottled (you might want to use a 7-oz pony bottle for a barley wine, for example).
No matter where you get them — the recycling center, the local bar, or self-drained six packs — they will require a thorough cleaning to remove the inner crud and the outside labels.* If cleaning dirty used bottles doesn’t appeal to you, new bottles are readily available from most homebrew stores or bottle manufacturers (though most manufacturers have large minimum orders).
*I highly recommend removing the labels because it gives you the opportunity to add your own once your Pride ’n Joy Porter is ready to hand out to friends. There is nothing tackier than handing your homebrew out in a bottle that still has the megaswill manufacturer’s label on it; it may make the recipient wonder if you cleaned the inside of the bottle as well as you cleaned the outside.
I design my own labels in Corel Draw and print them on a laser printer. I affix the labels to the bottles using a light coating of milk on the back side; it makes the labels easy to remove when I’m preparing my next bottling session.
Synopsis of the Bottling Process
Significance of glass color: The color of the glass makes a big difference. Finished beer is a complex, unstable product, and final packaging must protect it from becoming “light struck,” which causes rapid deterioration of the flavor. Light (including fluorescent) passing through clear and green bottles can react unfavorably with certain hop compounds to produce that characteristic “skunky” odor and taste.
If you have any doubts about the reality of light-striking, try it yourself. Pour two identical beers into clear glasses and set one in sunlight and the other in the shade. Taste them periodically to observe the flavor changes. Miller Genuine Draft, incidentally, includes a chemical additive to prevent skunking, which is how they get away with clear bottles.
“Skunky” is an apt term. The sun causes formation of a mercaptan (alcohol), which is the active principle in the scent of a skunk. Years ago, before I became a home brewer, I thought that this flavor was just a part of the style. Now that I understand that this trait is undesirable in fine beer, I do everything I can to prevent it in my bottled beer.
Preventing skunkiness is actually quite easy — just use brown bottles. Brown bottles help protect the beer from the damaging UV wavelengths of the light spectrum, though the effect is more one of delay than complete prevention. If you must use clear or green bottles, keep them in the dark until serving time; skunking can happen over a very short exposure time. Carboys of finished or still-fermenting beer are equally susceptible and should also be protected from light sources to ensure that skunkiness will not develop before bottling.
Plastic soda bottles? Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles (standard soda bottles) can also be used for storing finished beer; however, because most of them are either clear or green, exposure to light remains an issue. In addition, PET is oxygen-permeable, so it is possible for the beer to become oxidized if stored for a long time in these containers. The issue of whether oxidation actually occurs has been debated ad nauseam with no clear-cut conclusion. I have read testimonies from brewers who acknowledge that although oxygen permeability is theoretically an issue, it hasn’t been a problem in their beer, even when stored for a year or more in PET bottles.
Geza Szenes of Alberta, Canada, has used PET bottles successfully for many years. He offers the following recommendations for their use:
First, get new caps — cap liners will absorb pop flavor, and some of that flavor will leach into the beer. Typically, you can buy 100 new caps for about $ 7. [My sources tell me to expect about $ 15–20 these days.] Second, you have to really torque the caps on to get a good seal. I use a piece of rubber cut from an inner tube to get a good grip and to make it easier on my hands (I also use it to twist the caps off before serving).
Although the larger PET bottles (1–2 L) make the bottling process much faster — bigger bottles mean less cleaning, less sanitizing, and shorter filling times — these beers cannot be stored for any length of time after they’ve been opened because the remaining beer tends to deteriorate rapidly once it’s been exposed to oxygen. These larger bottles can be ideal, however, for large parties or “table bottles” of beer.
With a little attention to their peculiarities, PET bottles can be used with great success.
The role of caps: The type of cap required can also be of some concern when choosing bottles. Glass bottles with twist-off caps have been used successfully by many home brewers. Personally, I prefer the “pop-top” bottle style (long-neck bar bottles, for example), for two reasons. First, they are usually made of heavier glass because they are designed to be returnable. Second, they seal the first time, every time. Twist-off bottles can be a bit tricky to cap with some of the available cappers. Before you load up on a certain bottle type, it’s a good idea to cap a few to make sure they’ll seal correctly. This caution holds true for some champagne bottles as well — American brands can be capped with the standard crown cap, but European brands can’t. Just keep a new crown cap in your pocket when you’re scrounging for bottles in case there’s any question.
Grolsch-type lock-top bottles — the ones with the self-contained lever, stopper, and rubber gasket caps — are a nice addition to any home brewery, but cost and availability may be a factor. Don’t forget to replace those rubber gaskets once they show signs of wear (replacement gaskets are generally available at homebrew supply stores).
As far as crown caps go, you’ve got two choices: standard and oxygen-absorbing. Standard caps are fine, but the oxygen-absorbing caps have the added advantage of helping to minimize the oxygen left in the headspace after filling and capping. Anything you can do to remove the possibility of oxidation reactions and staling of the finished beer is very worthwhile.
If you look carefully at the oxygen-absorbing cap liners after they’ve been used, you’ll notice small bumps under the plastic liners that weren’t there when you bottled. This is one way of telling that the caps did their job of removing oxygen from the headspace. Because the cost difference between the two cap types amounts to pennies a batch, there’s really no good reason to pass up the added protection that oxygen-absorbing caps offer.
Oxygen-absorbing caps are activated by exposure to liquid, so you don’t want to soak them overly long in sanitizing solution before use. If the caps are a bit dusty, just place them in a strainer and rinse them under the tap and immediately proceed to the sanitizing step. One important point to remember with either type of cap: Do not use boiling water to sterilize them because it may ruin the plastic liner and prevent a good seal. (For a discussion of how to sanitize caps, see the “Sanitization” section below.)
Okay, so you’ve got your collection of bottles together and you’re ready to clean them. To soak the labels off and give the insides a good cleaning, I use a combination of trisodium phosphate (TSP, available in most hardware and department stores) and chlorine bleach in a concentration of ½ cup of each per 5 gallons of hot water. A rectangular ice chest or similar container works well for storing a large number of bottles upright and submerged in the cleaning solution. Soaking the bottles for an hour or two usually loosens all but the most stubborn labels (the ones with foil), but even those come off with a bit of elbow grease and a nylon scrubbing pad or scraper.
The “hand-powered” nylon bristle brushes sold in homebrew stores do a good job of removing grime from the insides of bottles. By cutting off the looped end of the brush, you can chuck it into a battery-powered drill and speed up this tiresome process considerably. I usually hold a submerged bottle steady with a rubber-gloved hand while I operate the drill/brush combination with my other hand. This way, I keep the drill dry and well out of harm’s way. Various sizes of bottle brushes are available for use on various sizes of bottles, from the regular 12-oz up through the 22-oz and champagne-sized varieties.
The only bottle infection I ever encountered happened when I skipped the brushing step and relied solely on the ability of a kitchen faucet attachment to power spray the insides of the bottles clean. I ended up with very small bacterial colonies — brownish in color — clinging to the insides of the bottles below the fill line. I found out later that brewers refer to this infection as “microderm.” It produced a rather nasty off-flavor very quickly.
Although faucet-attached sprayers by themselves don’t always provide the type of close cleaning that really grungy bottles need, especially the first time through the cleaning process, they still make a wonderful addition to a bottle-cleaning line because they do a thorough job of rinsing the inside of the bottle. Be sure to rinse the bottles completely and thoroughly, inside and out, as soon as you pull them out of the cleaning solution to prevent the buildup of a mineral film from the TSP.
Once your bottles have been through the cleaning routine once and you are careful to rinse them well after decanting the beer, the cleaning process becomes much easier and quicker, because the brushing step can usually be eliminated. Bottle cleaning can be a tedious and less-than-enjoyable process, so waiting until you have a good-sized batch of bottles to clean keeps the chemical handling down and the routine more efficient.
Bottles can be sanitized using standard solutions of iodophor or bleach, moist heat, or dry heat.
Sanitizing solutions: Iodophor, an iodine-based sanitizing agent, is available from most homebrew supply shops. When using iodophor, soak the bottles for about 5 minutes in a solution of ¼ oz iodophor/2½ gal water; for bleach, lengthen the contact time to about 10 minutes and mix the solution at ½ oz bleach/gal water. The use of sanitizing solutions requires that you sanitize as close as possible to bottling time.
Once sanitized, invert and drain. Bottle trees are available for this purpose, but I’ve found an easily constructed homemade rack works just as well (see Figure 1) and has the added bonus of not contacting the inside of the bottle.
If you use bleach, give a quick rinse to make sure all traces of chlorine are removed from the bottle before draining; chlorine can result in off-flavors in the finished beer. I highly recommend iodophor for the bottling process because of its shorter contact time and cleaner drying characteristics.
Sanitizer pumps offer an alternative to soaking and are available through many homebrew suppliers. To use, you simply invert the bottle on top of the pump, press down a few times to thoroughly rinse the inside of the bottle with solution, then allow the bottle to drip dry. Most of these units are designed to fit on top of a bottle tree for further convenience.
Moist heat: Moist heat sanitizing can be easily accomplished at home by using an automatic dishwasher’s “sani” or heat-drying cycle. This process is easy and convenient and can allow you to divide the bottling process over a day or two as long as you keep the dishwasher closed until bottling time.
To ensure satisfactory results, keep the following in mind: First, make sure the bottles have been thoroughly cleaned — inside and out — before loading them (upside down) for sanitization. Second, don’t use any detergents in the wash cycle, and be sure to remove any rinse agents. Many home brewers who use this technique do an empty load with perhaps a small amount of bleach added to make sure the dishwasher has been rinsed completely before adding the bottles. When you cycle the bottles, you don’t need to add any sanitizers because the temperature and steam in the dishwasher will guarantee sanitization.
Dry heat: I don’t have a dishwasher, so I’ve taken to using a kind of a combination approach using dry and moist heat as my preferred method of preparing bottles. Unlike the other methods discussed so far, high dry heat actually sterilizes the bottles.
I give clean bottles a blast from my faucet-attached bottle washer, drain them for a second or two, and then cover the tops with aluminum foil, being careful to crimp the foil around the rim of the bottles to make a tight seal. I purposely leave some water in the bottles so that it will turn to steam once the bottles are heated in the oven.
I fill the oven with bottles stacked on the sides. Once the oven is full, I bring the heat up slowly to about 300 °F (~150 °C) — ramping through 150 °F (~65 °C), to 225 °F (~110 °C), to 300 °F over about 15 minutes — and then let the bottles “cook” for about 3 hours. During this time I can usually hear some of the foil caps snapping as they release the steam pressure building up in the bottles.
At the end of the baking time, I turn the oven off and allow it to cool on its own. If time is of the essence, I open the oven door slightly to release the heat a bit quicker. I normally sanitize my bottles by this method the night before a bottling session so I can allow the bottles to cool slowly to prevent thermal shock. I have never had a bottle break using this method, even after many heating and cooling cycles. The bottles remain sterile until the foil caps are removed.
Sanitizing caps: To sanitize caps, mix up a sanitizing bleach solution as outlined for bottles above, or just dip some out of your “main” batch, and soak the caps for about 5 minutes before using. Once I get everything set up — and the caps are the last things I prepare — I find that the actual filling of the bottles doesn’t take very long at all. I try to drop the caps into the sanitizing solution right before I fill my first bottle. Give the caps a quick shake before placing them on the bottle to dislodge excess sanitizing solution. This is especially important if you use bleach as a sanitizing agent. Rinsing with tap water could simply reintroduce contaminants that you’ve taken pains to eliminate; some brewers preboil a quantity of water for use in rinsing.
Priming is the term for adding a measured quantity of sugar to the flat beer before bottling to induce further fermentation in the bottle. The metabolism of the priming sugar produces carbon dioxide, which gives the beer its carbonation.
Batch priming — mixing priming sugar into the whole volume of finished beer — is the method of choice for home brewers today. It’s faster, easier, and takes the calculations out of priming individual bottles of various sizes. Consistent results are easy to achieve as long as the priming solution is thoroughly mixed into the beer.
The issue of types of priming sugar (corn, cane, and brown sugars, honey, and other sugar sources), their measurement (by weight or volume), and the most precise process for ensuring correct carbonation levels for each beer style (batch or individual bottle priming) could easily provide enough material for another article. This article concentrates on a simple method that gives good, drinkable results.
The tried and true priming rate of ¾ cup corn sugar per 5 gallon batch size produces a carbonation level similar to that of many American ales and lagers. This amount gives a good starting point from which to tweak the carbonation level to fit your preferences. Some brewers prefer to measure their priming sugar by weight so that compaction does not lead to overcarbonation. A ¾ cup of sugar weighs 4 oz. By measuring priming sugar by weight you can guarantee that your beers will remain consistently carbonated from batch to batch.
To prepare a priming solution, simply dissolve the corn sugar into about a pint of water and bring to a boil. Let the mixture boil for about 5 minutes, covered, to sterilize the solution. If you use a carboy as your container for mixing the beer/priming solution, then it is essential that you cool the priming solution by immersing the still-covered pot in a sink full of ice water for a few minutes; this will eliminate the possibility of thermal stress cracking the glass carboy (not a concern when using plastic buckets). The priming solution should be gently poured from the pot into the bucket or carboy to lessen oxygen uptake. Keep splashing to a minimum throughout the bottling process.
The basic equipment needed to bottle a batch of beer consists of a racking cane and hose, a separate container (used for mixing the priming sugar with the finished beer), a bottle filler of some sort, a capper, and caps. The racking cane and hose are pretty standard items, but some differences exist between the rest of the equipment listed.
A second container — a glass carboy or food-grade plastic bucket — allows you to remove the finished beer from the yeast and trub cake and combine it with the fresh, sterile priming solution. If you use a carboy as this temporary container, then you’ll have to use the siphon and bottling method of filling.
Wand-type bottle fillers are available in a variety of designs, and any one of them can be used with success. Most of them consist of a length of hard tubing made from plastic or brass and have a small valve in one end; the other end attaches to the racking hose. When the wand is pressed to the bottom of the bottle, the valve opens and beer flows. To stop the flow, just lift the wand and the valve closes.
If you stop the flow when the beer completely fills the bottle, the beer level will drop as the wand is removed, leaving a headspace of air in the neck of the bottle. Some headspace is necessary for proper bottle conditioning, but because air contains oxygen it poses a potential hazard to your beer as well.
All of the fillers I have tried leave a bit too much headspace (I shoot for a range of about ½–¾ in.). If the filler valves were designed to be activated from the side, instead of the bottom, then you could press it against the side of the bottle as you remove it until the headspace is at the desired level. Some of the fillers on the market do have valves that can be used in this manner, even though they are bottom-actuated. Check out a few before you buy to make sure you find one that fits your needs.
I have changed my procedure and eliminated the need for a filler wand altogether by dedicating a food-grade plastic bucket to my bottling system (see Figure 3). Most homebrew supply stores offer this bottling bucket setup as an alternative to the wand system. This simple arrangement allows me to fill bottles very quickly, to control the delivery rate to the bottles, to minimize splashing and exposure to air, to control headspace, and to get just about every last drop of beer out of the bucket and into the bottles. I also avoid having to start a siphon and sanitize extra items.
Two important details merit attention when building one of these systems: First, drill or cut the hole for the spigot as close to the bucket’s bottom as possible (in practice this is limited by how close the nut on the inside of the valve can be to the bottom of the bucket; the hole in my bucket is about ⅛ in. from the bottom). Second, try to find a valve that can be moved to a middle position that closes the flow from the bucket while preventing the beer that remains in the filler tube from emptying into the bottle. All of the spigots I have seen in homebrew stores are of this design. Keeping the tube full of beer once you start ensures a splash-free, gentle fill of the next bottle.
More tips: For best mixing, pour the priming solution into the bucket first, then rack the beer into it, and stir with a sanitized spoon. Using a loose-fitting lid minimizes any chance of contaminants falling into the finished beer. Also, the filling tube should be long enough to reach the bottom of any bottle you plan to fill.
Cappers and caps have undergone some design improvements in recent years. Although most of the hand cappers work well, there is nothing quite like using a bench capper. The neck diameters of certain bottles — especially those of the larger champagne-style bottles — even make it impossible to use a hand-held capper. Although some of the newer hand cappers have alternate sets of jaws to remedy this problem, bench cappers avoid the problem entirely and are quicker and easier to use.
The bench capper I have cost about $ 24 on sale and was worth every penny. The price difference between hand-held cappers and bench cappers really isn’t that big (about $ 10–15), so compare the two types closely before you buy. If a hand-held capper is included as part of a beginning kit, most shop owners will allow you to upgrade for the difference in price.
Once those caps are crimped, store the bottles in a dark place at fermentation temperature. In just two to four weeks (depending on the style of beer), your beer will be ready to enjoy.
Although many beers taste fine with a short conditioning time, most all infection-free beers will continue to develop for some time, and you will be rewarded if you allow a longer conditioning time. I have found that 4–6 weeks works well with most light to medium-strength ales; some of the higher alcohol styles continue to improve for many months and even years. Lager benefits from an 8–12 week conditioning time. When in doubt about aging times, just sample a bottle or two a week until the flavor stabilizes and note the time in your brewing log for future reference.
Bottling is the last step in the brewing process that allows you to influence the final product. Although most attention is usually paid to “designing” various levels of carbonation into the beer, contaminants introduced during the bottling process can adversely affect the finished flavor. But as long as you pay attention to sanitation, avoid aeration of the finished beer, and make sure the beer is actually finished before bottling (that is, that the final gravity is in the expected range and hasn’t changed over the course of a couple days), you will consistently produce a well-carbonated product. By using a reliable bottling routine and customizing it to your individual needs, you ensure the best possible conditioning and ultimate savoring of your handcrafted beer.
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