By Tim Murray
Have you ever just stared at a full carboy of finished beer and thought, what now? It seems like a silly question. Drink it would be the obvious answer. But how? Bottle it? Keg it? Pop a straw in the top and start sucking? For many, the answer to this useless mental quiz is to bottle it, and that kicks off perhaps a more useful set of questions.
Why bottle your beer?
For starters, to make it fizzy. Carbonation has a significant impact on several elements of a beer including the aroma, taste, mouthfeel and overall drinkability, so you want to dial-in the fizz through bottle conditioning. Another benefit to bottling? Sharing your beer!
How do you bottle beer?
Before I answer this question, let's take a second to consider why the idea of bottling beer strikes fear in the hearts of some people. As with any cold-side brewing process, infection is a risk. A clean workspace and good sanitation practices are table stakes. Another risk when bottling is oxidation. The amount of oxygen pickup depends largely on the sophistication of the bottling equipment and the care you take to minimize it, but zero oxygen pickup is virtually impossible to achieve. Don't sweat it too much; in the bottle conditioning process yeast will naturally reduce the amount of oxygen picked up in packaging the beer. Additionally, cold storage can hold off the staling effects of oxidation to a point well after your beer has been consumed by you and your friends.
Back to the process of bottling...
What Equipment do you need bottle homebrew?
The same stuff you use to sanitize your fermenter. I prefer it in a spray bottle for broad and consistent coverage. A bucket full of sanitizer is also handy to have nearby for dunking bottles, tubing and other bottling equipment.
You can find a bottling bucket at nearly any homebrew shop. It's basically a five-gallon bucket with a spigot fixed to the bottom. The features of a good bottling bucket include a lid to keep the bad stuff out, a removable spigot for easy and thorough cleaning, and easy to read volume marks to help with a few important aspects of conditioning.
Some basic silicone tubing to connect the bottling bucket spigot to the bottle wand. Get yourself a decent length (4-5ft) to allow for a gravity feed and decent maneuverability.
This is an indispensable tool if you bottle often. It's a roughly 10" plastic tube that connects to the tubing opposite the bottling bucket spigot. At the end of the wand is a spring loaded stopper, that when pressed, allows liquid to flow. When not depressed, it blocks the liquid. This makes the process of filling the bottle with beer easy and clean. Genius.
Bottles come in all shapes and sizes, but the most common are 12 ounce and 22 ounce models. Which you choose to use is up to you. Obviously the smaller portion bottles will yield a greater number of bottles to share. But it also generally means more time spent packaging. It's also worth noting that if you plan to enter competitions, most willingly accept 12 ounce bottles (and some are more reluctant to accept larger formats). For reference, a five gallon batch will yield 50 12oz bottles, give or take a bottle, after accounting for packaging losses (trust me, you will lose some beer!). In 22oz bottles, that same batch will yield about half the number of bottles.
You need quality beer bottle caps to keep your brew clean and free of oxygen from bottling day until you're ready to enjoy it. Good caps give a firm seal that will last through transport, gift giving, and storage. Most caps crimp down onto the beer bottle, with the use of a bottle capper, and make a firm seal. High quality caps contain an Oxygen absorbing agent in the liner, which means you won’t get any unwanted oxidation.
cappers come in light handheld, benchtop and even electric models. Some are fancier than others, but they all pretty much do the same thing - crimp down the bottle cap onto the beer bottle. If you’re tight on space, money or both in your brewery, go with a handheld model. They work well. Just be sure to sanitize your capper in between filling each bottle.
How to bottle Homebrew
From here, the basics of the bottling process should be pretty clear. Start by filling your sanitized bottling bucket with your freshly fermented beer. Add your priming sugar (more on this below), then snap on the lid and connect the tubing to the spigot on one end and the bottle wand on the other. Open the spigot. Beer should flow into the wand, but not out of it until the stopper is depressed. Insert the wand into an empty sanitized bottle, depressing the stopper on the bottom of the bottle, and fill to the top. Once full, lift the wand out of the bottle. The liquid displaced by the wand should leave just the right amount of headspace in the bottle. Cap it, spray it with some sanitizer and wipe it down. Wash, rinse [sanitize] and repeat.
More about that priming sugar step...achieving the target level of carbonation isn’t terribly hard, but it does require a little thinking and a few different choices. It begins with adding additional fermentable sugars at packaging that the yeast leftover in your beer will convert to CO2. The most common way to prime a bottle-conditioned beer is with sugar. Corn sugar (dextrose), cane, beet or even good old table sugar will work just fine, providing consistent results with no added flavors. Other natural products like honey, maple syrup and molasses are also available, but it can be difficult to predict the carbonation they will produce and they will contribute to the final flavor of the beer (good or bad). Malt extract is yet another option. But beware that if you plan to leave your beer to age, some microbes can slowly consume the dextrins provided by malt, eventually leading to more carbonation than formulas predict.
Once you choose your sugar, use a priming sugar calculator (search for one online) to determine the amount you need. You’ll need to provide the calculator with the volume of beer (glad you got the bottling bucket with volume markings, right?), the target level of carbonation and, in most cases, the peak temperature the beer reached during the fermentation process.
One more note on priming sugar - don’t measure it by volume. Weigh it! This will provide you with an added level of accuracy to dial in the carbonation level. If you can’t be bothered to weigh your sugar, consider using pre-measured carbonation tabs. You’ll play a little fast and loose with the final carbonation level, but with small batches or limited time, this method will do.
If you think bottle condition sounds like a lot of effort and time, you’re not wrong. That’s why force carbonation was invented. The equipment and process behind force carbonation is beyond the scope of this article, but I guarantee you will eventually look into it. It’s primary benefits include accuracy (you can dial-in precise levels of carbonation), optionality (enjoy it on tap or bottle it) and simplicity.
Hopefully by now you’re ready to empty that carboy into some bottles and share it with a few of your friends. And I’ll leave you with one last thought from brewer and author Michael Tonsmeire, who wrote the book “American Sour Beers - Innovative Techniques for Mixed Fermentations”:
“After all the time spent designing, brewing and fermenting a beer, you should be prepared to invest that same level of care and thought when it comes to packaging.”
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