Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bottling your beer

This post comes about a day later than normal.  My week has been a bit busier than normal, so I hadn't had time to write this post yet.  Part of the time has been spent learning about a couple of new brewing techniques that I hope to share with you in the future.

After brewing a batch of beer and letting it finish fermenting, you need a convenient way to store the beer that should also be easy to dispense, and for most styles, you'll also want to be able to properly carbonate the beer.

While there are actually a wide variety of ways to tackle these issues, the first method that most people use is bottling their beer.

Bottling beer, while not the fastest or easiest way to carbonate and store your homebrew, is inexpensive and easily approachable for the new brewer.

The things you absolutely need are bottles, bottle caps and a bottle capper.  You could use  PET beer bottles instead of glass, but I'm going to focus on traditional glass bottles for this post.

When it comes to choosing the bottles to use, if you're going with glass bottles, you want to get the pry-off style bottles, not the ones with the twist-off caps.  The bottle cappers you are likely to use as a homebrewer aren't designed to properly apply caps to twist-off bottles, and could either break the bottle or cause a poor seal, so your beer will be flat instead of well carbonated.

After that, most 12oz or 22oz bottles should work fine, but your best bet is to get the amber colored bottles.  Green or clear bottles let through too much UV (ultraviolet) light, which will cause the beer to become skunky tasting (UV light reacts with the alpha acids in the hops, causing it to break down to sulfur compounds similar to those found in skunk spray) if the bottles aren't stored in a dark place.  Amber bottles block the UV light, so you won't have to worry about your beer going skunky.

A great way to source beer bottles is to buy beer, and save the bottles when you're done drinking the beer.  If you haven't been collecting beer bottles all along, it can be difficult to get 50+ bottles this way quickly, so you can also buy bottles from the link I provided above or at your local homebrew store.  You can also check out Craigslist.  I ended up getting about 6 cases of bottles for free off Craigslist when I first started brewing.

If you do end up using bottles from beer you've purchased, it's a lot easier to rinse out the bottles when you're done drinking beer than it is to try washing the dried beer residue off later.

Things you don't strictly need but should still have are: sanitizer, a bottling bucket, a bottling wand, and an auto siphon (a racking cane works fine too, but you'll have to start a siphon by sucking on the hose, which could potentially cause an infection in your beer.)  You'll also need some vinyl tubing, which you should be able to pick up at your local hardware store.  I find 5/16" ID tubing works best for me, but you might have trouble getting it on some of the equipment, so you might find 3/8" ID tubing works better for you.

A couple of things that are nice to have, but aren't really necessary are a bottling tree and a  a bottle rinser. The bottle rinser makes it easier to sanitize the bottles and the bottling tree gives you a convenient place to put the sanitized bottles until you're ready to fill them.  You might decide you want to buy them somewhere down the line as they do make the bottling process easier, but aren't necessary for bottling your first batch of beer.

You'll also need some sort of sugar to "prime" your beer.  That basically just means adding a bit more sugar so the yeast can create CO2 to carbonate the beer in the bottles.  Table sugar works OK, but most people use dextrose, also known as corn sugar, because normal table sugar can cause some off flavors in the beer. I also know some people that absolutely swear by conditioning tablets. Getting the sugar properly mixed with the freshly fermented beer can be a bit tough sometimes, and the conditioning tablets ensures you're getting the proper amount of sugar in each bottle to provide the appropriate amount of carbonation. 

First things first, make sure your bottles are clean.  If you're using used beer bottles, clean them thoroughly with soap and water, using a bottle brush to tackle any stubborn gunk.  If you've purchased new bottles, just rinse them out to get any dust or debris out of the bottles.

Next, mix up a batch of sanitizer and sanitize your bottling bucket, auto-siphon (or racking cane), vinyl tubing and bottling wand.  If you're using a bottling tree, now is a great time to sanitize that as well.  

Once everything is sanitized, connect the bottling wand to the spigot on the bottling bucket.  You can cut an inch or two from the vinyl tubing and use that to connect the two together.  I suggest pouring a little bit of sanitizer in your bottling bucket so you can verify you know how the spigot and bottle filler work.  Just make sure you get all of the sanitizer out of the bucket before you put your beer in the bottling bucket.

Next, if you're using loose dextrose or table sugar for priming sugar, put about 1/2 cup of water in a pan and add about 5 oz. of the dextrose/table sugar to the pan (you may want to adjust the amount of sugar used in future batches to get the carbonation level you want.  The 5 oz. of sugar is fine for your first 5 gallon batch of beer, but you might want your beer more or less carbonated in future batches.)  Then heat it to a boil and boil the sugar/water mixture for 10 minutes.

After the sugar mixture has boiled for 10 minutes, pour it into the sanitized bottling bucket.  Then connect your vinyl tubing to your auto-siphon and transfer your beer from your fermenter to the bottling bucket.  MAKE SURE THE SPIGOT IS TURNED OFF ON THE BOTTLING BUCKET!!! otherwise you might end up with beer slowly leaking all over your floor, and you don't want that.  

You'll want to make sure the sugar is well mixed in with the beer at this stage.  If it isn't well mixed in, you will end up with under/over-carbonated beer, and can actually end up with bottles so over-carbonated that they literally explode, but you also want to be careful not to stir the beer too vigorously, or you'll mix in a lot of oxygen, which will cause your beer to go stale quickly (this issue of needing to mix the sugar into the beer well, but not oxidizing the beer is why many people use the conditioning tablets.)

While your beer is transferring to the bottling bucket, this is a perfect time to sanitize your bottles and caps.  The bottle caps are easy, just fill a bowl with a bit of sanitizer solution and put the bottle caps in the bowl.  For the bottles, you can dunk them in sanitizer, or if you bought the bottle rinser, just fill the rinser with sanitizer and pump the bottle down on the rinser a couple of times.  If you bought the bottling tree, put the sanitized bottles on the tree, otherwise, just put them somewhere that they aren't likely to have anything fall into the bottle while it's waiting to be filled.

Now for the moment of truth, filling and capping your first bottle!  I personally like to open the door of my dishwasher and fill the bottles over the door so it catches any spills, but you can just put down a dish towel to catch any drips or spills.  Just don't try to fill the bottles over your carpeting, or you'll stain the carpet.

Open the nozzle on your bottling bucket and slip the bottling wand into your first bottle, and push the bottling wand down against the bottom of the bottle.  The bottle might fill more quickly that you're expecting, but wait until the beer is level with the top of the neck of the bottle, then remove the bottling wand.  This should leave just enough of a gap at the top of the bottle (you want about a 1-inch gap between the beer and the top of the bottle, just like a commercially purchased bottle of beer.)  

If you're using conditioning tablets, add the appropriate number of tablets to the bottle.  The packaging should give you an indication as to how many to use.

Set the bottle on the counter, place a (sanitized) bottle cap over the top of the bottle, then use the bottle capper to crimp the bottle cap in place (usually you just put the capper on top of the cap and push down on the wings, you should have gotten some instructions with the capper.)

Congratulations, you've just finished bottling your first bottle of beer!  Now fill another 45 to 55 bottles and you'll be done.  The way I usually did it was, my wife would fill a bottle and I would cap it.  The whole process typically took about 2 hours beginning to end.

Once all of your beer is bottled, it will take about a week or so to fully carbonate, but will probably taste a bit off for up to 3 weeks.  The yeast still in the bottle will clean up the off flavors over those three weeks.

If you decide to open a bottle of beer before the three weeks are up, don't be concerned if your beer tastes a bit funny.  It takes some time for certain compounds in the beer to break down.  If you open a beer after 3 weeks and it still tastes funny, give it some more time.  Many beers do improve with age.  About the only exceptions are hefeweisens (and other wheat beers) and some farmhouse ales which rely on esters to add complexity to the beer.

While I have mostly moved to kegging, I do still bottle smaller batches of beer, and may bottle larger beers (high alcohol content), like barley wines, that should be aged for a considerable amount of time, but I haven't yet made any beers quite that big yet.

I will discuss kegging somewhere down the line, but bottling should be a good start for you.  I think next week I will discuss yeast a bit more and how it contributes to the end beer.

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