Homebrew carbonating and conditioning

Understanding the conditioning process will help you enjoy your beer at its peak.

Early beer

Drink your beer too soon and it may be flat or taste ‘green’.

Carbonation plays a large role in the flavor profile of your beer.

The fine bubbles dance along your tongue and bring out the flavors. Underdone beer will taste insipid and weak.

Late beer

If you leave your bottled beer too long, quality will have declined. This can commonly mean:

  • Freshness is lost – particularly hoppy beers or roast flavors.

  • Staling from oxygen introduced after fermentation (cardboard notes).

  • Over-carbonation as trace residual sugars are consumed over time.

  • Infections can also take hold in the bottle (tastes bad, also over carbonated).

The conditioning process

There are three phases in bottling conditioning:

  1. Carbonation

  2. Improving

  3. Declining.

1. Carbonation

Yeast in the bottle consumes the sugar you have added, creating carbonation (CO²) and a minuscule amount of alcohol.

For this to happen, bottles must be sitting at a temperature within your yeast’s working range.

Generally one week is needed for ales and two weeks for the colder, slower working lager yeasts.

If you check the temperature and have primed and capped correctly, this is straightforward.

Apart from opening a bottle, there are a couple of ways to check whether your brew is carbonated.

Bottle a tester in plastic

Bottle one beer in a cleaned and sanitized plastic bottle. You can squeeze and feel for carbonation, knowing the rest of the batch will be at the same stage.

If your tester is a clear bottle, make sure you store your beer in the dark as light will create off-flavors.

Check the bottom of the bottle

Until the carbonating sugar is consumed by the yeast, it sits as a syrup on the bottom of the bottle.

Take a bottle and, looking closely with light behind it, tilt to the side. You may see the thicker, viscous sugar as a separate layer.

Look at the cap

You may see a subtle bulge in the middle of the cap as carbonation increases.

2. Beer, improving

Although carbonated, there are still processes happening in the bottle which will improve your beer:

  • Sediment is slowly falling out of solution. This can often have harsher flavors, which are better left on the bottom of the bottle and not in your glass.

  • Yeast is still working away to clean up off flavors.

An interesting exercise is to taste your beer through the course of its bottled life. You may find it tastes cleaner after one month, and better yet after three months.

This will vary between beer styles. For example, wheat beers hit their prime time within a week or two, while some stronger ales (assuming no faults) over a year.

3. Declining – The fall from grace

Once your beer passes its prime, descent will follow.

If there are flaws in your brew such as oxidization or a dormant infection, it will become undrinkable over time.

However, if you have no issues, your beer’s quality will remain more stable.

You may notice that it loses some of its gloss, but is still enjoyable.

The profile can also change to more malt and caramel, as the hop character reduces.

Drinking your first homebrew

homebrew-carbonation-drinking.jpg

Congratulations brewer! Now it is time to enjoy the work you have put into making a quality beer.

Opening your first beer is one of the most exciting parts of homebrewing.

To serve your beer, get a chilled glass and pour gently. Leave the last half inch in the bottle to avoid the sediment.

Pause to reflect. Take a photo if you are a sharer.

Observe the aroma. Does it make sense, given the ingredients you used?

Take a sip. Is there balance? What flavors are at the front and what comes from behind?

Consider where there could be more or less. Take notes and improve next time.

Fixing over-carbonation

While infections sadly will likely end up on the back lawn (snail traps are another option), you can address over-carbonated beer.

Bugger. Over carbonation can be troublesome.

Bugger. Over carbonation can be troublesome.

When a beer is poured, CO² rushes out of the liquid into the atmosphere as bubbles. Beer has hop and malt compounds, so the bubbles remain in a foamy layer we know as the beer’s head.

A moderate long-lasting head is a great thing, but over carbonated beer is hard to pour and drink.

If you have fridge space, refrigerate the over-carbonated bottles as soon as you can. This will:

  • Stop fermentation and carbonation from continuing.

  • Reduce the pressure in the bottle to minimize explosion risk.

Dealing with heady homebrew

Capping again

You can try releasing some of the pressure and recapping. Chill your beer and crack the cap to release pressure.

Leave in the fridge for a day and see if enough CO² has escaped the solution to make it drinkable. Consume or recap for later.

This is something of a dark art, but test different times and see what works.

If you can live with the carbonation levels in your beer, you can use a couple of pouring tricks:

Chilling your beer

Without getting too technical, the colder the beer, the more CO² it can hold.

Pouring a warmer beer means much of the CO² in the solution will rush out as bubbles, creating problems.

If chilled to just above freezing, more CO² can stay in the beer and less will rush out.

Pour into a cold pitcher

Some of the CO² will escape when pouring into the jug. Hopefully this will be enough when poured again into your glass.

If very frothy, first wet the inside of the pitcher with water. This creates a smoother surface.

Basically bubbles are caused by nucleation sites. These are microscopic rough points which cause the CO² to form bubbles.

As an aside, some beer glasses have etchings on the bottom to create bubbles and longer lasting head.

Pour gently

Tilt the glass a lot and pour gently. This will reduce frothing.

Wet your glass

Same as the jug trick, you can wet your glass first with water to reduce bubbles and frothing.


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Homebrewing Basics Series