My relationship with bottling homebrew
To be frank, I’ve found bottling to be one of the less rewarding elements of homebrewing.
After capping some 3,000 beers, the novelty wore off and I moved into kegging. This has made homebrewing far more enjoyable and less demanding. Kegging is something I encourage you to consider.
However, I still bottle some batches occasionally for competitions and sharing with friends. I’ll take you through the process that works well for me.
What is bottling all about?
Bottling is priming your beer with a measured amount of fermentable sugar and sealing. Fermentation will take place inside this sealed environment to create carbon dioxide and alcohol.
The alcohol produced when carbonating is negligible (some 0.5% extra). The carbon dioxide is the most important part of the process.
In your fermenter, carbon dioxide can escape. However the sealed bottle means it remains in the beer, creating carbonation. The more sugar added at bottling, the more carbonation.
Bottling must be done gently, as any oxygen introduced at this point will cause your beer to stale quickly.
You must also be careful to make sure the correct amount of sugar is available for carbonation in the bottle. Too little, will mean flat beer. Too much leads to catastrophe.
Poor bottling form can at best ruin your beer through quick staling and at worst lead to over-carbonation and exploding bottles.
No exploding bottles
Always a good policy. Exploding homebrew can be caused by either:
Bottling before fermentation has finished.
Adding too much sugar when bottling.
Both of these result in too much fermentable sugar in the bottle and excessive carbonation. If the beer is too carbonated, the bottle explodes.
If you follow the guidelines here, your risk of exploding bottles is extremely low.
Cause #1 – Bottling too early
You can avoid this problem through testing your wort with a hydrometer.
If you are fermenting at the correct temperature and your beer viscosity has not dropped for two days, your primary fermentation is finished.
This number depends on your ingredients list, but is usually 1.008 to 1.014.
Cause #2 – Too much priming sugar
Some homebrewers add extra sugar at bottling, wanting extra alcohol in their beer. This is bad and leads to heartache.
As mentioned earlier, the extra alcohol from bottling is very small and the excessive carbonation will cause problems.
I recommend priming tabs (AKA carbonation drops).
These are a measured amount of sugar for a standard
12 ounce (330 ml) bottle. Simply drop one in your cleaned and sanitized bottle, fill and cap.
If you don’t have priming tabs on hand, use 3g (0.5 tsp) for standard 12 ounce (330 ml) bottles. Double this for longnecks.
Accidentally double priming your bottles will also cause over carbonation so pay attention when priming.
Another rule to observe for bottling success is to minimize splashing and oxidization.
Adding oxygen to your beer after primary fermentation will mean your beer will stale quicker.
If you use a gentle bottling technique and a bottling wand, you will have no problems.
Plastic vs glass
Bottling in plastic PET beer bottles will minimize the risks from broken glass, however my personal preference is glass.
PET bottles are still semi-permeable, meaning over time your beer’s CO² will move through the bottle. I’ve had perfectly carbonated beers go flat in six months, which was disappointing.
Using a hydrometer and measured priming tabs will minimize risk of exploding bottles.
Reusing PET bottles becomes problematic. Cleaning with a brush scratches the softer plastic, creating a microbial nightmare.
Using and reusing glass bottles also minimizes my homebrewery’s footprint.
At the end of the day though, consider the risks if bottles do explode in your home and make up your own mind.
How to bottle homebrew
I look at bottling as four distinct phases:
1. Clean bottles = clean beer
Your bottles must be scrupulously clean of any residue before bottling.
If you are removing your labels, this is the first step. I recommend you do – it’ll add to the charm when sharing with friends.
To remove labels and clean your bottles:
Soak them overnight in PBW.
Attack with a steel wool scrubber.
Rinse your bottles with hot water.
Mix a fresh PBW solution (0.5 tbs per half gal/2 L) of hot water).
Scrub with a bottling brush until spotless.
Rinse with hot water again.
You can clean your bottles the day before if you are short on time. Make sure you cover then with a clean towel though.
The moist environment inside the bottles can attract cockroaches which won’t help your brewing reputation.
2. Setting the scene
If you set up your bottling area properly before you start, you will have a much simpler and pleasant experience.
Move your fermenter to the bottling area the night before. This allows any disturbed sediment to settle.
On bottling day lay out a towel underneath to catch spills and set up a small stool to sit on.
Don your gloves and use a funnel to pour half a cup of sanitizer solution into a cleaned bottle. Shake. Pour into the next. Repeat. And so on.
Drain out any residual sanitizer and line up the bottles on the towel.
Drop priming tabs into each bottle as required. Make sure you don’t miss or double up on any, which can happen quite easily.
Count out your bottle caps (plus a few extras) and sit in a bowl half full of sanitizer. Sit this within easy reach.
Take a sanitized length of 10 mm food grade plastic tubing three feet (one meter) long and fit to the tap of your fermenter.
This can be quite tricky and it helps to sit the tubing end in boiling water first to make more pliable.
Attach your sanitized bottling wand to the other end. This device will minimize spills and splashes and make the process easier.
You now are set to go.
3. Bottling begins
Insert your bottling wand into the bottle. Press on the bottom and fill to the top. Remove, insert in next bottle and repeat. While it is filling, put a sanitized cap on the full bottle.
This is the process to follow for the rest of your bottles.
You will need to tilt the fermenter to get the last bit of wort. Careful here – this is a time I have knocked many a full bottle over.
These last couple will be cloudy and perhaps oxidized with air getting into the line. As a result, quality suffers.
Love them still, but drink them early.
Reusing homebrew yeast
If you are using a premium yeast, you can drain the yeast cake into a small cleaned and sanitized plastic bottle. Never use glass, as yeast can continue to ferment and explode.
To make the job easier, pour in half a gallon (2 L) of boiled water than has been chilled into your drained fermenter.
Swirl the yeast liquid in the fermenter and bottle it in the plastic bottle.
Squeeze out the air in bottle, refrigerate and re-use within a week or two.
If you clean and sanitize properly, you can reuse brewing yeast up to four times safely.
You will now have a troop of full bottles with caps sitting loosely on top. Pause for a minute and listen.
If the wort was slightly carbonated still, the escaping CO² will make the caps pop randomly and sounds neat.
That aside, it’s now time to cap. Cappers can vary greatly, but here are the common ones.
My favorite and easy to use. Set the height, place the bottle underneath and pull the handle down until the cap is fully crimped.
Make sure you are set up with enough space to place all of your bottles. This will help your production flow.
You are dealing with glass and hammers so exercise caution.
Place the capper on top and nudge with a mallet until fully crimped. Start gently and increase your pressure until you find the sweet spot of pressure and pounding.
These grab the bottle with jaws and crimp by collapsing two handles.
Handheld is my least favorite for a few reasons. They have none of the elegance of the bench capper or the simplicity of the mallet capper.
If you are using lighter screw top bottles I don’t recommend them, as the jaws can crack the glass.
Also, don’t twist the cap to check if it has sealed. This can break the seal and all is lost. Instead, have a look at the cap crimping to check it is crimped down consistently.
Practice makes perfect with all of the above and once you get a good routine, time will fly. Having a helper is a wonderful thing during capping.
4. Clean up
Make sure you allow time after bottling to clean your fermenter. This is where many brewers fall down (including me!), as tomorrow can turn into next week and soon your fermenter is looking pretty funky.
Also the dark crud ring on the top will dry like cement, so now is the time to clean up.
Rinse with hot water and a soft cloth to clean off gunk you can see.
Next mix half a gallon (two liters) of PBW solution and with a fresh soft cloth clean every inch of the fermenter, taps, etc.
Rinse again with clean water. Spray with sanitizer and drain.
Have a beer, you’ve earned it!
Consider brewing back-to-back to save time.
Your fermenter is cleaned and sanitized, ready for another brew.
You can also save some of the yeast slurry at the bottom of the fermenter to repitch immediately in the next brew.
Around half a cup of yeast slurry will be ample.
Make sure you store the yeast slurry in a sanitized and closed vessel while cleaning up.
Homebrewing With Kits—The Beginner’s Guide
To help you master homebrewing with kits, I’ve put together a guide based on my experiences over nearly two decades of homebrewing.
This is the information I wish I had when I first started. I hope it helps you make awesome homebrew.