Bottling Day. Perhaps the worst part of home brewing is bottling. The beer has completed fermentation and now needs to be transferred into roughly 48 bottles. Any bacteria could ruin the beer completely. So anything the beer touches needs to be cleaned and sanitized. The racking wand, tubing, bottling bucket, spigot, 48+ bottles, and caps all need to be sanitary. So when brewers say 90% of brewing is being a janitor, they aren’t kidding. I can only imagine the amount of cleaning that goes on in a real brew house.
On the 5 gallon homebrew scale, bottling goes something like this:
Assuming you’ve saved up a collection of capable bottles (no twist-offs!) that were well rinsed and stored upside down (to avoid dampness to settle at the bottom and grow bacteria), they need to have labels removed. I have a cooler that holds about a case of upright bottles. I use OxyClean FREE for all my brew related cleaning. I fill the cooler with hot water, Oxy Free and the bottles. Takes a while to get them all filled and submerged. Let them sit over night (or more). Individually empty them and peel/scrape off labels and residue adhesive. You’ll find what breweries have the real pain in the ass labels, and which ones come off easy. Now remember you need 2 cases worth… so two coolers may be necessary initially. Once the labels are off, you can reuse these bottles many times over and not have to go through the label removal. But rinsing and storing upside down still necessary.
Plan ahead to empty your dishwasher so that once the labels are removed, you can fill the dishwasher racks with bottles upside down. DO NOT USE DETERGENT. Run it with the heat dry “on” as the high temps of the drying stage is what will help sanitize by killing off bacteria that can’t handle the heat. (Some folks use ovens to sanitize bottles but that’s even more work) I run it overnight so there’s time for the bottles to come back down to room temp before filling. Heat can kill the yeast that remains in the beer, and you need that in order to carbonate… more later.
Ok, so the bottles are washed and sanitized. Now, you need to rack the beer from the fermenter bucket or carboy into a bottling bucket which has a removable spigot at the bottom. Attached to the spigot will be a bottle filler. Some flexible tubing over the spigot and the other end over the bottle filler’s cylinder. The tip of the filler is spring loaded, so as the tip hits the bottom of the inside of the bottle, the tipis pushed up and in, releasing the beer in the filler.
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. First you need to calculate how much priming sugar you need to add to the bottling bucket. this sugar will give the yeast in each bottle something to eat, thus creating more CO2. With the bottle capped, this CO2has no escape, and thus some pressure builds up and carbonates the beer in the bottle. This is called “bottle conditioning.” (as opposed to kegs, which use regulators and CO2 tanks to force carbonate the beer in the keg w/o the need of priming sugar)
One of the websites I reference often is Screwy Brewer, as his site is loaded with online calculators for various numbers needed in the brewing process. The bottle priming calculator helps me figure out how many ounces of sugar I need to add to the beer in the bottling bucket. Typically, for a standard Pale Ale or IPA, I’m looking at between 4 and 5 ounces. I dilute this sugar into about 12 oz of water and boil it to sanitize. Then, as the beer moves from the fermenter into the bottling bucket, I gently pour it in along the side of the bucket and it mixes in as the beer continues to flow in.
Once all the beer is transferred I can start filling bottles… one bottle at a time. I tend to fills 6-10 bottles, gently resting new caps (which have been soaking in sanitizer solution of course) on the tops. I use my bench capper to force down the cap and crimp it. The actual filling and capping is pretty minor when you look at all the prep work that goes into getting ready to bottle first.
Most homebrewers say “start kegging!” to avoid the bottling process. Some day I will. It’s just hard to pull the trigger on about $225-250 to set myself up with all the kegging equipment needed. Plus, if you’re going to keg, you need a kegerator (a fridge dedicated to serving beer in which holes are drilling to mount taps, etc. I’m getting there. Got an old kitchen fridge in the basement now that I use as a beer fridge. Next will be buying the kegging equipment and breaking out the drill… but for now… I bottle.
I bottled my American Pale Ale late this morning, and yes, it sucked. It always does. But, when I show up at friend with a 6 of bottles with plain caps and no labels, it’s worth it. And today, it looked like I bottled the most clear brew I’ve made yet as I was able to “cold crash” the fermenter for a week. Now that I have the beer fridge, I can put an entire fermenter into 40° temps to clarify it.