A Guide to Bottling Beer
When it comes to packaging beer at the end of the brewing process there are several options available. The most popular of these choices is to bottle or keg your beer.
Bottling is relatively simple compared to kegging and is also the cheaper alternative for those just starting out. Bottled beer is also easy to transport and share amongst friends – at least until your home bar is set up!
How to select your bottles
When it comes to selecting bottles you have a few options… plastic fizzy drink bottles, reusing commercial beer bottles or purchasing new bottles from your local homebrew store.
The most important thing to keep in mind when selecting your bottles is that they must be designed to take the pressure of carbonated drinks. They also need to be clean and sanitised.
These days, people typically bottle either into glass bottles or PET bottles, leaving the bottles at the same temperature they fermented at for 2 weeks before transferring the bottles to the fridge. And drinking them of course!
Reuse plastic fizzy drinks bottles
The cheapest option is reusing plastic fizzy drink bottles.
They come in a range of sizes, are designed for carbonated beverages and the labels are easy to remove.
The downside is that they are often clear, leaving your beer at risk of exposure to sunlight that reacts with hop compounds in the beer. This can cause ‘skunking’.
Reuse commercial bottles
Reusing commercial beer bottles can also be a good option if you have the bottles anyway. It’s simply a case of cleaning, sanitising and recapping them.
The downside is that labels can be difficult to remove and you may end up with bottles of all different shapes and sizes. Keep this in mind if consistency is important to you.
If you’re using glass bottles, we recommend using brown glass over clear glass. This will help preserve your beer’s shelf life. Make sure you thoroughly check any bottles for chips, scratches or imperfections and do not use bottles if they are damaged.
Purchase new bottles
Finally, you can purchase new bottles from your local homebrew store.
You can get bottles for capping which require bottle caps and a specialist ‘capper’. It’s easy to get a consistent look and you can use different colour caps for different beers.
You can also buy flip top glass bottles. These are easy to use and are reusable without the need to purchase caps each time.
The most accurate way to tell if bottle carbonation is complete when using glass bottles is to look at the bottom of the bottle. Check to see if the sediment has formed. If the sediment has formed, it is most likely that conditioning is complete.
Alternatively, you can use PET bottles. The great thing about PET bottles is that it is easy to tell when the beer is carbonated.
When you fill the bottle and put the cap on, you can squeeze the bottle and the walls will compress. However, when conditioning is complete, if you try to squeeze the bottle it will be very firm or may not be compressible at all.
How long to bottle condition?
Bottle conditioning or bottle carbonation is the process where we add extra sugar to the leftover beer yeast – that is already in the beer from fermentation – to add “fizz” to your beer.
The two key components to successful bottle conditioning are:
- Having yeast that is still ‘viable’(alive) in the beer
- Fermentable sugars in the beer
There are two typical ways that you can bottle condition:
Bottle with carbonation drops
This is where you fill your bottles straight from the fermenter and add a “carbonation sugar drop” to each bottle before capping.
Priming bucket with sugar
Priming is the brewer’s term for adding a set amount of sugar, either directly to your fermenter or individually to each bottle, after primary fermentation is complete.
The purpose of this is to provide the yeast with just enough sugar to undergo a small secondary fermentation. The beer will produce more CO2 in an environment where the gas can’t escape, therefore carbonating the beer.
CO2 is produced during primary fermentation but is mostly released through the airlock. This is why your beer is largely flat when it comes to bottling. It’s important to take into account the small amount of residual CO2 when calculating your priming sugar.
Batch priming is the term used to describe the technique of adding the full amount of priming sugar directly to your fermenter.
If you look at the diagram below, you can see that certain styles of beer require more or less carbonation. This is determined as volumes of CO2.
Priming sugar nomograph (How to Brew, John Palmer, 1999, Brewers Publications)
To work out how much sugar you need, draw a line from the temperature of your beer, through the desired volume of CO2 to determine the total amount of sugar to add.
Here is a rough guideline for the different beer styles:
- British Ales 1.5-2.0 oz
- Porter/Stout 1.7-2.3 oz
- Belgian Ales 1.9-2.4 oz
- American Ales 2.2-2.7 oz
- European Lagers 2.2-2.7 oz
- Belgian Lambic 2.4-2.8 oz
- American Wheat 2.7-3.3 oz
- German Wheat 3.3-4.5 oz
How to make a priming solution
To make up your priming sugar solution, boil a small amount of water (475 ml (16 fl oz) or 2 cups for 113 g/4 oz) and dissolve the required amount of sugar into this before allowing it to cool to the same temperature as your beer.
Boiling the water first is necessary to keep everything sanitary. Once this is cool either pour the solution into a separate bottling bucket (a fermenter bucket with a tap) and syphon your beer directly on top of it or else pour your priming solution into your fermenter and stir with a sanitised mixing paddle.
If you pour directly into your fermenter, don’t forget that you will need to let the beer settle again before bottling or else you will be transferring a lot of yeast and hop sediment.
Top Tips for bottling
As always… sanitation
It is vital that everything your beer will come into contact with on bottling day is clean and sanitary as the process of bottling can leave your beer largely exposed to bacteria and infection. Similarly, you should aim to avoid introducing oxygen into your beer as much as possible as this will reduce your beer’s shelf life. Avoid splashing or transferring beer more than is necessary.
Make sure that you clean and sanitise:
- Syphon or bottling wand
- Bottling bucket (if using one)
- Bottle capper (if using one)
If you open a bottle and it gushes everywhere, try another bottle. Most of the time it is just a single bottle that may have had an issue – that happens to us all. If its more than one bottle reviews your sanitation practices, but don’t dump the bottles. Set the bottles away somewhere and try them again in 6 months. Wild yeast and bacteria can develop some interesting flavours characters that may taste good, or at least will be interesting to try as they develop over time.
Be sure your fermentation is finished before bottling
Before you come to bottle always check the gravity of your beer with a hydrometer. You should get a stable reading over two days (eg 1.010 for 2 days).
If you take a reading and it has changed from the previous day, your beer is still fermenting and should not be bottled. This is extremely important as bottling beer that is still fermenting can lead to bottle bombs.
In some cases, the yeast can ‘wake up’ and eat more sugar than expected. Our in-house brewer Sam always puts his bottles into a large, thick garbage bag and ties the top closed. This makes clean-up so much easier if worse comes to worst.
A clean, empty dishwasher is a great friend
This tip is best suited if you’re using glass bottles.
Run your dishwater empty with detergent to clear any food and debris from the dishwasher. Then, load up your dishwasher with your bottles and run the dishwasher without a cleaner.
The dishwasher provides an easy backup that the bottles are cleaned and effectively sanitised by sustained heat.
And there you have it! A quick guide on how to bottle beer. Do you prefer bottling or kegging? Let us know in the comments below!