Thursday, February 13, 2014

Beginners Guide to Bottling Homebrew

Now that your beer has finished fermenting, how do you store it? There are two paths you could take, kegging or bottling. If you are starting out, you're most likely going to be using the cheaper option of bottling. How do you get your beer in the bottle and what must you do to ensure your beer gets carbonated?
Bottling Beer 101
One of the brews we bottled
Empty Bottles & Sanitation
Priming Sugar & Carbonation
Filling & Capping


To bottle homebrew in beer bottles, you'll need a few pieces of equipment:
Filling beer bottles autosiphon
Filling the bottles

Empty Bottles and Sanitation

Acquiring Bottles

You can't bottle beer in bottles without the bottles themselves. For a 5 gallon batch, you'll need approximately 48 empty bottles to do so. Where can you get empty bottles? The easiest way to acquire them is through the beer you drink yourself. Other ways to get bottles include asking friends, buying empty ones from homebrew shops, or (gasp) taking them from a recycling bin.

If you are saving your own bottles (my recommended path), there are a few things you should be doing. First off, do not save screw cap bottles. Screw cap bottles are those with twist off caps, usually found on bottles sold by breweries with multi-million dollar advertising campaigns. A normal bottle capper is not compatible with them (you need a more expensive and more space consuming old school bench capper).

Bottles prior to cleaning
Get a good rotation of bottles going

A second guideline is to make a habit out of washing out your beer bottle after you pour your beer. Do this before you start drinking so you do not forget to do this later. (If you are one of those people who drink out of the bottle, go buy a nice drinking glass and start enjoying beer the way it was meant to be enjoyed.) The reason you do this is because liquid and yeast particles left behind in the bottle promote the growth of mold. You do not want to try cleaning mold out of the bottles when bottling day comes around because most of the time it will not come out of the bottle.

Buying clean, empty bottles from a homebrew store is the easiest and least labor intensive way to deal with, but they are very expensive. It costs nearly half the cost of the beer and even more for shipping if you order online. Buying bottles with beer already in them is more economical.

Having a friend help you gather bottles might be the easiest way to support your bottle collection. Just make sure the friend treats the bottles he/she gives you with the same scrutiny as the way you handle yours. (also be sure they aren't giving you screw top bottles).

The most controversial way to gather bottles is to loot a recycling bin. I know you might be yelling at me now for suggesting such a dirty and potentially illegal way (depending on your location) to gather them, but with enough cleaning, they can be made as sterile as new glass bottles. In Canada, bottles are recycled in this way, so don't think of it as taboo. Just be careful and selective when looking for bottles; some people insert nasty surprises down the necks of bottles.

Another thing about bottles, be mindful of the color. Brown glass is the best as it prevents most light from entering the bottle. Even though it might not be the prettiest looking color, it keeps hops from breaking down and spoiling better than other colors. So if you insist on using green, clear, or (even worse) blue glass to bottle your beer, choose one that you plan to drink quickly.

Sanitation & Cleanliness

Now that you have collected enough beer bottles, it is time to get them ready for filling. This can be the most labor intensive part of the job, depending on if you have a dishwasher or not. The way I go through basic cleaning is to fill up a plastic tote with all the bottles and move it to my bathtub. I fill up the tote with the hottest water possible and add in a bit of bleach. Once the bin is filled with water, let it sit for about 10 - 15 minutes to allow the bleach and water to work.
Cleaning bottles in bathtub
Cleaning and delabeling bottles is a bit labor intensive
Once the water is cool enough to grab bottles out of, start by removing any bottles which the labels fell off first. Some labels fall off the bottle instantly, while others can be a pain to remove. Now is the time to bring out the vegetable peeler (or steel wool) to do the removal for you. Scrape the labels off the sides of the bottles and discard them. Then rinse out the bottle with water from the tub to remove any bleach residue and to make sure any mold growing inside the bottle is out. Check to see the interior of the bottle has no debris or mold on the inside before approving it for use. If there is mold stuck to the bottom, recycle it. It is not worth the trouble to try to get the mold to come off (This is why we rinse out our bottles before we store them).
Empty Bottles ready to fill
Empty and cleaned bottles ready to fill
Once the bottles are clean, now it is time to sanitize them. I personally recommend Star San; all you need to do with that is make a solution of it in a spray bottle, spray some into each bottle, swish it around, and let it dry. If you have a dishwasher, place the bottles upside down in the top rack and use the sanitary rinse cycle. You can hang bottles in a bottling tree or improvised drying rack to speed up the evaporation process.

Priming Sugar for Carbonation

Now that your bottles are drying, it's time to get your beer ready to bottle. We are going to be bottle conditioning our beer. This means it will become naturally carbonated by the yeast still in the beer. For carbonation to occur, we need to give them some sugar. There are two methods to add in the sugar. One of these ways is to use priming sugar. They sell packets of this at homebrew stores or online. To prepare a solution, start by dissolving a whole packet in two cups of water in a saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil. Turn off the heat once the mixture boils. Allow this to cool for about 20 minutes. Once you are ready, pour the priming sugar solution into your bottling bucket and rack your beer from the fermenter onto of it. From there, move your bottling bucket into position and wait about 20 more minutes for the sugar to equilibrate.
Moving beer to bottling bucket
Racking our dry hopped beer onto the priming sugar
The alternative to priming sugar is a product called carbonation drops. I would describe them as sugar cough drops. To use these, place one drop into each bottle before filling. The advantage to using these over priming sugar is that the bottling sugar is more evenly distributed. The disadvantages are the cost and the time it takes for the drop to dissolve in the bottle. It might take a few extra days before the beer is ready compared to regular priming sugar.

Filling and Capping

Getting your beer in the bottle

Now comes the fun part of bottling, filling and capping the beer. You should have your bottling bucket in an elevated position above where the bottles are going to be filled. There are two different techniques to filling the bottles depending on whether your bucket has a spigot or not. 
Bottling bucket in position
Bottling day pre-bottling bucket
The first technique involves using your autosiphon to fill the bottles. Once your bottling bucket is ready, open the lid and insert the siphon like you would normally to rack your beer. Grab the bottom end of the hose and kink it. Start the end of the siphon up top and allow bottle to fill. Control the flow of beer entering the bottle carefully; you want to fill the bottle to have about 3/4" of head space. If you under the bottle, add more. If the bottle is overfilled, pour some back into the bottling bucket. Once the bottle is filled, kink the hose to prevent spills, and move onto the next bottle.
Filling bottles with autosiphon
Tedious and very easy to spill.
The second method is to use a bottling bucket with a spigot. If you bought a homebrew kit, this is the bottle with the hole drilled into the bottom. I personally attach a small piece of tubing to the end of the spigot to allow for better control when bottling. Filling this way is as simple as moving the bottle under the nozzle and opening and closing the valve. It is much easier to fill this way than with the autosiphon.
Filling bottles with spigot
Super Easy.
If you want to build your own bottling bucket like how we did, they aren't too hard to build. Drilling the hole to fit the spigot might be the hardest part if you don't have any holesaws though. There are two choices of bottling spigot to use, a white one, and an "Italian" style red one. Alternatively, premade bottling buckets can also be purchased, but tend to be expensive.

Note: when you are filling, there might be some foaming from inside the bottle as the bottle fills up. This usually happens when Star San is used to clean the bottles. There is no need to be alarmed, as this foam will do nothing to you or the beer.


When I tell friends I bottle my beer, one of the most asked questions I get is "How do you get the cap on the bottle?". It's really easy to use a bottle capper. There are two models of cappers, a black one and a red one (I use the black one). As for caps for your bottles, homebrew shops sell a wide variety of colors and designs, from black and gold, to American flag design. You could also order custom caps from various online retailers.
Uncapped Bottle
Place cap
Using the Bottle Capper
Crimp cap
Using a bottle capper is as simple as placing the bottle cap onto the bottle, aligning the capper with the bottle cap, and crimping the edges down to seal it shut. Here is a video demonstration.

You're almost ready to drink your homebrew now! The airtight seal will contain any carbon dioxide the yeast produce from the bottling sugar, carbonating your beer. This can take anywhere from 7 days to a whole month, depending on beer style. Generally the longer the beer is bottle conditioned, the more head it will have. Place your bottles in a dark place out of direct sunlight to prevent any photochemical reactions from occurring in the bottle. Hop compounds are isomerized by sunlight and can cause the beer to skunk.

If you have any questions regarding bottling or the items needed to bottle, feel free to ask in the comment section below. 

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