While bottling beer is a relatively simple process, there are some aspects that can be a source of confusion when faced with bottling your first brew. This article describes one proven technique: the use of a bottling bucket and a simple calculation that lets you plan the amount of carbonation you want. Carbonation is probably the final thing that you have control over when making your own beers. You can decide, with a fair degree of accuracy, the level of carbonation you want, whether that is to suit a general style or your own preferences.
What do you need
There are some things that are pretty obvious, but like any good step-by-step guide I'll list them anyway!
- Crown caps
- Priming agent (dextrose/glucose, table sugar or DME)
- A fermenting bucket (hereon referred to as the Bottling Bucket)
- Syphon tubing
- Bottling wand
- Bottle brush
- Sanitising solution (no-rinse is an advantage)
- Bottle drainer (if you have one)
- A tray
A Note on Cleaning and Sanitising
Before we move on, just a note on cleaning bottles. As with every stage of the brewing process, cleaning and sanitisation are very important. The last thing you want is to have brought your beer to the final hurdle and have it fall due to sloppy cleaning processes. Make sure your bottles are physically well cleaned before you move on to sanitising them on bottling day. I tend to rinse out or wash bottles shortly after they've been emptied of their contents, so I don't have to spend ages with a bottle brush on the day.
First Steps: Preparation
Prepare your sanitising solution in the bottling bucket. This way you are already sanitising it while sanitising the other bits. In this example I am using Starsan, an excellent no-rinse sanitiser that needs only a couple of minutes contact time to be effective. There are alternatives, including the bleach and vinegar mix which is an effective and cheap option.
The use of Bleach and Vinegar
As described in this article, measure out 19 litres of water and add two tablespoons (30ml) of thin, unscented household bleach, followed by two tablespoons of white vinegar. DO NOT MIX THEM NEAT! Mixing the bleach and vinegar neat will cause the creation of Chlorine Gas. Always add them to the water, rinsing the spoon in between.
If you are using a bottle drainer, this is the first thing that needs to be dropped into the sanitising solution. For either Starsan or the Bleach/Vinegar solutions a contact time of three minutes is plenty. Once the drainer is assembled you can start submerging your bottles in the solution, ensuring that they are filled with solution. Leave for about three minutes, and hang them on the drainer. Repeat as necessary!
Preparing the Priming Agent
While you are soaking the bottles, this is a good time to prepare your priming agent. In this example I am using Dextrose, which you can purchase in most supermarkets, sometimes as Glucose. But how much should you use?
This is going to depend on the following factors:
How much beer will you be priming?
Clearly the more beer you have to prime, the more priming agent you will need.
How much carbonation do you want?
Carbonation is measured in Litres of Gas per Litre of Liquid. Meaning, if you have a litre of carbonated beer and took all the CO2 out of it, the volume of the gas is the measure of the level of carbonation. For example, a low-carbonated ale might have a carbonation level of 0.9, while a Weissbier, which is usually fairly highly carbonated, might have a level around 3.0. Quite a range! I usually aim for about 2.2 for most ales, particularly the likes of Pale Ales, IPAs and even porters. I just like it that way, so it's all personal preference. If you can't decide, a resource I will point you to a little later might help clear it up.
What will you be priming it with?
This makes a difference as not every substance will ferment the same way. Dextrose will ferment out about 95%, so less will be needed than if you are using Dry Malt Extract (DME), which may only ferment out by 75%. Table sugar will ferment 100%. I tend to use Dextrose, but have used DME also.
What temperature is the beer at?
While your beer was fermenting it was producing CO2, and some will be left. The amount of residual CO2 is dependant on the temperature of your beer, with cooler beers holding onto more than warmer beers.
Don't worry, I'm not going to suggest using a pen and paper to work it all out. There are many online resources, or brewing software, that will work this out for you. One such online resource is this Carbonation Calculator. This is handy as it provides a dropdown menu of beer styles as defined by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) along with a range of carbonation levels that they find typical to the styles they describe. Once you pick a level of carbonation you want, just type it in and fill in the other values. Most of them are pretty obvious, but if you are using Dextrose/Glucose, this is what they call Corn Sugar (in Germany it's called Grape Sugar, just to confuse me!).
Although the default units are US-based, you can override them to use Litres and Centigrade/Celcius by specifying L for litres and C for Centigrade.
In this case I am bottling a Porter, and I have decided I want a carbonation level of 2.2 volumes of CO2. I reckon on getting 21L of beer off the trub in the fermenter, and it is at 20C. I am using Corn Sugar (Dextrose!). When I hit the calculate button it tells me I need 113g of Dextrose.
I weigh this out into a small pot and add 250ml of water and set it to simmer on the cooker for 10 minutes. You can add more or less water if you like, but make sure you use a tight fitting lid, and do not walk away and leave it on full heat with the lid off. Just like cooking anything, this can evaporate away and leave you with a sticky mess in your pot, at best. This needs to simmer for 10 minutes to be sure it is sanitised. Once 10 minutes is up, turn off the heat and leave the pot sitting to cool somewhere safe, with the lid on.
In the meantime you will have been continuing to sanitise your bottles in small batches. Once they are all hung on the drainer immerse your syphon tube (ensuring it is filled with sanitising solution), the bottling wand and crown caps if you are using them. After a few mintres remove them, hanging the tube and bottling wand to drain, and placing the caps on a clean piece of kitchen roll. Then pop the lid on your bottling bucket and give it a good shake to be sure the complete interior is sanitised. After a few minutes pour off the sanitising solution and let the bucket drain.
This point is a good time to take a sample of your beer to record the final gravity if you have not already done so. But it's also a good time to take a sample to taste, before the bottling storm begins!
Priming your Beer
You are almost ready to bottle, but first you'll prime the beer. Pour the priming agent into the sanitised bottling bucket. If it's not 100% cool, don't worry. Then, either using standard syphoning techniques, or the tap on your fermenter, slowly rack the beer onto the priming agent. You want to avoid splashing as you do not want air mixing into your beer at this stage as it may cause oxidation, resulting in a stale, cardboardy flavour.
Once all your beer is transferred pop the bottling bucket up on a height and, if using a tap, transfer the end of the tube from the fermeter to the bottling bucket tap, and attach the bottling wand to the other end, hanging it so it's not touching any unsanitised surfaces.
Why use the Bottle Bucket?
There are two good reasons to use a bottling bucket over the alternative of priming each bottle individually with a teaspoon of sugar and racking directly from your fermenter. One is that it ensures that your ratio of priming agent to beer is constant for every bottle of beer, as it has been batch mixed. Secondly, you are racking the beer off the trub material in the bottom of your fermenter. While you might be doing this when racking directly from your fermenter to the bottle, quite often you lose concentration when juggling bottles, syphons and buckets, so doing the racking off the trub in one step means you are less likely to stir up trub and get more sediment in your bottles than you want.
Bottling your Beer
Nearly there! Place your tray (a baking tray is ideal) on the ground and arrange drained bottles on it. Place your bottling wand into the first bottle and start the flow of primed beer, either by syphoning it, or just opening the tap. The beauty of the bottling wand is that the valve on the end means you can keep the flow open all the time. Fill each bottle in turn, leaving about an inch or so of space. Usually filling until it reaches the top is good, as when you remove the bottling want the level will drop to a perfect state.
Once you've filled all the bottles on your tray, hang the bottling wand again and transfer the bottles to a table, and restock your tray with empties. If you like, you can place the crawn caps loosly on top of the filled bottles, or close the swing tops if you are using them.
Working in batches, you will fill all the bottles in no time. After that, simply use your crown capper to seal the caps. As a final step, I like to fill the sink with water and just rinse off any overspill residue to avoid sticky bottles and any potential for mould to grow. And as a final final step, I sometimes have to mop the kitchen :)
Conditioning Your Beer
You need to leave your bottled beer in a location with a temperature of around 18-20C, just like fermenting. Carbonation takes time, but how much time? You will usually have reasonable carbonation after a week, and it's nice to sample a bottle then, just to see how it's going. After two weeks it is probably as carbonated as it is going to be, but depending on your beer, it may or may not be fully conditioned. A Wheat beer is usually best young, while a heavier beer like a Belgian style Triple will benefit from several weeks, if not months of conditioning to allow the flavours to mature.
So there it is. A fairly simple process that can take some time, but is the last crucial step before you can sit back and reap the rewards of your hard labours :)