Crafting IRL: Bottling

Last week I left off with my beer just starting fermentation (which was May 29th). Checking on the fermenter a few hours later, I was seeing a few bubble in the airlock already. This is good, the bubbles are CO2 and it means that fermentation has started. At this point, things get pretty easy: check on the fermenter once a day or two, make sure the temperature is reading around 70F and see if the airlock is still producing bubbles.

Some time between 7 and 10 days the fermentation is usually done. In this case by the following Sunday, there no bubbles in the airlock but my weekend was a bit busy, so I put off bottling until the following weekend (June 12th). It’s not a good idea to leave beer in the primary fermenter longer than two weeks because the beer can start to pickup astringent flavors from the yeast at the bottom of the bucket. Some beers require secondary fermentation or just additional time, and that’s when people will siphon over to a secondary fermenter (usually glass). Making a low gravity, low alcohol, stout is pretty forgiving though.

Preparation

Preparation for a bottling day is pretty easy, but does take some time. The big thing is sanitizing all the bottles. Five gallons of beer is 640 fluid ounces, that’s 54 12 fl. oz. bottles. I’m a lazy brewer (of course) so I use the high temp wash with sanitizing rinse on my dishwasher and heated dry. It takes nearly two hours to run, but I’ve had good luck using that method with prior batches and it’s the least amount of work I can manage. Of course, this is just sanitizing not cleaning. If you’re starting with new bottles purchased form a homebrew store then you’re probably okay. If you’re re-using bottles, make sure they’re clean first. I’ve developed the habit of cleaning and rinsing them out as I drink them, so when it comes time to bottle all I have to manage is sanitization.

The other way I’ve found to reduce the amount of work involved is to “keg” part of the beer. I put that in quotes because I’m not talking about a real CO2 keg. I use a Party Pig. Basically this is a 2.5 gallon mini-keg that’s self pressurizing but doesn’t require a lot of extra equipment and fits easily in a regular refrigerator. So I only need to sanitize, fill, and cap 20 bottles instead of 54. While the bottles sanitize in the dishwasher, the Pig is plastic and won’t handle the heat, so I sanitize that along with the siphon, bottling bucket, bottle caps, and bottling wand.

Speaking of sanitizing, I don’t think I talked much about that in my brewing post. I use a product called Star San from Five Star Chemicals. It’s non-caustic and no-rinse, so it’s really easy to work with. The solution is five gallons of water to 1 oz of Star San.

My normal process is to make the solution in the bottling bucket, so it sanitizes as I mix it. I have a large wallpaper tray that I pour some of the solution into so I can soak the bottle caps, bottling wand and siphon. The Pig also gets dunked in the bottling bucket to sanitize. The solution only has to be in contact for about 60 seconds in order to do it’s job.

Besides sanitizing everything, the last bit of preparation is the priming solution. This is 5 oz of sugar dissolved in 2 cups of water (boiled for 10 minutes to sanitize it). The priming solution is important, because the beer won’t have much sugar left that the yeast can ferment. Homebrewed beer is bottle conditioned, this means that it is carbonated in the bottle by yeast. Most store bought beer is pasteurized and force carbonated. The priming solution is added to the beer during bottling and will wake the yeast up that are in the bottle and start the fermentation process again. Since the bottle is sealed, unlike the fermenter, all of the CO2 made during fermentation will stay trapped in the bottle, carbonating the beer.

Bottling

The first step is to add the priming solution to the bottling bucket and then siphon the beer from the fermenter. The siphoning process will mix the two together while oxygenating the beer as little as possible. It will also help separate the beer from the trub, which is byproducts leftover from fermentation. I siphon a bit off into a glass (see photo on the right). At this point, it is warm and flat, but it is beer and this is a chance to see how it tastes. Normally, I only drink just a little bit to see if there’s anything off about it, so I can save my self the effort of bottling bad beer. This one turned out good though; I drank the whole glass.

Once the bottling bucket is filled, I set it up to siphon from and start filling. The Party Pig is first. Once the Pig is full and pressurized, I attach the bottling wand to the siphon tube and start on the bottles.

Bottling wands are great, they control the flow of beer with a small spring valve on their tip. To fill, you  just put the wand in the bottle and push it against the bottom to start filling. When the beer gets to the top of the bottle, remove the wand, and it leaves exactly enough head space in the bottle.

What’s head space? That’s the small bit of empty air space in the neck of the bottle. Too much air in the bottle and the beer won’t carbonate. Too little air and the beer may over carbonate and explode (seriously search for beer bottle bombs).

For this batch I’m using a combination of 16oz swing tops and 12oz regular bottles. Grab an empty bottle, insert the wand and press down, wait until the beer is almost at the top, pull the wand out, and then cap it or seal it (if it’s a swing top). Once I finished, I had twelve 16oz swing tops, a six pack + two of 12 oz bottles, and a 2.5 gallon Party Pig of milk stout ready to store away and carbonate.

I don’t mess with labels, as far as I’m concerned that’s more work to both during bottling and again during cleanup once the beer is gone. For capped bottles I write the batch number on the cap with a Sharpie. For swing tops and my pig, I have circular labels that I stick on the lids and mark with the batch number. Much easier and no cleanup.

The carbonation process usually takes about two weeks, after which point I can start drinking them. Stouts really should be left alone for another two weeks after that to age a bit, but it’s not absolutely required.

Like wine, bottle conditioned beer will change a bit over time since there is live yeast in the bottle. This is especially important to remember when you pour your beer. You don’t want to drink the yeast cake that forms in the bottom of the bottle. Yeast is a natural laxative.

I have more pictures on a Picasa album.I’ll have at least one more post next week, I’ll be tasting the finished product soon. As always, questions are welcome, and if you do end up trying to make beer or wine let me know how it turns out.

4 Comments

  1. Thanks for this informative post! It’s very interesting, and a somewhat discomfiting reminder that so much about beer is the byproducts of these tiny gassy living micro-organisms 😛

    • BrianNo Gravatar says:

      That’s pretty much all any fermented beverage is at a basic level: sugar -> alcohol and CO2. Just varies by the amount of sugar, type of yeast, and whatever other ingredients are present.