Every home brewer has some bottling nightmare stories to tell. From exploding bottles to flat beers, bottling seems to cause all home brewers some issues at some time.
Bottling your home brew can be a chore, with the collecting and cleaning of bottles however; don’t be discouraged as it is the last hurdle to overcome before you get to taste the fruits of your labour!
We often hear from customers in-store that they ‘used to home brew’ but stopped because ‘I couldn’t stand cleaning all of those damn bottles!’ Bottling is one of the most important stages of the home brew process and unless you make a move to kegging then it is a necessary evil.
Bottling is cheap and is the easiest way to dispense your home brew at home, or out and about with friends
Below is our guide to bottling your home brew. The stages we will cover include:
- Basic Equipment & Consumables
- Choosing the right bottles
- Cleaning bottles & bottling equipment
- Checking the beer prior to the bottle transfer
- Transferring beer to the bottle
- Adding Priming sugar for secondary fermentation
- Capping or Crowning the bottles
- Storing the bottles
1. Basic Equipment & Consumables
The following equipment is recommended to bottle your home brew:
- Beer Bottles (of course!)
- Little Bottler or syphon – A little bottler is a tube with a valve on the end that fits into the tap on your fermenter. It is the simplest and most efficient way to fill beer bottles. A syphon can also be used. They can be either auto (self-priming) with a tap (preferred) or just a plain length of tube (can get messy)
- Steriliser / Cleaner – We recommend Stericlean which is 90% Alkali salts and cleans and sterilises at the same time. We also sell many sterilisers / cleaners such as sodium metabisulphite, Morgan’s Lo Suds, Morgan’s Sanitize, Phosphoric sanitiser, no rinse sanitise etc.
- A bottle brush – to scrub the inside of the bottles
- Carbonation Drops or Dextrose (the fermentable sugar for the secondary fermentation)
- A sugar Scoop (if not using Carbonation Drops) to measure the Dextrose dosage of each bottle
- Crown seals (if using crown top or twist top style bottles)
- Crown Sealer or Capper – Either a hand capper or a bench capper. We highly recommend the use of a good quality bench capper.
Additional equipment that can make the job easier includes:
- A bottle Tree or Fast Rack – these items assist with draining / drying bottles as well as storage of empty bottles (very space efficient)
- A bottle rinser and base – makes cleaning / rinsing easier
2. Choosing the Right Bottles
The choice of beer bottles is important for the storage of your home brew. Most home brewers collect used beer bottles as they are readily available and they are the most economical method. Aussie Brewmakers sell beer bottles however, most collect their own.
- Used beer bottles in 375ml and 750ml sizes
- PET beer bottles with screw caps (typically 740ml sold in a box of 15)
- Grolsch style, flip top lid bottles (typically 500ml or 700ml sold in boxes of 12)
For the purposes of this guide we will assume used beer bottles are being used.
For a typical brew of 23L you will need 60 x 375ml ‘stubbies’ or 30 x 750ml ‘long necks’
The most prized used beer bottles are the older style ‘long necks’ that have thick glass. These typically have crown tops and when they were made (70’s and 80’s) they would have been re-filled by commercial breweries. The thick glass makes them stronger and less likely to break during the capping process. They can be readily found on sites such as eBay from home brewers who are selling off their gear.
Modern used beer bottles tend to be quite thin (they are designed to be recycled) and most come with a screw tops. Care needs to be taken in crowning these bottles as they can break quite easily. This is why we recommend the use of a bench capper over a hand capper (that is hit with a mallet or hammer). Both crown and screw top bottles can be effectively sealed with crown seals.
It is important to try and use brown beer bottles as they protect your beer. Beer does not like sunlight and will degrade quickly if exposed. Clear beer bottles can be used however; care needs to be taken to store them in a box or way from sunlight.
3. Cleaning Bottles & Bottling Equipment
Now for the worst part - It is absolutely essential that beer bottles, crown seals and any equipment that will come into contact with the beer during the bottling process is thoroughly cleaned and sterilised. Any dirt or bacteria in the bottles will potentially destroy the beer over its storage period.
The easiest way to clean beer bottles is to fill a large container with hot water and your chosen cleaning solution and then ‘sink’ the bottles for a soak. If the bottles are dirty then use a bottle brush to scrub the inside of each one. Following this, rinse the bottles thoroughly and invert them to drain. Wash the crown seals and equipment being used at the same time.
If the cleaning solution you use is not also a sanitiser, then you will also need to sterilise the bottles. The easiest way to do this is by using a no-rinse sanitiser such as Morgan’s Sanitize diluted in a misting bottle (available cheaply from hardware stores and supermarkets). Just ‘mist’ the inside of each bottle, invert to drain and you are done.
A good tip to make cleaning bottles easier is to ensure you rinse your beer bottles immediately after drinking from them. Home brew typically leaves sediment in the bottom of bottles which is a by-product of the secondary fermentation process (which carbonates the beer). If this sediment is left to dry in the bottle it can be quite difficult to clean next time you want to use them.
4. Checking the Beer Prior to the Bottle Transfer
It is essential that you ensure primary fermentation has completely finished in the fermenter prior to bottling your beer. If you bottle beer that is still fermenting you will get the dreaded ‘beer bottle bomb’. Exploding beer bottles are extremely dangerous and can cause serious injury, as well as being very messy.
To check you beer you need to check the specific gravity with a hydrometer or refractometer. The specific gravity needs to be the same for at least two consecutive days prior to bottling. The hydrometer or refractometer is also a good tool to estimate your home brewed beer ABV (alcohol by volume). Instructions to calculate this can be found on our ‘Brew Record’ or in our Instruction Manuals.
Prior to bottling it is also recommended to clear the beer either by allowing sufficient time to pass post primary fermentation or via ‘cold crashing’ the wort or via the use of beer finings.
5. Transferring the Beer to the Bottle
Once you are sure primary fermentation has been completed and you have cleared your beer it is time to transfer it to the bottles.
Care needs to be taken in transferring the beer from the fermenter to the bottle. You want to avoid oxygenating the beer as much as possible. The use of a Little Bottler will reduce the exposure of the beer to air and will also reduce any foaming issue. Basically, the little bottler attaches to the tap of the fermenter and has a long tube with a valve on the end. You slide the bottle up the Little Bottler until the bottom of the bottom hits the valve, thereby opening it. The bottle will start to fill. Once the bottle is full slide the bottle down and the flow will stop.
When bottling beer you need to fill the bottles completely, only leaving about 1.5 to 2cm at the top. This will aid in ensuring your beer becomes fully carbonated. Large headspace will pressurise and equalise with CO2, which means less overall carbonation in your beer.
6. Adding Priming Sugar for Secondary Fermentation
Once the bottles are filled with beer it is time to add the priming sugar to the bottles.
The addition of priming sugar to the beer bottle provides the ‘food’ for the residual / dormant yeast to become active again and secondary ferment your beer. This process will increase your ABV by circa. 0.5% as well as produce CO2 (carbon dioxide). The CO2 being released via the secondary fermentation has nowhere to go in a sealed bottle and therefore remains in the beer – thereby carbonating it.
The amount of priming sugar added to each bottle is critical and will be dependent on the size of bottle used. Too much sugar and the bottle will explode at worst or be over carbonated and foam when opened. Too little sugar and you will have a flat, lifeless beer.
The easiest way to ensure the correct dosage is to use Carbonation Drops. These look like lollies and are a set measure. One drop is used for a 375ml ‘stubbie’ and two drops for a 750ml ‘long neck’. They are basically hardened, precise dosage of Dextrose.
Another way to ensure the correct dosage is to use a sugar scoop and Dextrose. The sugar scoop will be double sided and will have a measure for a 375ml bottle and a measure for a 750ml bottle. The use of a sugar scoop and Dextrose is a more economical method than buying Carbonation Drops however, you are trading economy for ease of use.
The final method is to bulk prime your beer by dissolving a set amount of dextrose in hot water and then stirring it into the fermenter prior to bottling. We do not typically recommend this method as the calculation for different styles of beer is quite complex and you also run the risk of disturbing the trub (the dead yeast cells and hops / malt residue) at the bottom of the fermenter when stirring the mix in. This will result in cloudy beer.
Please note, do not use raw or processed white sugar as a priming sugar. These sugars will change the flavour profile of the beer.
7. Capping or Crowning the Bottles
Once the bottles are filled and the priming sugar has been added you are almost done - crown sealing time.
Ensure the crowns are clean and sterile and apply the crowns with enough force with either a hand capper or a bench capper (preferred) to ensure they are securely crimped to the bottle. Turn each bottle upside down to ensure they have a good seal.
The correct amount of pressure required to crown a bottle takes a bit of experience to master. Too much pressure and the bottle will break, too little and it will leak or not carbonate.
We recommend practising crown sealing on some empty bottles or water filled bottles to ensure you are using the correct pressure (saves wasting the precious amber if you are not doing it right!).
Once the bottles are capped invert them 2 times to mix the priming sugar into the beer.
8. Storing Bottles
You are all done (except for the clean-up of course)
All the hard work is now done and it is time to store the bottles away for a week to 2 weeks somewhere warm and dark for them to secondary ferment and carbonate (also called bottle conditioning).
We recommend storing the bottles somewhere safe in tubs or boxes with lids. This is to ensure that if any do explode glass will not be flying everywhere.
After 2 weeks it is time to sample a bottle – put it in the fridge to cool and then hopefully if all has worked to plan there should be a good ‘fizz’ when the crown seal is removed. If not, store the bottles a bit longer or maybe move them somewhere warmer to continue secondary fermenting.
Home brewed beer does improve with age. Although good to drink as soon as secondary fermentation is complete many styles of beer can improve with extended bottle conditioning. Problem is, most people don’t have the patience!
That is it – bottling is a bit of a chore but a necessary evil– it is a good one to rope your mates into if they tend to deplete your home brew stocks.
If bottling does become too much of a chore – don’t stop home brewing your beer – talk to us about a kegging setup!