Welcome to the final installment of the how to brew your own beer series. So far we’ve talked about what kind of equipment you need in order to brew, how to brew beer using a basic extract recipe kit, and today we need to talk about bottling your creation. While we’re going to talk about bottling your beer today, I also want to let you know that this is only one of the ways to prepare and store your beer. A lot of people end up moving on to kegging their own beer which can save a lot of time and make it very convenient for serving at home, but it’s also a little more costly and requires some special equipment. Since we’re looking to frugally brew some beer the best option to start with is with standard bottles.
We also need to establish what bottling actually accomplishes. Not only does it make your beer easy to store in single serving size bottles, but it adds the carbonation that beer needs. If you’ve tasted your beer so far in your fermenter you probably noticed that while it tastes like beer, it’s flat. The fizz you get from carbonation is created by carbon dioxide that is dissolved into the solution. To do this, we need to transfer the beer into a sealed container and introduce something that will create the carbon dioxide. The good news is that the yeast you used to make your beer also makes carbon dioxide as a byproduct so there’s really little that has to be done. But since your yeast have already converted all of the fermentable sugar during fermentation we need to introduce a little more sugar when we bottle so that they can crate just enough carbon dioxide to make the perfect beer. We’ll talk about that a little more later on.
Bottling is pretty easy, but it does require a few specialty items. If you purchased a complete brewing equipment kit then chances are you already have everything you need to bottle your first batch of beer. At the very minimum, this is what you’re going to need:
- Approximately 48-54 twelve ounce beer bottles for a 5 gallon batch of beer. You may also use about 25 bombers (22 oz. bottles). Any bottle you use should be regular pry-off tops and not twist-off tops.
- Enough new bottle caps to cap your bottles.
- Bottle capper. Most kits come with a standard inexpensive wing capper, but there are others that work fine as well.
- 5 ounces of corn sugar. Again, this usually comes with every ingredient kit so you should have already received a bag with the correct amount.
- Bottling bucket and/or some siphon tubing.
- Sanitizing solution. Remember, anything that touches your beer after the boil must be sanitized!
- A beer to enjoy during the bottling session.
As I mentioned in the post that talks about equipment, most kits you buy will come with everything you need already, but if you’re piecing together your own equipment then it’s good to make sure you have at least what is listed above. In this example I’ll be showing you how to bottle with a bottling bucket, a bottling wand, and a basic wing capper.
There is no reason to buy bottles. Your local or online brewing supply store will certainly sell you empty bottles, but that’s wasting money. There are two easy ways to get the bottles you need. First, just save the bottles from the beer you or your friends drink. Once you clean them and remove the labels they are just fine to use. The other thing you can do is hit up your local restaurant or bar that serves beer and ask if you can take some empties off their hands. Some will gladly give them away and others might charge you the deposit amount (5 or 10 cents per bottle).
Just as a reminder, you want brown beer bottles with the non twist-off tops. The twist tops don’t always seal with a pressed on cap properly. And the brown glass is important because UV light skunks your beer. The brown bottles will block most of the harmful light making sure your beer tastes as fresh coming out as it did going in. Clear or green bottles will work, but you’d have to be very careful to make sure they are always stored in a dark location. I personally just stick to brown bottles so that it’s one less thing to worry about.
Cleaning and Removing the Labels
So, you’ve acquired the necessary bottles but you’ve just realized that taking the labels off is nearly impossible. Don’t worry, I have an easy trick that will remove almost all of the labor. Here’s what you need:
That’s it. You just need some Oxiclean. You will see a bottle of Goo-Gone in the background, but that’s not needed. That’s what I tried using when I first started and had no idea there was an easier way. With just some basic Oxiclean you can have your labels removed in no time with virtually no effort. Not only that, but it’s the perfect cleaner for your bottles which is essential when bottling your beer.
The easiest way to do this is to take half of a scoop or so of Oxiclean and put it in a sink full of warm water. Then, you just need to take your bottles and let them soak in the sink. Make sure you hold the bottles under the water until they fill up so they sink. Then just let them soak for an hour or longer. The longer they soak, the easier the labels come off. Here’s what the bottles look like in the sink after a little soak.
You see that bottle in the foreground? The label has actually removed itself from the bottle just by sitting in the water. All that’s left on the bottle is some of the adhesive residue that rinses off with a little rubbing. So, once your bottles have been soaking and the labels are easily coming off, just turn on the faucet and rinse any of the adhesive left on the bottle and rinse them out real good. I keep a sponge or SOS pad handy for the occasional stubborn labels. The best part is that you only have to do this once and the bottles can be reused forever.
Making Sure Your Beer is Ready to Bottle
You can’t just bottle your beer whenever you want. It has to be ready. What that means is the fermentation has to be complete. The fermentation process gives off carbon dioxide so if you put your beer into bottles before the fermentation has stopped, you could end up with exploding bottles due to over carbonation. That is dangerous and clearly a waste of good beer. So, to make sure your fermentation is complete and ready to be bottled you need your trusty hydrometer. This is the only tool you have that can tell you that your fermentation is complete.
After a few weeks when you expect your fermentation to be completed you’ll want to take a few hydrometer samples. Remember, a hydrometer measures the specific gravity of the liquid. Dense liquids have a higher reading than less dense liquids, and alcohol is less dense than water. Over time your hydrometer reading will decrease in value as the dense sugars are converted to lighter alcohol during the fermentation. Once your hydrometer readings stop decreasing in value it’s safe to assume that there is nothing left for the yeast to convert and the fermentation is over. You typically would like to see the same hydrometer reading for a few consecutive days. If you’ve taken a few samples and see no further changes and your readings are close to what the recipe calls for, you should be ready to bottle.
Here’s a picture of my hydrometer sample before bottling. Excuse the bubbles, but after I got those to settle the reading came out to about 1.008. Not only is the hydrometer good for checking on the progress of your fermentation, but it can help you estimate the alcohol content of your beer. There’s a simple calculation you can use: (starting gravity – final gravity) x 131 = alcohol content by volume. For this particular beer I had a starting gravity of 1.055 and a final gravity of 1.008. So doing the math I get (1.055 – 1.008) x 131 = 6.16% ABV.
Now that we’re sure our beer is ready to be bottled it’s time to sanitize everything. Remember, now that we’re past the boiling phase of the beer making process everything that comes in contact with your beer needs to be sanitized to minimize the risk of contamination from wild bacteria or yeast. So, we need to sanitize the bottling bucket, bottles, caps, and any tubing equipment that will be used to siphon the beer.
The easiest way to do this is to mix up a 3-4 gallon batch of Star San solution in a spare bucket. We can then use this bucket to dip all of our equipment in and even use for sanitizing the bottles.To start, I’ve went ahead and dumped in all of my small equipment right into the bucket.
Obviously, some of the larger and rigid items won’t extend all the way into the liquid so you can just use a sponge or something soaked with the sanitizer solution to wipe everything down. For the siphon tubing I actually just create a brief siphon and let the solution run through the tubing for 15 or 20 seconds. And don’t forget to sanitize the bottling bucket! Just put a few inches of the liquid in the bucket and use a sponge or something to wipe down the insides and then let it drain out through the spigot. I don’t have it pictured here, but I also take a small bowl and fill it with some of the Star San solution and then dump my bottle caps in there and just let them soak until I need them to cap the bottles.
For the bottles themselves you have a few options for sanitation. Some dishwashers actually have a sanitation cycle these days, so I know some people just put all of their bottles in there and run that cycle. Then when it comes to bottling time they just open the dishwasher and grab the bottles out as they are needed. Personally, since I already have the bucket of solution out and ready I just use that for the bottles. I take six at a time and place them all into the bucket. I push them down slightly so that they fill up with some of the solution. Then as I need them I just reach in and grab one, drain the excess sanitizing solution and move directly to the bottle filler. It’s a no-rinse sanitizer so there’s no need to worry about drying them off.
Adding Priming Sugar
Remember how I mentioned above that we need a little bit of sugar so that the yeast can create the carbon dioxide needed for carbonation? That’s where the 5 ounces of corn sugar comes in. Since this usually comes as a 5 oz. package right with your beer ingredient kit so there’s no need to measure anything. What you do need to do is get the sugar into the beer and equally mixed. Sounds easy, right? Well, there are a few things to consider. The corn sugar doesn’t dissolve well at room temprature. In addition, you don’t want to stir up your beer trying to mix the sugar in. This can create nasty oxidation and mix up all of the gunk that settled to the bottom of your fermentation bucket.
So, here’s the trick. Simply take about a cup of water and put it in a small pot and bring it up to a boil on the stove. Once it’s at a boil just dump in your corn sugar and stir until dissolved. Remove it from the heat and bring it down close to room temp. I usually just boil it with a lid on and then set the pot in a sink full of cold water for a few minutes until the pot is cool to the touch.
Once cool go ahead and add it into your sanitized bottling bucket. What we’ll do now is siphon the beer from the fermentation bucket and into the bottling bucket. This will carefully transfer the beer from one container to the other while at the same time swirling around the sugar water so that it’s perfectly mixed equally throughout the whole beer.
To do this step you’ll first want to pop the top on your fermenter if you haven’t already. What you should see is a rich gold to brown liquid that is your newly fermented creation. Don’t worry about all the nasty looking stuff floating or sticking to the side of the bucket. It’s harmless.
Next, you’re going to want to get a siphon going to move this beer down into your bottling bucket with the priming sugar water. I just use my kitchen table and set the fermenter on that and the bottling bucket on the floor. I have an auto siphon so I just give that a good pump and it gets the siphon going.
Make sure your siphon tube is sitting all the way on the bottom of the bottling bucket if possible. This minimizes splashing and aeration of the beer that can lead to the oxidation I was talking about. You can see how the siphon creates a good swirling motion and starts mixing with the priming sugar.
If you have a racking cane or auto siphon that came with your kit you can just sit back and relax for a few minutes while the beer transfers. While these items aren’t required, like I mentioned in the equipment section, they are inexpensive and handy tools that make your job a little easier. Here’s my auto siphon just hanging out and doing its thing while I now have a few minutes I can start getting my bottles ready or something.
Preparing the Bottling Bucket
The bottling bucket has a spigot at the bottom that makes filling your bottles easier. Simply set your bucket on the counter or table and you can sit down and easily fill your bottles. But, there’s one problem. The spigot by itself doesn’t “quietly” fill the bottles. When you turn on the valve and let the beer drain into the bottle it’s falling to the bottom of the bottle and through the air which can potentially lead to oxidation. It will get the job done, but there’s an inexpensive fix.
Try attaching a piece of siphon hose or something called a bottling wand to the spigot. With either of these you can insert them into the bottom of the bottle while filling and minimize any aeration. In my case I opted for a bottling wand. At just a couple of dollars it was worth every penny. The unique thing about the wand is that it’s rigid and has a valve on the bottom. Beer only comes out when you push on the valve like you could by sliding it into a beer bottle and touching the bottom of the bottle. Once you pull the bottle off the beer stops coming out. This now also eliminates the need for always turning the spigot on and off to fill each bottle.
Here’s what my bottling bucket looks like with the wand attached:
Filling Your Bottles
Once you’ve completely transferred the beer into your bottling bucket and prepared the bucket for action, it’s time to start filling bottles. The process is pretty simple. I just sit down on the floor and have the bucket of sanitizer to my left with six bottles soaking. I have the bottling bucket right in front of me, and my bottle caps and capper to my right. Then I grab a sanitized bottle and fill it, leaving an inch or two of head room in the bottle.
As each bottle gets filled I set it down to my right and place a sanitized bottle cap loosely on the top. I do this six bottles at a time. For one, that’s how many bottles comfortably fit into my sanitizing bucket, and second, it minimizes the potential loss if I tip over a few bottles during the process. Here are six bottles with the caps just sitting on top and ready to be secured.
Once the caps are sitting on top the only thing left to do is to use the capper and crimp the caps on the bottles. With the wing capper I have here that is easy enough. Simply center the round center piece on the bottle and push down with both hands. It takes very little effort and only a few seconds to do.
Once your caps are secured your job is done! Now all you have to do is wait for the yeast to work their magic.
You need to have patience with your beer. This is very hard to do with your first batch, but it takes time to condition your beer so that it’s properly carbonated and ready to drink. How long does it take? Unfortunately, each beer is different and there is no magic number. There is a general rule of thumb that says you should let your beer sit in the bottle for 3 weeks at around 70 degrees. Too cold and the yeast will take longer to carbonate the beer. Too warm the yeast might carbonate it a little faster, but it won’t give your beer enough time to mature and reach the flavor profile you want.
So, once you’ve bottled all of your beer you need to put it in a dark corner of the house and forget about it. No, don’t crack one open after 3 days just to see if it’s done yet. It isn’t. Some beers will come around in just a few weeks while others can actually take a few months. Typically your higher gravity and darker beers will require a longer aging period to reach their peek compared to light beers.
I remember my first batch and although I tried to be patient and wait for the beer to finish, I ended up trying some too early. After one week in the bottle I gave one a try and felt disappointed. It tasted like beer, but it was a tad too bitter and wasn’t as refreshing as I expected. So I waited a few more weeks. At the 3 week mark it was much better. The bitterness toned down, it had much more carbonation, and tasted more like what I had expected. Even so, it still wasn’t perfect. Then I let about 24 of them sit in the closet for about 3 more weeks for 6 total. Once I opened one of those it was like tasting a totally different beer and it was even better.
The point is that time helps your beer. It’s difficult for you, but your patience will be rewarded. So, when you feel your batch is done and ready to consume, don’t throw a party and go through the whole batch at once. Make sure you set some aside and give it even more time just to learn how the flavor changes. This will help you create even better beers in the future.
Serving Your Beer
Now that your beer is done it’s time to serve it. A couple of things you need to be aware of when serving homebrew. For one, this beer is bottle conditioned. This just means that you use the yeast that’s already in the beer for carbonation. Unlike mass produced beer that filters everything out, you’ll still have yeast in your bottle. After carbonation and then spending some time in the refrigerator it will settle out and collect at the bottom of the bottle. It’s harmless and actually good for you, but it can alter the flavor if you drink it.
For this reason you shouldn’t drink your homebrew straight from the bottle. Actually, you shouldn’t drink any beer from the bottle if you want to really experience all of the flavors and aromas that a good beer has. So, be sure to pour it into a glass. When the yeast settles to the bottom of the bottle you can basically pour all but the last quarter to half inch into the glass and most of the yeast will stay back in the bottle. Also, since the yeast does settle to the bottom it’s a good idea to store your bottles upright in the refrigerator.
Don’t worry about cloudy beer. Most people are used to drinking crystal clear beer, so seeing a freshly poured glass of hazy beer can concern some people. It’s fine. Again, we’re brewing beer in a bucket in our basement, not in billion dollar facilities with high-tech filtering equipment. A hazy beer doesn’t mean it’s bad and it has no effect on flavor. Even without filtering equipment it is possible to make crystal clear beer at home. It has a lot to do with your process, how fast you cool the wort after the boil, your wort chiller in general, and the ingredients you use. I’ve had some beers come out cloudy while others are clear from day one. I’ve even had others that after a month in the bottle were cloudy, but after sitting for a few more weeks turned crystal clear. So, just don’t get hung up on the clarity of your beer at this point.
Well, that’s about it. It’s been a long few weeks with a lot of information and pictures to digest, but hopefully you’ve learned how to brew your own beer. As you have probably seen, it isn’t incredibly difficult and only requires a few special pieces of equipment and some spare time. It’s a fun hobby that’s unique in that you get to enjoy your creation and share it with others. And let’s not forget the possibility for frugal gift ideas from your beer. You might make a special holiday batch to give out over Christmas, or maybe you brew up a special beer for your brother’s birthday. Whatever the case is, you now have a really neat and unique gift possibility.
And this really only just scratches the surface of homebrewing. Once you get your feet wet with a few extract recipe kits you can move on to creating your own recipes from scratch. Then, you might move from extracts to all-grain where you start with just raw bulk grains. The possibilities are endless, so get out there and start brewing.
Author: Jeremy Vohwinkle
My name is Jeremy Vohwinkle, and I’ve spent a number of years working in the finance industry providing financial advice to regular investors and those participating in employer-sponsored retirement plans.