10 Tips for Easier Bottling

Dana Johnson, Birko Brewery and Produce Specialist
ZYMURGY Magazine, September/October 2001

Bottling homebrew has fallen out of favor these days for many experienced homebrewers who feel that it takes too much time and is too labor intensive. A lot of folks in the homebrew club that I belong to have switched from bottling to using kegs instead. They lug their carbon dioxide (CO2) cylinders and 5-gallon Corny kegs to the meetings and parties. OK, so racking homebrew into kegs isn’t as labor intensive as bottling, but kegs are definitely not easy to transport and take up a lot of space.

As for me, I’m still bottling all of my homebrew. I haven’t switched to kegs for a lot of reasons. For one, I like the portability of bottles. When taking homebrew to meetings or parties, I snag a few bottles of homebrew, put them in a six-pack holder and away I go. Another reason I like bottling is that it is easy to age many different beers over longer periods of time without having to stumble over a bunch of kegs in the meantime.

Bottling homebrew doesn’t have to be as time consuming and difficult as a lot of homebrewers make it out to be. New sanitizers and equipment available at homebrew supply shops can drastically reduce the amount of time, hassle, drudgery, and headaches normally encountered with bottling homebrew. What follows are some tricks I’ve learned from bottling over 100 batches plus some that my fellow KROC members were kind enough to share with me. Hopefully, this information will assist you, too.

1. CHECK, CHECK, CHECK…

A few days before you plan to bottle, it’s a really good idea to take inventory of the supplies and equipment that you will need. Are there enough empty bottles? Are they in good condition? Assuming you are bottle conditioning, do you have enough corn sugar, malt extract, honey, or gyle for priming? Do you have enough bottle caps? Is the equipment in good shape? If you label, are there enough labels?

There’s nothing worse than getting ready to bottle and realizing that you are out of something or the equipment is not working. Having a checklist and taking inventory before you bottle eliminates the, “Oh, NO! I’m out of…” I inevitably end up bottling after the homebrew supply shops in my area are closed, so the checklist avoids the problem of running out of things and having to wait until the shop reopens to bottle.

2. HELP, I NEED SOMEBODY!

Probably the only thing more tedious in homebrewing than bottling is cleaning. Generally speaking, the quicker you finish bottling, the better off you are. I like to enlist help when it comes to bottling, ideally one of my neighbors, but I will even settle for one of my kids, assuming I can tear them away from their “busy” schedule. I typically operate the siphon while the other person puts the caps on or seals the bottles and puts them in the case. Having someone to help me at bottling takes about half the time of trying to do it all by myself.

If you are teaching someone to brew, that also creates a perfect opportunity to show him or her the ropes of bottling as well. The person (or persons) you teach to brew will usually be eager to participate in bottling as well, especially if you promise to reward them with some of the finished product afterward. I like to hold-off on imbibing during bottling, however, until the bottling is finished. Waiting until I’m done seems to cut down on mistakes and spillage.

After bottling and cleanup is finished is the perfect time to relax and have a celebratory homebrew. If it is your first batch, a commercially brewed example will suffice nicely. Taking Charlie Papazian’s advice, I like to toast the batch that was just bottled with a brew from a previous batch. It has become almost ritualistic.

3. A HUNDRED BOTTLES OF BEER ON THE WALL…

A real key to making bottling go quickly and easily is to make sure that you have an ample supply of clean and inspected beer bottles beforehand. If you have a free standing or mounted (rather than a hand-held) bottle-capper, it is nice to have similarly sized bottles. I’ve found that for a 5-gallon batch, one case of 12-ounce bottles plus one case (and a few extra) 22-ounce bottles works well. Because of their smaller size, 12-ounce bottles usually carbonate faster than 22-ounce “bomber” bottles.

Although the larger bottles tend to take slightly longer to carbonate, they also seem to age better if you want to store the beer for a longer period of time. Several years ago, my neighbor’s father gave me some old quart bottles he had been saving since he stopped homebrewing about 30 years before. He said he was waiting to find a good home for them; I use them to hold the beer the longest.

4. IF CLEANLINESS IS NEXT TO GODLINESS, WHAT IS SANITIZING NEXT TO?

I used to use household bleach for sanitizing my bottles, but no more. By switching to an appropriate no-rinse sanitizer and using it at the prescribed concentration, bottles simply need only to be drained prior to filling them with beer. Not having to triple-rinse bottles cuts down immensely on the amount of time and water that is a must when using bleach. Sure, bleach is cheap. My time isn’t. I’ve got better things to do than triple-rinse bottles!

If you don’t want to chemically sanitize the bottles, heat sanitizing is an option. For homebrewers, heat sanitizing is typically done one of two ways, either by putting the bottles in the oven, or by putting them in the automatic dishwasher and using the heat dry cycle. I’d like to offer a couple notes of caution here. If heat sanitizing in the oven, heat and cool bottles slowly to avoid to avoid breakage. Some automatic dishwashers have a rinse additive cycle. The same chemical used as the rinse aid that gives you spot-free glassware can also destroy the head on the beer. The high-heat cycle for drying in the automatic dishwasher seems to work for many homebrewers to sanitize the bottles. Allow the bottles to cool to room temperature before filling with beer.

5. RACK IT UP TO SUCCESS

A good means of racking and siphoning is crucial to first transferring homebrew, then bottling it. There are many devices available to homebrewers that can start and stop a siphon. Using your mouth to start a siphon is a real no-no. I’ve been using the same racking cane for over 10 years now. I found that by leaving the cane filled with sterile water or dilute sanitizer solution, the siphon starts easily and I don’t have to use any gadgets to start the siphon. There is a new item at homebrew supply shops called the Auto-Siphon, which looks interesting. It works like a huge syringe. To start the siphon, you simply pull out the plunger. The suction of pulling on the plunger fills the tube with beer and the siphon can begin. The Auto-Siphon is plastic, can be easily cleaned and sanitized, and costs less than $20, retail. There are many types of siphon starting devices available, however, so check out what your favorite supplier recommends.

6. PRIME TIME!

Using the proper amount of priming corn sugar, malt extract, or gyle is critical to obtaining just the right amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the finished product. (See Ray Daniel’s article on carbonation problems on page 38). The old, prohibition-style method of adding a small amount of sugar to each bottle for priming is not only inconsistent, it can be dangerous.

The tried and true method that I’ve always used is 3/4-1 cup (150-200 g.) of corn sugar per 5 gallons (19 liters) of homebrew. I boil the corn sugar for 5 minutes in about 8-16 fluid oz. (250-500 ml.). I then add the priming solution to the bucket that the homebrew is going to be siphoned into from the fermenter. The corn sugar mixture cools quickly once it is put in the bottling bucket. I then siphon the beer into the bucket and the corn sugar mixture and swirling beer combine to create a homogenous mixture and every bottle carbonates uniformly! After my bottle-conditioned brew has sufficiently carbonated at room temperature, I put them in the spare refrigerator in the basement for as long as it takes to finish off the batch. (For some reason, some batches disappear quicker than others.).

7. FILL IT UP, MACK

Filling bottles with homebrew is the other big reason a lot of homebrewers have gotten away from bottling. Unlike the high speed packaging lines of modern breweries, bottling in the home tends to be somewhat slow, tedious and depending on skill level, messy. For most homebrewers, the speed of siphoning determines how fast the beer flows into the bottles. Since you don’t want to aerate the beer too much at this point in the game, it is actually better to fill the bottles rather slowly. Obtaining consistent fill levels can be challenging in the home environment. I bottle in my basement with less than ideal lighting conditions, so it is hard to see the level in brown glass bottles.

Using filler tubes to bottle can help cut down on spillage and give more uniform fill heights. Plastic fill tubes cost less than five dollars. The stainless steel model runs about five times more cost but is probably worth it in the long run, especially if you are brewing and bottling a lot of beer. They’re a couple ways to attach filler tubes. One way is to attach it to the end of the racking cane hose. The other way is to attach the filler tube to a hose that runs from a spigot in the bucket containing the beer/priming sugar mixture. Either way works fine. My friend, Frank Arrieta, uses his automatic dishwasher door as a tabletop for bottling. That way, any spills go into the dishwasher at the end and not on the floor. He says all he has to do is to lift the door up and any spilled beer flows back into the dishwasher!

8. AND TO CAP IT OFF…

Sealing the bottles after filling is the last laborious part of the bottling process. The two typical ways to bottle are with the normal bottle cap method (sometimes called crowns). Alternatively, reusable “Grolsch” type bottles also work well, provided the seals are in good shape.

I’ve used both methods and I don’t have a preference. The oxygen absorbing caps are worth the extra money if you plan on storing the beer for a long period of time. Otherwise, normal caps work fine if you go through the brew like I do. If I’m bottling myself, I like to set the caps on loosely, then cap them after I fill all of the bottles. I have to be careful, though. If I knock one over, it can setup a domino effect and then there is a real mess to clean up!

9. THE PERSONAL TOUCH

In addition to identifying the contents of each bottle, labeled homebrew makes a great gift for holidays and special occasions. With the label printing software programs available on personal computers these days, you are only limited by your own imagination. If you choose not to label every bottle, using a permanent felt tip marker on the lids is quick and easy way to identify the contents of the bottle. Without markings on bottles, it can become difficult to remember which batch was which, especially if the color of the beer is similar. If you plan on entering the beer in a competition, simply darken the entire lid to comply with the entry rules.

10. RELAX AND ENJOY!

As with most things in life, bottling can feel like work or you can make it fun. I choose for it to be the latter. Having the right equipment, friends, and attitude makes a world of difference. I’d like to thank John and Beth Irwin of The Homebrew Hut in Broomfield, Colorado for their assistance with this article. I’d also like to thank Ron Lull and Frank Arrieta of the Keg Ran Out Club (KROC) in Broomfield for also giving me some tips they use in bottling.