Perfect Homebrew Conditioning

Posted on 12.25.07 5:30PM under Bottle Conditioning, Brewing, Troubleshooting

Box of Conditioning BottlesFirst of all, Merry Christmas! 

Many homebrewers use bottle conditioning to get their beer full of fizzy bubbles of carbon dioxide. Rather than force carbonating the beer via exposure to CO2 under pressure, this beer is conditioned with CO2 from within. It is these bubbles that give beer much of its life, and help it to be a great match with food, as well as a refreshing overall drink. While bottling beer is one of the last labor steps in making beer, it is one that needs your full attention as much as any other step. Having a beer that is too flat or too fizzy can really put a damper on your enthusiasm for that beer. All that hard work out the window!

I’ve had beers come out on both sides of the equation, and I can provide some tips for perfectly conditioned beer.

First, general bottling and conditioning advice:

  1. Make sure you use enough priming sugar and enough water to dissolve it: A priming sugar solution is used to give the yeast still alive in your beer some more food that they can eat to make the CO2 to condition your beer. Generally, for five gallons, boil about a cup of water, remove from head, mix in 4 oz. of corn sugar, and then boil that for ten minutes. If the resulting syrup is too thick, it will tend to stick to the inside of the pot you use to boil the sugar, and you won’t get a full dose of priming sugar in there. And if you don’t use enough sugar in the first place, you’ll never get fizzy beer.
  2. Cool down the priming sugar mix: you have to get the boiled priming sugar mix down below 100 degrees F, or else you’ll kill yeast with those high temperatures. Fortunately, it is easy to cool down a cup of water with a simple, shallow cold water bath prepared in your sink. I actually use StarSan solution for this soak, for extra sanitation karma.
  3. Pour the priming sugar mix into the bottling bucket before racking beer in there: By putting the priming sugar in there first, the gentle swirling action caused by the curvature in your siphon tube will tend to mix the sugar and beer fairly well. If not well mixed, you can get some bottles massively over-conditioned, and some flat as a pancake.
  4. Condition in a stable temperature environment: Yeast is still at work to condition the bottles, converting that last little bit of sugar into CO2. Yeast works best when the temperature is stable. Bottles have a lot less thermal mass than a big fermenting bucket, so every change in temperature will be felt by the beer in the bottles. Do your best to provide the conditioning bottles a place where the temperature won’t go through big swings, and of course, keep them out of the light.
  5. Bottle one beer in a plastic bottle: You can get PET plastic bottles at your homebrew shop. I love using these things because they become very firm when the beer is conditioned. It is a way for you to test the state of the beer without opening one. Sort of a nondestructive test.

Now for a few troubleshooting tips. For preventing or dealing with flat beer:

  1. Consider adding yeast at bottling time: Many homebrew forum posters recommend adding a new pack of Safale US-05 yeast (properly rehydrated) at bottling time, “just to make sure”. It is a pretty cheap insurance policy to hedge against dead or exhausted yeast in your beer. This is more of a concern with higher alcohol beer, where the yeast may be almost at the threshold of their alcohol tolerance. It could also be a factor for beer which has undergone extended bulk aging, like sitting in secondary for more than a month.
  2. Move the beer to a warmer spot: Many say that moving your poorly-conditioned beer to a warmer spot in your house can help to rouse the yeast back into action. Combine this with a bit of a shaking of each bottle to get the yeast back up into suspension, and then wait another week, and you may end up well-conditioned.
  3. Add more yeast to every bottle: This is a drastic measure that I actually attempted on a few flat batches of beers. First I rehydrated a pack of Safale US-05 dry yeast, then I opened each flat bottle, stirred in about 1/4 tsp of yeast water, and reclosed the bottle. Calculate how much to add to each bottle with some simple math: quantity of rehydration water divided by the number of bottles to rehydrate. This is very labor intensive, and not for the faint of heart. It worked on one batch, and not really on the other batch, so it can be worth a try if you’re really desparate.
  4. Blend flat beer with fizzy beer: Make or buy a beer with very high levels of carbonation. Then you can mix half-and-half (or in whatever ratio you choose) the flat and the fizzy beer. You end up with carbonated beer. You can also use Selzter or any other bubbly drink you can think of. This is an opportunity to have some fun experimenting with different taste combinations.

Finally some tips for preventing or dealing with fizzy beer:

  1. Make sure your beer is done fermenting before you bottle it: Most times I have overly fizzy beer is that the beer wasn’t done fermenting when I bottled it. I could tell because it conditioned normally at first, and then after a while in the fridge, it just kept getting more carbonated. The yeast seemed to revitalize in my 50 degree F beer fridge and get back to work on the sugars still present in the beer, perhaps revitalized by their work on the added corn sugar. The only sure way to know it is done is to measure the gravity three days in a row and notice that it has not changed at all.
  2. Make sure your volumes are right: A tyipcal homebrew batch is five gallons, but if you use a lot of whole hops, or boil for a long time, or get a higher-than-normal evaporation rate, or spill a lot somewhere, or… (you get the idea) you can make less than five gallons of beer. Using a five gallon dose of sugar for four gallons could cause over-conditioned bottles.
  3. Make sure the priming sugar is well mixed in the beer before bottling it: I mentioned above to rack the beer onto the priming sugar, so it will naturally mix, but even doing that, I have had batches where some bottles were over-conditioned, while the rest were just a tiny bit flat from what I expected. Sometimes I feel better if I gently stir or swirl the beer and sugar mix in the bottling bucket midway through racking.
  4. Be ready with a pitcher when you open the beer: Once your beer is too fizzy, the best thing to do is to have a pitcher, or other large volume container, handy when you open the beer. That way you can catch all the foam and let it settle out, and drink the beer after that, without having half of it go down the drain.

Hopefully if you’re having conditioning problems, you can find these tips useful. Let me know if you have other tips I haven’t mentioned!

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