Brewing With Extracts – Part 3: Bottling and Conditioning

Posted on 11.13.07 3:42PM under Brewing, Extract

Finished HomebrewFirst I introduced you to the concept of brewing your own beer. Then I told you about how to make the beer. Today I finish the series with a post on bottling, conditioning, storing, and drinking your beer. Your beer will ferment vigorously for a few days, maybe up to a week. After that, the apparent activity will trail off, but it is not quite done yet. The only sure way to know it is done is to measure the gravity two or three days in a row, and if the gravity doesn’t change, then it’s done. The other way is just to give it about three weeks. This pretty much ensures that fermentation will be done for most beers.

Bottling
After all fermentation is done, it is time to bottle your beer. Maybe it would be more accurate to say “package” your beer. A perfectly valid alternative to bottling is kegging. Some people quickly get into kegging. I am personally still a bottler, so that’s what I’ll talk about here.

For bottling, you will need a bottling bucket, siphon, bottling wand, corn sugar, bottles, and bottle caps. And of course cleaner and sanitizer. A bottling bucket is a big plastic fermenter bucket with a spigot at the bottom. This might have come with your equipment kit, or you might have bought it separately. The siphon and bottling wand came with your equipment kit. Your equipment and/or ingredient kit came with some bottle caps. Your ingredient kit came with corn sugar. Getting bottles is discussed in part one.

Expect bottling to take about two hours from start to finish, including setup and cleanup. Bottling is mostly cleaning. You have to really make sure that the bottles are perfectly clean and well sanitized. Your vulnerable beer will be living in these bottles for weeks or even months in some cases. Any unsanitary situation will threaten to damage your beer, especially the longer it is stored for.

In order to create carbonation in your beer, you will need to add some more sugar to the beer. There is still yeast alive and floating in your beer, even though it looks like it is all settled at the bottom of the fermenter. This yeast will eat the extra sugar you put in (called priming sugar) to create a controlled amount of carbon dioxide to carbonate your beer. Most beers take 4 or 5 ounces of corn sugar as priming sugar.

You boil the priming sugar with about a cup of water for around 15 minutes, to remove oxygen from the water and to sanitize the sugar. Then you must cool down this priming sugar to room temperature. Boiling water kills yeast, and that’s the last thing you want right now.
While the priming sugar solution is boiling and subsequently cooling, you need to sanitize all the equipment mentioned above, plus anything that will touch these things. I normally end up using a few measuring cups for holding various sanitized items after they are sanitized. Make sure you sanitize two cases of bottles plus a six pack so you’re sure to have enough bottles ready to hold your precious beer. A gallon makes about ten 12-ounce bottles. I fill up my bottling bucket with sanitizer solution, and put the bottles in there, about twelve at a time, let them soak for the requisite duration, and pour them out.

After the priming solution is cooled, gently pour it into the bottom of the clean and sanitized bottling bucket (which should of course be empty before adding priming sugar!) At this point, we need to take great care to avoid introducing oxygen into the beer via splashing. Oxygen can cause oxidation, which can taste like cardboard and otherwise disrupt the wonderful taste of the beer you’ve made.

Now siphon the fully fermented beer into the bottling bucket and onto the priming sugar. This will cause the sugar to mix well with the beer as the beer fills up the bucket. You also want to gently stir, swirl, or mix the beer and priming sugar once the entire transfer is complete, just to make sure it is well mixed. Also make sure the spigot on the bottling bucket is closed before beginning to siphon. Tilt the fermenter to avoid as much yeast from the bottom as you can, and to get the most liquid beer out that you can. Bottling with a little of the settled yeast isn’t the end of the world, but I try to leave most of it in the fermenter. Some people even like to add more yeast at this point, just in case. A three dollar pack of dry yeast is an inexpensive insurance policy to ensure carbonated beer.

While you have your beer open, before you add it to the priming sugar, take a sample and measure your finishing gravity to tell what your beer’s alcohol content is. If you have software like BeerSmith, it will also tell you how many calories the beer has. Cool! Another fun part of bottling is making labels for your beers. I use a word template and labels from Online Labels.com to make my beer labels. I come up with fancy little names, and note the alcohol content and calories in the bottle, as well as when I made it and when I bottled it.

Conditioning
After bottling, you have to let it sit in the bottles for at least a week, normally two, sometimes three or more. This gives the yeast still in the bottles a chance to eat the priming sugar, create carbon dioxide, and then equilibrate to carbonate the beer. I like to use a plastic bottle so I can judge the carbonation level by the hardness of the plastic bottle. You can get half-liter PET bottles at your LHBS or online. The only problem with the plastic bottles is that it is hard to remove the labels from them. I usually start testing bottles after a week. You can put them one-at-a-time into the fridge, test it that night, and if it is close, you can test another one the next day. If it is still flat, wait a few days, and test again. Many say that they gain a lot by aging their beers for longer than what I’m talking about before drinking them, but as soon as they’re carbonated, they’re technically ready to drink. I recommend saving a few to drink a few months later to see for yourself the effects of aging. For high alcohol beers, aging is normally recommended and encouraged. This is a place where you can play around and come up with your own preferences. In fact, you’ll find lots of opportunities in the entire brewing process for you to do things your own way. That’s part of the fun of it!

Once your bottles are ready to drink, you can move them all to a fridge if you’ve got space. If not, try to keep them as cool and dark as you can, ideally at cellar conditions of 50°F with moderate humidity. Bring your finished beer to all the parties and social events you go to. It is fun to hand out your beer and get feedback on it! Also do yourself a favor when you drink your beer – pour it into a glass. This enables you to see it and smell it, so that you can fully appreciate the total experience of the beer. Also be warned that there will be some yeast in the bottom of your bottles. This is normal, but some people like to avoid drinking yeast. If you’re in that camp, just pour the bottles slowly and gently, and watch the pour. You’ll see the yeast start to creep up the next, and you can stop pouring then. Normally you will only have to leave a little at the bottom to avoid the yeast. I used to be paranoid about avoiding the yeast, but now I don’t mind drinking it. I don’t slosh the beer around to intentionally get all the yeast into my glass, but I also don’t panic if some comes loose with the last ounce of beer.

For More Information
I have just told you the basics, the bare minimum of information you will want to know. If you need more help or advice, there are abundant resources online and in print for your reading pleasure. How To Brew, by John Palmer is a classic, and it is available free online, or you can buy a hard copy. The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, by Charlie Papazian is also well regarded. Charlie is a big part of the American Homebrewer’s Association and the Brewer’s Association. You can also chat online at Northern Brewer or Homebrew Talk, or any one of many other online homebrew forums. If you look around, there are a lot of local homebrew clubs – check to see if there’s one in your area. Finally, I can always stop by and get hands-on with your brewing.

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