The Long Awaited Theorem of Bottling Beer

OK - this is the best way I know to bottle your beer. When you come into the store, I will usually talk you through this process, but this is the long-awaited written version:

Start with bottles. You will need fifty-five 12-ounce bottles, thirty 22-ounce bottles or forty pint-sized bottles (or twenty quart-sized bottles). Screw tops should NOT be used, twist-off bottles CAN be used, but with twist-offs you run the risk of chipping the paper-thin necks when your capper clamps down on them. Some twist-off bottles do take caps better than others, so, if you are using twisties, practice on empties to be sure your capper, caps and bottles are compatible BEFORE you fill them all with beer. There is nothing worse than filling all your beer bottles and finding out that you can't crimp your caps down on them. Regular "pop-top" import bottles are best and will treat you the best for the longest time. You will basically never see problems with these types of bottles. We do sell bottles if you need extras - and all of our bottles are of the high-quality variety - or you can clean and de-label all the bottles that your family and friends can inundate you with...

Which brings up Rule # 1: BE SURE THAT YOUR BOTTLES ARE CLEAN. This means that they should have no organic sludge, mold, dried beer or other nasty things at the bottom of them. If you rinsed them out immediately after drinking from them, they will be fine - if not, you may want to invest in a bottle washer, bottle brush, or some aggressive cleaning chemical such as Straight-A. In the future, always rinse out your bottles after drinking from them - before the residual beer dries - and you will save yourself hours of extra work trying to re-clean them later. It's easy. The procedures you are about to read will NOT work if your bottles are not immaculate-clean to start with.

Once you have clean, sediment-free bottles, place them upside down on the prongs in your dishwasher. If they do not all fit vertically on the prongs, you can lay the remaining ones horizontally wherever they will fit - remember, the bottles are clean at this point and you are not really rinsing anything out of them. Do NOT add any dishwashing liquid, chemicals, soaps or weird agents into your machine - you are working with just plain water here.

Set the dishwasher to run through a short, minimum-length, rinse cycle but here is the critical factor: you must have the "heat-dry" option activated at the end of the drying cycle. Do NOT have the energy-saving option on, where the bottles dry naturally. You must have the blazing hot, steam-producing, heat-dry setting activated at the end of the rinse. This pasteurizes the glass bottles. Let the entire rinse and drying cycle finish then allow the bottles to cool so that you can touch them before opening the door of the 'washer.

Once the bottles are cool, put two small saucepans on your stovetop. In one of them, mix 3/4 to one cup of corn sugar with one pint of water. Three-quarters of a cup of sugar will produce a flatter, English-style carbonation and your beers would be better consumed at 45 to 55 degrees F. One cup of corn sugar produces a more American, fizzy style of carbonation. This is typically the more preferable amount to add, especially of you like to drink your beer at refrigerated temperatures. Carbonation is subjective and you will have to adjust according to your tastes, but in general, add one cup of corn sugar to the one pint of water until you know otherwise. NOTE: We sell one pound and three pound bags of corn sugar in the store. These are not pre-measured for a batch! Do not use the entire bag for your five-gallon batch. Measure out the proper amount (typically one cup) and mix it into the water in the saucepan. Save the rest of the sugar in a ZipLock for your next batch.

Mix the sugar well, heat the pot, and bring the sugar solution to a steady boil, allowing this mixture to boil slowly for at least ten to fifteen minutes. Do not allow the liquid to evaporate away to nothing!! Time is not critical on this. Boiling the sugar-water kills any bacteria and allows for easier mixing into the five gallons.

In the other saucepan, put as many caps as you will need (= number of bottles you plan on filling, plus five or six caps extra as spares) into the pot, and then cover them with water. Bring this mixture to a boil, until the caps are "jingling" and dancing around in the boiling water. Boil for one minute - not longer - and then turn off the heat and put the pot on a cold burner. Cover the pot with a lid and let the caps sit, submerged, for ten to fifteen minutes in the hot water. This pasteurizes the caps. Remember: if you boil caps too hard, too long, you can peel the rubber liners out of the inside of the caps. Do not boil for more than a minute, but the caps DO need to sit in the hot water for at least ten minutes....

Now, while the saucepans are doing their thing, sterilize your six-gallon bucket, your siphon starter, your siphon tubing and your spring loaded bottle-filler. You can do this all together, in the bucket, in your bathtub. Dump out the sterilizer, rinse everything (if necessary - Iodophor needs minimal rinsing if used properly) and bring all your sterlized equipment into the kitchen. Leave all your sterilized tools in the bucket so that you do not touch them to anything in your kitchen.

Place your glass carboy, full of beer, on your kitchen counter. Take your spring-loaded bottle filler out of the bucket and wrap it up burrito-like, nice and secure, inside of a freshly-pulled sheet of Saran Wrap - this keeps it sterile, since you will not be using it for a few minutes. You do not want to leave sterilized tools laying around, unprotected, on your countertops - they will not be sterile by the time you get back to them.... Hook your tubing onto your siphon starter and set it up to flow into your plastic bucket. Put the siphon starter into your carboy full of beer (holding it above the sediment sitting at the bottom of the carboy) and plunge the starter - the siphon will begin to flow and your beer will move down to the bucket on the floor. See our page of racking information for further pointers.

Remember - keep your beer covered at all times. I rest my bucket lid on top of my bucket during this process to block out drifting "stuff" that may be floating through your house. I also go so far as to wrap Saran Wrap around the open neck of my carboy to keep "stuff" from being drawn in as the beer volume lowers. This may be overkill, but it only takes a second and it makes me feel better.

OK, the beer is moving down into the bucket. You want a nice steady siphon, with the lower end of the siphon tube spitting out AT THE VERY BOTTOM OF THE BUCKET. Pet peeve: many homebrew supply shops sell three-foot-lengths of siphon tubing. It is impossible to safely siphon with this short of a length. If you run the beer down the wall of your fermenter, let it drop in with a big splash, or see excessive splashing or agitation in any way at all, you are oxidizing your beer. This will cause off-flavors within a few days. You need at least a five to six foot length in order to have your tube go from an ordinary counter-top down to the very bottom of a fermenter set on the floor (unless you live in a miniaturized house). And since gravity makes a siphon flow better, the larger the distance between the two fermenters the better (and quicker) it will flow.

But I digress.

As the beer is moving into the bucket, as it is about 25 to 33% filled into the bucket, lift off the lid and gently pour in the boiling hot sugar water. Put the lid back on. The whirlpool-siphoning process will now mix the sugar into the beer as it continues to flow in. When the five gallons of beer is in the bucket, and you have left behind all the muck and mire at the bottom of the carboy, pull the siphon starter out of the glass carboy and immediately stick it into the bucket. Now, both ends of the siphon will be in the beer in the bucket. This keeps the tubing clean and sterile, preventing anything from flopping on the floor by accident.

Lift the bucket full of beer onto the counter directly over the dishwasher. Get a bowl out of your cupboard and place it on the floor. Slowly pull the "spitting out" end of the siphon tubing out of your beer and lower it to the floor, directly over the empty bowl. Leave your siphon starter in the bucket full of beer. Plunge your siphon starter (remember, there is no sediment now, so the starter can safely rest on the bottom of the bucket) and allow some beer to start filling the bowl. Once you have a full flowing siphon going (you should have less than a pint of beer in your bowl), clamp off the tubing with a hose clamp (or with your fingers) and unwrap the spring-loaded bottle filler from the Saran Wrap where it has been safely sitting since you've sterilized it.

Push the bottle filler onto the siphon tubing, and then open your clamp. Nothing will happen because you have "dead-ended" the siphon. Everything is now ready to go. Open the door of your dishwasher.

IF YOU ARE DOING THIS WITH A PARTNER: One person sits on the floor, or on a low chair, next to the dishwasher. They pull a bottle out of the dishwasher and place it on the open door (using the door as a table). Press down into the bottle and the bottle will begin to fill with beer. Fill the bottle to the brim - until it is about to overflow. Lift up on the filler at the last possible moment, and the flow will stop. Pull out the filler and the beer volume will drop (by displacement) leaving you the perfect head-space. The person filling now passes the filled bottle to their partner who reaches into the saucepan full of caps and grabs a cap by the edges NOT TOUCHING THE INSIDE. They place the cap on the bottle and crimp it shut with the capper; then place the bottle in a box.

Meanwhile, the filler is filling bottle number 2, then passing it on, thus forming a chain reaction. When you are done with your last bottle, you will have a large puddle of beer on the door of your dishwasher, which can then be folded up, eliminating any mop-up.

IF YOU ARE DOING THIS BY YOURSELF: Sit on the floor next to the dishwasher and pull out a bottle. Have the saucepan full of caps on the floor next to you. Press the bottle filler into the first bottle and fill it to the brim. Remove the filler, lowering the headspace. Reach into the cap pan and pull a cap out by the edges. Place it on the bottle and then move the bottle AS FAR AWAY FROM YOU AS YOU CAN PLACE IT. Put it at the furthest tip's reach of your arm. Fill bottle number two, also placing a cap on it, then moving it across the floor. Work your way inwards, placing the bottles closer and closer. If you run out of room, go to the other side. Do NOT try to move a bottle over the tops of the bottles already placed down: you will knock the tops off, or, even worse, domino the bottles across the floor, spewing beer everywhere. When you are done filling all your bottles, and they all have a cap resting on them, go back and crimp them all shut, one at a time, with your capper. Place them in boxes

Either way, now that you are done, first, admire your work. Few things are more rewarding than seeing all those bottles stacked up, filled with your own beer!!

Then put them in a 60 to 70 degree environment (if it is an ale) or a 50 to 58 degree environment (if it is a lager) and let sit for 2 weeks (for an ale) or 4 weeks (for a lager). Your beer will now be carbonated. Depending on the style, it will continue to improve and become better-tasting for 4 to 12 more weeks, sometimes even longer.

Do not store above 80 to 85 degrees, if possible, but there is no need to refrigerate them, either. Refrigeration SLOWS DOWN the aging process and beer will get better at a slower rate. Refrigerate them only after 16 to 20 weeks, and only if you want to keep them for a long time. Beer will keep for 9 to 12 months, unrefrigerated, under most circumstances, and many beers will keep nicely for several years!

Enjoy, and call me with questions....