By Dave Dahl – Lo Rez Brewing
Okay, so two weeks have passed and the air-lock hasn’t bubbled for a few days. Sweet. Let’s get this bad boy bottled.
As I mentioned before, assuming the fermentation has completed (over any period of time) is risky. It’s better that you check your original gravity (OG) and your final gravity (FG) – if they don’t match it means fermentation is either not done, or it’s stalled. Understanding OG/FG is one of the first steps toward Homebrewing 401 that you should take. If you recall, we don’t brew beer – we guide yeast. And hitting your OG/FG numbers is a fantastic indicator of happy yeast, who in turn, make beer for us, the far less talented humans.
For the sake of keeping this simple, let’s assume your fermentation has completed after the obligatory 2 week waiting period. If your schedule doesn’t allow you to bottle after 7 days, don’t sweat it – you can cheat on the long side, but never cheat on the short side. If you shorten your fermentation time and fermentation isn’t complete, the best case scenario is beer that tastes like-green apples coated with slick butter. The worst case is that you’ll have bottle-bombs, which are both embarrassing and dangerous.
We carbonate beer because simply because it tastes better that way. We’ve all had flat beer – good flat beer is bland and bad flat beer is disgusting. Forcing CO2 into the solution lifts and separates the flavors. Really, it’s the Wonderbra of alcohol.
There are two basic ways of carbonating beer – forcing CO2 from a tank into a keg of beer or asking your yeast to make CO2 itself in your bottles. The former is a whole lot easier, but requires more money, hardware, and knowledge. So most of us start with the latter, which is called bottle-conditioning.
Fundamentally, yeast eats sugars and throws off CO2 and alcohol. That’s why we merely guide yeast into making us beer. When the beer is fermenting, we’re capturing the alcohol and letting the CO2 escape into the atmosphere. Now we’re going to capture that CO2 and trap it in the bottle, which keeps it in solution.
So let’s get started. Bottling beer basically follows this process: put the bottling sugar in the bottling bucket, transfer the beer from the fermenter to the bottling bucket, fill the bottles, cap the bottles, let time pass, drink your beer.
Prepping the Equipment
First clean your gear. Always remember that you will NOT make good beer if you’re not nuts about being clean. Yes that’s a double-negative. If you haven’t already, now’s the time to use PBW to clean your transfer tube(s), auto-siphon, racking cane, bottling bucket, and bottles. Rinse off the PBW and rinse/spray everything with StarSan. Reward yourself for a job well done by popping open a beer.
Prepping the Sugar
Yeast are gluttons. Given the right conditions, they’ll eat whatever sugar you put in front of them, produce more yeast, eat more sugar, and repeat until they kill themselves with their waste byproduct (alcohol). So despite the fact that fermentation has stopped, your yeast still wants to party (people call this “viable”, like “the fermentation is done but we have plenty of viable yeast for bottling”). The yeast stopped fermenting because it ran out of sugars to eat. But since it’s still viable, we have to be very careful about the amount of sugar we add or we could easily under carbonate (and produce flabby beers) or over carbonate (and product bottle-bombs).
There’s a lot of science that goes into encouraging yeast to produce a specific amount of CO2. But in a nutshell, John Palmer suggests 2/3 of a cup of table sugar for bottling 5 gallons of a typical ale. That is a VERY rough guideline, so please do some reading on the science behind it. Proper carbonation has a huge effect on how well people enjoy your homebrew, regardless of whether or not they’re fans of craft beer. So take the time to do some extra reading and (egads!) understand some math.
Let’s assume we’re bottling 5 gallons of a typical ale. To prep the bottling sugar, put 2 cups of tap water into a saucepan, put it over a low-flame, and add the 2/3 cup of table sugar. The amount of water is irrelevant since you’re just using it to get the sugar into solution. Bring it to a quick boil (to sanitize the mixture), stir until the sugar is all dissolved, then quickly cover, kill the heat, and let it cool to room temperature.
Protip: Get some books and do some reading. If you’re at all curious about what’s going on behind the scenes of homebrewing I really suggest How to Brew by John Palmer, The Complete Joy of Homebrewing by Charlie Papazian, and for some inspiration pick up Radical Brewing by Chicago’s own Randy Mosher.
Is the bottling sugar at room temperature? Just feel the pan. If it feels the same temperature as a pan you didn’t use, then it’s cool enough to not kill your yeast. You don’t need to use a thermometer (which could be dirty), and you don’t need to stick your finger in it (you’re not a caveman). Since it’s cool, gently pour the liquid into the StarSan’d bottling bucket without splashing or otherwise introducing oxygen.
Prepping the Beer
The bottom of the fermentor will have a thick layer of gunk. That gunk is a mixture of hop matter, dead yeast (dead yeast drops, viable yeast doesn’t), and proteins. That gorgeous gunk is called trub (which rhymes with noob). The idea of transferring the beer into the bottling bucket is to do it without introducing oxygen and without rousing too much trub.
That sounds easy, and it is. But the first time it can be kind of tricky minimizing the amount of trub you pick up.
The siphon has a plastic tip on the end that’s designed to draw in the beer from above the trub. But this never works perfectly on it’s own. So put the loose end of the sanitized tube into the bottling bucket and into the sugar water. Then lower the siphon into the beer about halfway and start the siphon. While the siphon is drawing, lower it until it touches the trub (you’ll know you’re there because the beer flowing through the racking cane will become darker and more cloudy). You just went below the trub-line so raise it a tiny bit till it runs clear again. Hold it there while the rest of the beer transfers to the bottling bucket.
Protip: Transferring beer is simple, but it’s also dicey because it’s very easy to introduce wild yeast and bacteria (from the air or unsanitized utensils) and oxygen. Both of those will produce off flavors in your beer. So, once you’ve positioned the siphon just above the trub-line, let the loose end of the tube lay in along the bottom of the bottling bucket and put the lid of the bucket loosely on top. The beer will swirl a bit, but don’t stir it, and god forbid don’t let it splash.
Once all the beer has been transferred to the bottling bucket, take a clean and sanitized long spoon and gently swirl the beer a bit. This simply mixes the sugar solution a bit more uniformly throughout the beer.
At this point we have a bottling bucket filled with beer and the bottling sugar. So let’s finish this off.
Make sure all your equipment and bottles are clean and sanitized – bottles, caps, bottling wand, and tube. You can use any size bottle you want, the beer, yeast, and sugar water will carbonate them all similarly. However don’t use twist-off bottles (which don’t seal properly) or clear bottles (which allows light to touch your beer which skunks them).
When I first posted about brewday I mentioned mise en place, following the same practice on bottling day is just as helpful. We’ve all had bottling days go sideways when we try to sanitize more bottle caps with the left hand while filling a bottle with the right, and and knocking over a freshly filled beer in the process. So lay out everything in the order you’ll be doing it – clean/sanitary bottles, bottling bucket and beer, caps, and a tapwater rinse.
The bottling bucket will have a spigot on the bottom, hook up your sanitary bottling tube to that spigot, then attach the sanitary bottling wand. Notice the bottling wand has a valve on the end of it. This valve lets beer flow when it’s pushed against the bottom of a bottle, and stops the beer flow when it’s lifted off. That valve is your newest friend.
Insert the bottling wand into the bottle, push the valve against the bottom of the bottle, and let the beer flow till it’s almost up to the very rim. When you pull the wand up, the beer will stop flowing, and the fill-line will drop from the rim to the normal level along the neck – the displacement of the bottling wand is about the same as you need to fill the perfect bottle. Now cap the bottle using the crazy-looking bottle capper.
Bottling and capping is tricky and takes some practice. It’s best if you can enlist the friends that helped you brew to help you bottle.
Protip: Cap on foam. That’s a phrase that’s tossed around in homebrew as well as pro-brew circles. It means you want the proper fill-level half-way up the neck, but you want the dead space to be filled with beer-foam. Doing so minimizes the amount of ambient air (and therefore oxygen) in that dead space. That’s a good thing.
After your beers are bottled, take a few more minutes to rinse all the bottles under normal tap water. The bottle is all sealed up, so it doesn’t have to be sanitary water. Rinsing them will get all the random beer-bits off the sides to keep them from getting sticky. Handing your friend a homebrew in a sticky bottle immediately makes your friend think “WTF?”
If at all possible, I’d try waiting a week before you sample your beer. By that point, the yeast should have consumed all (or nearly all) of the sugar and properly carbonated your beer. If that first beer doesn’t taste quite lively enough, try another beer in a couple more days.
Your beer will have sediment in it, which at this stage is mostly dead or dormant yeast. Drinking that yeast isn’t bad, in fact drinking it is common for some styles, like a hefeweizen. But most of the time you want to leave it behind. Pour it into a glass in one smooth pour and stop right as the cloudy bits start flowing.
Now pat yourself on the back, throw back a few homebrews with your brewing-partners, and plan your next brewday!