Sunday, November 20, 2016

My Brewing Process, Part 6 - Bottling

In the previous installments, we covered recipe adjustment and ingredient prep, mashing, boiling, fermentation, and cleanup.

Continuing on in the series about my brewing process, today we'll talk about bottling the finished beer. Below is what I do to get my beer out of the fermenter, into bottles, and ready to drink.

Getting the Bottles Ready

Before you can bottle a batch of beer, you need enough bottles. I use recycled bottles almost exclusively. I use bottles from beer I purchase, from samples I receive from other home brewers, bottles friends bring me, or from previous batches of my own beer. I remove the labels from the bottles, typically by soaking them in hot water and generic, unscented Oxy Clean.

After the bottles are de-labeled, I run them through our dishwasher with detergent. This ensures that the bottles are clean and ready to use.

I typically do the above steps days or weeks before bottling.

Sanitizing Everything

Before I bottle my beer, I want to ensure that I have very clean bottles which are also free of any possible bacteria and wild yeast. I do this by soaking each bottle in Star San for two minutes, then placing it on my bottle tree to drain.

Star San has proven to be a great way to sanitize bottles. Using the product for my fermenters, bottling bucket, bottle caps, and equipment I have yet to experience any contamination that's ruined any of my beers. That, combined with its ease of use, make it my preferred solution.

I use my one-gallon pitcher to measure two and a half gallons of water. To this, I add one-half ounce of Star San and mix thoroughly (but gently). One thing you have to be careful about with Star San is that it has a tendency to generate lots of foam and bubbles which don't dissipate easily. 

I pour Star San into my bottling bucket, and take a clean cloth or paper towel to ensure that it touches every surface in the bottling bucket. Then I run it out through the spigot and into the filling tube to ensure that the bottling apparatus is sanitized fully. I also sanitize my bottle tree.

Star San can really foam up if you're not careful with it!
Next, I'll put the Star San into a plastic bin large enough to hold several 12-ounce or 22-ounce bottles. When putting bottles in the Star San bath, I try to submerge them so that about half of the neck of the bottle is above the fluid line and half is below. This helps to get the Star San into the bottle with minimal foaming. The bottles spend 120 seconds in Star San before I gently pour out the sanitizer. As when filling the bottles, I tilt them so that half of the opening is under the fluid and half is above. This ensures minimal foaming as the sanitizer pours out. The drained bottles are placed on the bottle tree to completely drain before bottling.

Bin full of bottles in Star San, getting sanitized
I usually keep the Star Stan bin nearby in case I find that I've not sanitized enough bottles, which is rare but has happened a couple of times.  I'll dump the leftover sanitizer once everything has been bottled.

Bottle tree full of sanitized bottles and wing capper
I usually fill my entire 45-bottle bottle tree with a mix of 12-ounce and 22-ounce bottles before I begin bottling. This generally ensures that I have all the bottles I need and don't have to stop the process to sanitize more.

Priming the Beer Before Bottling

I've used table sugar poured directly into bottles, name-brand carbonation drops, generic carbonation drops, candi sugar, chocolate syrup, and corn sugar to prime beer for bottling. All of these work just fine. Here are my thoughts on each:
  • Carbonation Drops/Tablets: These come in two types. One type looks something like aspirin tablets, and you place several of them in each bottle of beer. The other kind looks something like a Hall's cough drop and you place one in each 12-ounce bottle, or two in a 22-ounce bottle. The name-brand cough drop style drops are usually coated so that they don't stick together. The off-brand ones often stick together in a big clump in the container even when it's unopened. The advantage to these is that you can use them immediately (no boiling required) and you can be sure that the carbonation level should be consistent from bottle to bottle. The down-side is that they're more expensive and may not provide the precise carbonation level needed for a given style of beer. Generally speaking, I've had good results with these and they haven't caused any off-flavors in my beer. The smaller aspirin-like tablets provide a bit more control over the level of carbonation and don't clump together like the cough drop style ones do, so they're probably the better choice (but aren't as common on store shelves).
  • Candi Syrup: If you're brewing a Belgian style beer that includes candi sugar as an ingredient, this can be a good way to add a little extra flavor when you bottle. It's much like priming with corn sugar. You weigh out the appropriate amount of syrup, add some water, boil it to remove any contaminants, cool it down, and add it to the beer before bottling. Assuming you mix it well, it will carbonate just as effectively as any other method here. It can also add a little extra flavor (though not much) to the finished beer. Because you're in control of the amount of syrup you're adding to a batch, you can control carbonation levels a bit more precisely than with the drops or tablets, but if you don't mix it in well, you can have bottles which turn out under or over carbonated.
  • Corn Sugar: This is a pretty traditional method. Weigh out some corn sugar, dissolve it in water, boil the water to remove any bacteria or wild yeast, cool it down, then add it to the beer before bottling. Using corn sugar, as with candi syrup, you can more precisely control carbonation levels to match a style. You also need to ensure that it's mixed well before bottling to ensure that you don't under-prime some bottles and over-prime others. Corn sugar adds no flavor to the finished beer, so it's a safe choice for all styles.
  • Table Sugar: When I started home brewing with the Mr. Beer kit, they recommended using table sugar to prime each bottle. They even gave you a small "scoop" device that would make it easy to measure the right amount of sugar for a bottle and was designed to easily fit inside the neck of the bottle. I've heard people say that table sugar imparts flavor into beer when used to prime it. Granted I was less knowledgeable when I used table sugar than I am now, but I never detected any off-flavors caused by it. It's a method I could consider if I entered a bottling day unprepared and had no other option.
  • Chocolate Syrup:  For a chocolate stout I brewed, I thought it might be fun to carbonate the beer using Hershey's Chocolate Syrup.  This worked just fine.  I had no problems with undercarbonation, head retention, etc.  If you're looking for a little extra chocolate flavor, it's certainly an option.
There are lots of other choices for priming sugar, but these are the only ones I've used.


Adding Yeast

I'm a big fan of the higher-gravity Belgian styles like Tripels and Quadrupels. These styles often hit 9% alcohol by volume or higher by the end of fermentation. For a while, I was frustrated because some batches of beer would carbonate well and others wouldn't. It's really disappointing to spend hours brewing and bottling a beer, only to pop open a cold one and find it almost totally flat. It might taste pretty good, but it's not the same as a nice carbonated brew.

Doing some experimentation, I found that in my experience, beers that finish below 8% alcohol by volume tend to carbonate fine if I add only priming sugar and keep them in temperatures suitable for the yeast (e.g., 76 degrees Fahrenheit). The further I got above 8% alcohol, the more likely that the beer would turn out flat even with extra priming sugar added. 

For this reason, my general rule of thumb is to add yeast at bottling time in addition to priming sugar, if the beer's alcohol content is above 8%. Since making this change, I've so far had every batch come out carbonated.  If I forget, carbonation either takes much longer or sometimes fails completely.

When it's a batch I have invested a lot of money and time into, I'll use the CBC-1 cask and bottle conditioning yeast to bottle it. For most batches, I'll use champagne yeast or wine yeast. These yeasts haven't noticeably changed the flavor for me but have ensured good carbonation.

Before bottling, I'll boil water with my carbonation sugar (if I'm using anything other than the tablets and drops) and a second small batch of water to rehydrate the yeast (if I'm adding some). 

Bottling Bucket

I use a Chapman SteelTank fermenter as my bottling bucket, or an 8-gallon plastic bottling bucket I picked up from Adventures in Homebrewing.  (The 8-gallon bucket's spigot is much lower and it's semi-transparent so it works a bit better for bottling.)

I place the bottling bucket on a chair and slide it close to my brewing table. I place the fermenter on the table. I attach a length of sanitized tubing to the spigot on the fermenter. I'm then ready to transfer the beer from the fermenter to the bottling bucket. 

Getting ready to transfer beer into the bottling bucket
I know that many home brewers use glass or plastic carboys for fermentation, and use siphons to transfer the beer to a bottling bucket. I've never used a glass carboy, in part because I don't like the added weight and in part because I know I'm a big enough klutz that I'll drop one eventually. 

I'm not a fan of siphons either. I used a siphon to transfer a batch of beer from a plastic Better Bottle fermenter to the bottling bucket earlier in my brewing days and found it to be a real pain to work with. I vowed never again to do that. I ended up drilling a hole in the Better Bottle and attaching a spigot so that I could do gravity transfers.

I prefer gravity transfer because it's much easier to sanitize a length of tubing than a typical siphon. A good friend of my who home brews had a couple of batches become contaminated when bacteria built up invisibly in his siphon. He was understandably upset that two very good beers were ruined. I let his unfortunate experience become a good reason not to use a siphon again.

With my gravity transfer ready, I'll open the spigot and let beer begin transferring to my bottling bucket. When about a gallon has transferred, I'll pour in the priming sugar solution and bottle conditioning yeast (if needed). Once all the beer is into the bucket, I'll gently sir that with a sanitized stainless steel spoon to ensure a good mixture.

Gravity transfer of my Belgian Dubbel underway
I move the fermenter to the side, then place the bottling bucket on the table. Next, I insert the sanitized bottling wand into the spigot and test to ensure that it's securely in place. I open the spigot and begin filling bottles. I used to fill bottles directly from the spigot but found that this sometimes churned up the beer enough that I got flavors that I think were due to oxidation. That hasn't been the case since using the wand, so it's become a part of my process now.

Bottling and Conditioning

My wife, or a friend or family member, usually assists in bottling. My assistant will fill a bottle, then hand it to me. I take a cap out of a bowl of sanitizing solution, place it on the bottle, and crimp the cap into place using my Williams Brewing Rack and Pinion Capper.

Filling a bottle from the bottom up
Once all the bottles are filled, I'll wipe off the top of each cap and write a letter code that tells me which beer style or batch it's from. This keeps me from getting confused if I have more than one batch of bottles conditioning at the same time. It also allows me to easily pick up a bottle of the right beer from a case when I can't see the label.

Bottles inside a cooler with temperature control and a fermwrap heater
For the final step, I'll put the bottles inside a large marine cooler.  A fermwrap heater is attached to the inside of the cooler and plugged into an InkBird temperature controller.  The temperature probe is placed inside the middle of the cooler.  This combination keeps the inside of the cooler at an optimal temperature for the yeast so that carbonation is successful and quick.  I typically set the controller at 76F unless the yeast strain used isn't well suited to that temperature.  After a week or two in this "hot box" the beer is usually ready to drink.

One reason I will put the beer inside this cooler is temperature control. The other is to contain the "explosion" if any of the bottles happen to burst.  This has only happened to me once, with a bottle of apple wine, but it's happened.  It's much easier to clean broken glass and spilled liquid from the inside of a cooler than from the floor, ceiling, etc.  After a week or two in the hot box, I've yet to have a bottle burst anywhere else.

Labeling

I didn't label most of my early batches. At most, I wrote a letter on the cap to tell me what they were. After a while, I had trouble remembering what the letters were. I decided it was time to step up my game and print actual labels.

One of my labels
To do this, I start by using the free open source program Inkscape to draw a grid of twelve boxes on a page. Then I create artwork for the label using clip art and text, and sometimes draw my own art. On my label, I'll usually put:
  • The name of the beer (e.g., "Dated Quad")
  • The style of beer (e.g., "Belgian Quadrupel with Date Syrup")
  • Brewing date
  • Bottling date
  • Alcohol content
  • BU/GU ratio
  • Indicators if the beer is gluten-reduced or gelatin finings were used
  • (Sometimes) The recipe and/or ingredients
I print these using a laser printer and cut them out. To glue them to the bottles, I flip them artwork-down on a piece of scrap cardboard and cover the back with glue from a glue stick (the kind children use in grade school). Then I stick the label to the bottle. The glue stick holds very well to the bottle, unless it's soaked in water or left in a cooler too long. When I've finished with the beer, I can soak the bottle in plain hot tap water to easily remove the label and re-use the bottle.

I'm fortunate to have a number of friends and family who like trying the beers I make. To make it easier on myself when I want to give people a sample pack to take home, I write a code on the bottle cap to make it easier to identify what beer is inside. For example, I might use "D" on a Dubbel, "CA" for a cream ale, or "PBS" for a Peanut Butter Stout. While standing over the cases of bottles, it's easy to see what beers I have in stock and pick out the ones someone might like.

Cleanup

After bottling, I've got a dirty fermenter, a dirty bottling bucket, and a few miscellaneous implements that need cleaning. I'll rinse the bottling bucket out and fill it with a few gallons of hot water from the tap. I'll add a bit of Powdered Brewer's Wash (PBW) to this and stir it to mix up the cleaner.

Using a kitchen scrubbing sponge that is only used for brewing cleanup, I clean the inside of the bottling bucket with the PBW. I start with this bucket because it's usually the cleanest and won't contaminate the PBW solution too much before I use it on the fermenter.  I'll run PBW through the spigot for a few seconds to clean inside that. Then I'll wash off the bowls and other implements I used with the PBW and rinse them. These are set aside to dry. I'll set the bottling bucket full of PBW aside and pick up the fermenter.

The fermenter is usually the toughest part of cleaning. There's usually a mass of dead yeast in a ring around the top of it, and a big blob of yeast in the bottom. I run some hot tap water inside the fermenter and use the sponge to remove as much of the dirt as I can. Then I'll dump the fermenter's contents out. 

At this point, I tip the PBW solution from the bottling bucket into the fermenter. I'll scrub it more thoroughly now to remove any sign of dirt and let it soak a bit to remove anything I might not be able to see. I'll run PBW through the spigot/valve on the fermenter for a minute or two to ensure that it gets clean as well. I'm finished with the PBW at this point and pour that down the drain. 

I rinse the fermenter and bottling bucket with hot water twice. On the second rinse, I run hot water through the spigot/valve to rinse that out as well. 

Taking a clean terry cloth towel, I'll dry the inside and outside of the fermenter and bottling bucket so they're ready to be used again. When I'm satisfied that they're fully dried, I'll snap the lid on them and put an empty airlock in the hole to keep out dust, insects, and other contaminants until the next use. 

Taste Tests

At this point, I've completed the brewing cycle. I've got a brand new beer bottled up and conditioning. I'll typically get a bottle out of the "hot box" after a week and refrigerate it overnight. The next day I'll open it and pour it into a glass. I'll check to see that I'm getting carbonation (though at one week it's not always fully carbonated, especially if I didn't add yeast at bottling), taste for any hint of bacterial or wild yeast contamination, check for off flavors, etc. If the beer seems like it's turning out OK, I'll taste it again in another week.

Share and Enjoy

When the beer is finished conditioning and I've confirmed that it tastes OK, it's time to share it with others. I'll put a few bottles in my refrigerator at home, and pack up a few to take to coworkers who enjoy craft beer (and to fellow home brewers who bring me theirs to try).

I've actually acquired enough of a following at work and at home that I give away at least a third of each batch as soon as it's ready. Over the next few weeks or months, I'll share more with family, friends, and others. I'll have a few myself, of course.

As I enjoy each bottle of my home brew, I'll typically start analyzing it. I'll ask myself questions like these:
  • Am I happy with how this beer turned out?
  • Did it carbonate well?
  • Did it generate a good head of foam, and did the foam last?
  • Do I detect any off-flavors and if so, how can I prevent those in the future?
  • Is there any change I can make in the next batch that would make it better?
  • If I've made this beer before, how does this batch compare to earlier ones?
  • If this is an attempt to clone a commercial beer, I'll open a bottle of the real beer and sip the two side by side, comparing color, clarity, head, aroma, carbonation level, and taste. If there are differences, I start thinking about how I can adjust my beer to better approximate the original. (Occasionally, I'll decide I like mine better and leave it alone.)
To contribute to the home brewing community and share what I learn, I will also put a post on this blog. I share the recipe, the brewing process, etc.  When the beer is finished, I'll add a post-mortem section with answers to the questions above. That way, if a reader of the blog decides to make one of my beers, they'll know as much as I do about it.  If the beer was entered into competition, I'll add the judges' notes and scores so that readers of the blog have a more objective view of the recipe in addition to my own.

I hope you've enjoyed this series of posts and found it useful or entertaining.


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