Saturday, 04 November, 2000

Beer Bottling / Homebrewing

Today was beer bottling day.  I had to bottle the beer for next week's party (see Oct 22).  Of course, I took a sample for taste before I began bottling.  It's a little sweet, but that's normal.  Otherwise it tastes like flat beer.

Like everything else about home brewing, the bottling process is very simple.  Again, the primary word is sanitation.  Before you start bottling, you have to clean and sanitize the bottles, siphon the beer from the carboy (glass jug) into a sanitized bucket, and add a little priming sugar (about 3/4 cup of corn sugar or malt extract).  You siphon the beer into the bottling bucket for two reasons:  to help ensure that the priming sugar is evenly distributed in the 5 gallons of beer, and to get the beer away from the dead yeast—you don't want too much of that in your finished beer.  There's still some live yeast in the beer, but not too much.  The priming sugar is food for the yeast.  I'll get to why you need that below.

Once you sanitize everything and transfer to the bottling bucket, it's a simple matter to siphon the beer into individual bottles.  We have a bottle filler, which is simply a tube with a spring-loaded valve at the end.  You put the tube into the bottle, and press the valve against the bottom of the bottle to start the beer flowing.  When the bottle is full, you release the valve to stop the flow.  You can do it without the bottle filler, but it's a major pain, and very messy.

Everybody asks me how I cap the bottles.  It's amazingly simple.  You can buy caps by the pound at the local homebrew store or through the mail.  Mine say "Real Beer" on them.  The capper is a simple and inexpensive (less than $10) device that crimps the cap onto the bottle.  Capping is probably the easiest part of the entire process.

Remember I said that the beer was flat?  Nobody I know likes flat beer, so we need a way to carbonate it.  Home brewers who keg their beer use CO2 to force carbonate it.  But the equipment to force carbonate bottled beer is out of reach for most home brewers, so we let the yeast do it for us.

Yeast digest sugar and produce alcohol and CO2 as by-products.  In your primary and secondary fermenters, the CO2 bubbles out through your airlock.  But if you add some sugar to your finished beer and cap the bottles, the remaining yeast will feed on the sugar, and the resulting CO2 will remain in your beer.  Natural carbonation.

The only drawback (to some people) to this process is that the yeast will settle out of the beer and form a small layer on the bottom of the bottle, and then get stirred up when you take a drink.  It's not harmful (on the contrary, there's some evidence that these small amounts of yeast are beneficial), but some people find the yeast distasteful.  That's easy enough to remedy—just carefully pour the beer from the bottle into a mug, and leave the last 1/4 inch or so in the bottle.

After you bottle the beer, just store the bottles in a cool dark place for a week or two.  Then refrigerate (optional), open a bottle, and enjoy.

Getting Started with Homebrew

Although there's quite a lot of good homebrew information on the web, the best place to start is your local homebrew supply store.  Just go in and tell them that you want to get started, and they'll hook you up.  You can get a full brewing kit with all the necessary equipment, and ingredients and instructions for your first batch of beer for under $100.  That doesn't include bottles or bottle caps.  You can buy the bottles at the homebrew store (you'll need about 50 12-oz bottles for a 5-gallon batch), or save the ones that contain your store-bought beer.  Twist-off bottles don't work so well.  Some homebrew places have a "bottle swap" where people drop off their bottles.  Remove the labels by soaking them overnight in a bucket of ammonia/water solution (1 cup of ammonia in 5 gallons of water works well).  Remember to rinse the bottles thoroughly after soaking in ammonia.

I recommend Charlie Papazian's book The New Complete Joy of Homebrewing.  It contains a lot of information about the science of fermentation, a troubleshooting section, and recipes for lots of different beers.  If your homebrew store doesn't carry it, it's almost guaranteed that your local chain bookstore will.

Homebrew.com is a good  place to start if you're looking for information online.  Their resource center has links to articles on how to start brewing, a FAQ, and lots of other information.  The Real Beer Page also has a lot of information, and links to dozens of sites that contain brewing information, recipes, ingredients, and equipment.  My local homebrew store, Austin Homebrew Supply, also has an online ordering system.