After 7 days in the primary fermenter and 4 days in the secondary (it should have been the other way around but my schedule didn’t allow it), it was time to bottle my Belgian dubbel. The following is a typical bottling day and I’ll explain each step in detail for the uninitiated.
I ferment in my basement and bottle in the kitchen, so the first thing to do is haul the fermenter upstairs. A word of caution: A 5 gallon glass carboy full of beer weighs in the neighborhood of 60 lbs. Picking it up is not easy and if you aren’t careful, you can hurt your back which is exactly what I did a couple of weeks ago. Consequently, I headed down to Harbor Freight and got a carrying strap for 4 bucks. This makes it much easier to lift the carboy off the floor. You can get carboy carriers or handles but the carriers have to be put on the carboy before it is set on the ground and the handles make it difficult to carry the carboy without a lot of sloshing. Sloshing the beer will disturb some of the trub (pronounced troob) or sediment that has settled to the bottom and make your beer cloudy. It’s a good idea to move your beer to wherever you plan to bottle a couple of hours before actually bottling to allow the trub to settle again.
A secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle which creates the carbonation in your home brew. Because the yeast has already converted most of the sugars to alcohol during the primary fermentation, it is necessary to add a little sugar to the beer before bottling. This is called “priming” the beer. The most common primer for home brewers is 3/4 cup of corn sugar for a 5 gallon batch. First, bring a quart or so of water to a boil, then add your sugar. Stir it to dissolve it completely and let it boil for 10-15 minutes to sanitize it. Then remove it from the heat and let it cool.
While the primer is cooling, you need to sanitize everything that will come in contact with the beer, including the bottles and caps. A 5 gallon batch of beer will fill around 50 12oz bottles. The bottles are already clean before I sanitize them so it’s a bit tedious but not hard. I usually mix a couple of gallons of sanitizing solution in my bottling bucket, submerge each bottle long enough for it to get a couple of ounces of solution in it, shake it to make sure the inside of the bottle is coated with sanitizer, then dump it. I use a no-rinse sanitizer which saves a step. You can use your dishwasher to sanitize. Just run it without any soap or rinse-aid. Some dishwashers even have a sanitizing cycle option.
I also sanitize the racking cane, spoon, bottling bucket and bottling tube. I put the caps in a bowl with some sanitizing solution and let them soak until it is time to use them.
You can buy bottles or reuse bottle. The way I see it, empty bottles cost almost as much as bottles with beer in them so you may as well buy the beer and save the bottle. Just make sure it is not a screw-off bottle; those cannot be reused. There are plastic bottles made for beer, and I have even used regular water bottles, but glass will last longer and preserve your beer better. I strongly recommend washing your bottles as you empty them instead of waiting until bottling time to wash and sanitize them. It just saves a lot of time. I have several Grolsch bottles and a few 22oz “brown bombers” which means fewer bottles to sanitize. The Grolsch bottles are handy because they don’t require a cap but they are green. You should use brown bottles whenever possible because they are better at protecting the beer from light which can turn beer skunky. I can’t resist the convenience of the Grolsch bottles so I just make sure they are stored in the dark.
While a bottling bucket is not absolutely necessary, it makes the job easier. It makes mixing the primer into the beer and makes controlling the flow of the beer into the bottles simpler. You can buy bottling buckets but I made mine out of a regular 5 gallon bucket, the spigot from a broken sun tea jar, and a couple of rubber washers. You can buy spigots at most home brew shops and some hardware stores.
To mix the primer with the beer, I pour the primer into the bucket then transfer the beer to the bucket with the racking cane, stirring occasionally to make sure they mix thoroughly. After all of the beer has transferred and is thoroughly mixed, I place a (sanitized) lid on the bucket but don’t seal it. After fermentation, the beer is much less susceptible to infection from wild yeast or bacteria in the air but I would rather not have anything falling into the beer while I am bottling. Note the towel on the floor. You will make a mess; that’s just part of the process.
While the beer is transferring, I steal enough to take a final gravity (FG) reading with the hydrometer to determine the alcohol by volume (ABV). The FG of this beer was 1.015. To determine the ABV, subtract the FG from the original gravity (OG), taken before fermentation, and multiply times 131. In this case, it would be (1.067 – 1.015) x 131 = 6.8. The priming sugar adds approximately .5% so the ABV of this beer is about 7.3%. W00t! That’s about right for a dubbel and by far the highest ABV to date for me.
When filling the bottles, you want to introduce as little air into the beer as possible. Using a fill tube helps because the bottle is filled from the bottom up, pushing the air in the bottle out as it fills. You’ll always get a little bit of foam but fill as gently as is practical. Fill the bottle to within about an inch of the top. Too much space at the top can inhibit carbonation because there is too much oxygen in the bottle. Too little space can also inhibit carbonation because the CO2 produced by the yeast increases the pressure in the bottle and too much pressure can prevent a complete fermentation. In extreme cases it can also cause the bottle to explode.
Once the bottles are filled, it’s time to cap them. There are several types of capping apparatuses available but the basic concept is the same. The cap is crimped around the lip of the bottle to form an airtight seal. It’s a good idea to check each bottle to make sure the cap is evenly crimped around the lip. If it is not, air will leak into the bottle preventing carbonation.
Now it’s all over but the waiting, which is the hardest part. Place the bottles in a cool, dark place for at least 10 days. Different beers require different “conditioning” time, some up to several months, but 10 days is the minumum time required for carbonation. The character and flavor of the beer will change, and generally improve, over time so don’t get too eager to drink it all. It can help to note the differnce that the conditioning time makes to the beer if you choose brew the same recipe in the future.