Bottling Beer

Home brewing has exploded in San Diego.  A trip to Home Brew Mart is enough to tell you that there are lots of brewers out there, and some of them are quite serious.  In spite of that, there remains a great deal of mystery about brewing, especially at home.  I am surprised that the most common question I get is: “How do you bottle your beer?”. 

Of course the answer is simplicity itself.  Bottling beer is simply a matter of getting the beer into the bottles.  I personally rely on a fairly advanced technology, invented several thousand years ago in Greece; the siphon.

There are varying schools of thought on the proper way to start a siphon (I use an auto-siphon, a sort of hand pump implement).  But from there you need only make sure the siphoner is higher than the siphonee.  The process generally involves moving the beer from the fermentor (I use glass carboys) into a bottling bucket, then from the bottling bucket into the individual bottles.  Summed up, it amounts to lifting 45 lbs of beer up onto the counter 2-3 times.

The beer is transferred to individual bottles, also using a siphon.  The process is improved with a handy-dandy tube attachment called a bottling cane.  This is just a pressure activated needle valve that prevents spillage when moving the siphon from one bottle to the next.

The bottles are then capped with a press style or butterfly capper; both machines which crimp a splayed out cap onto the top of a bottle.  The long and the short of it is, I save every non-screw top beer bottle I come across.  I even beg my friends to save some for me.  After I drink a bottle of home brew, I rinse out that bottle and use it again.  It’s actually the best glass recycling program I’m aware of.  The caps cannot be reused, but can be readily purchased when you make that trip to Home Brew Mart.

The process of bottling is fairly similar between a brewery and a home brewer.  The key difference is carbonation.  Home brewers typically do not filter the beer after fermentation.  Therefore the beer has residual yeast which can be reactivated with a bit of sugar.  This is called priming, and it is achieved by adding a sterile sugar water solution to the bottling bucket, before siphoning the beer in.  Then each bottle has the same amount of sugar per unit volume.  The residual yeast eats the new sugar and converts it to CO2 and a teeny bit more alcohol, over the course of 2-3 weeks.  This process is known as bottle-conditioning, and is in use by many large scale breweries.

The other choice, typically for large scale breweries, is a beer gun.  The beer is filtered until it is crystal clear and free of yeast.  Then it is injected into bottles along with a stream of CO2.  This is done by hand in small breweries, where the bottles are also capped by hand.  Larger breweries have a bottling and capping factory, which is usually surrounded by a shield to contain exploding glass.

For the home brewer bottling is the final production step in a batch of beer.  A 5 gallon batch will yield about 28 tall boys (22 oz), or 53 regular beer bottles (12 oz).  After bottling you wait 2-3 weeks (or sometimes months, depending on the beer and the mistakes you made brewing it), then enjoy.

Of course the best thing about bottling…it frees up a carboy to make more beer.  Here I’m siphoning the famous Janet’s Brown Ale onto some Cascade and Centennial hops; a process known as dry hopping.  But that’s another story.

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