Episode 5: Bottling Your Homebrew

Wed 19 Dec 2007 - Filed under: Not a Journal., | 3 Comments | Posted by: Michael

Bottling is technical and tedious, nobody’s favorite part of the brewing process. So I’ll lead with the good stuff.

Ra came to where the beer stood waiting in seven thousand jars, and the gods came with him to see how by his wisdom he would save mankind.

“Mingle the red ochre of Abu with the barley-beer,” said Ra, and it was done, so that the beer gleamed red in the moonlight like the blood of men. “Now take it to the place where Sekhmet proposes to slay men when the sun rises.”

—from this great Egyptian myth retelling of the war-goddess Sekhmet’s transformation, via beer, into Hathor, goddess of fertility. Just pretend that jar of cobras on her head is a jar of blood-colored beer. Like an old timey St. Patrick’s Day!

(See Episode 4: Honey Porter for the first half of the brewing process.)

Bottling homebrewed beer is time-consuming and meticulous. If I had means for kegging (dedicated fridge, taps, kegs, extra room in house), I would have switched to kegs long ago. Kegs are better in terms of their ease of use, increased volume, and for the fact that kegging opens up a whole other world of lager beer styles which can’t be fermented at room temperature. But bottling does have certain advantages of its own: portability, for one thing. Some beers actually do better in bottles than kegs, particularly those that benefit from long aging. And I suppose bottling my homebrew allows me to reduce my carbon footprint a little bit–not having to keep a keg around saves me from having to expend extra electricity to keep it cool, and from having to buy compressed CO2 canisters to pressurize it. I can make my own C02, thank you very much! Get to that in a minute.

When we left off at the end of Episode 4, I had just pitched the yeast into my five-gallon food-grade pail of honey porter, snapped on a lid and an airlock and sat back to wait. In the days that followed, the yeast came to life, consumed some starches and sugars, let off some CO2 (which escaped the pail via the airlock), produced some alcohol, and reproduced more yeast. After four or five days, the food supply of starch and sugars thinned out, and the yeast colony mostly returned to dormancy, settling to the bottom of the pail into a layer of soupy brown gunk. The time required for this varies according to the type of yeast used, the temperature in the room and the amount of sugar in the wort. If you get impatient, it’s easy to tell when it’s time for the next step: pull the lid partway off the pail and peek in. If you see a layer of dense brown froth, the yeast is still at work. Better yet, take a hydrometer reading. If the specific gravity has dropped to near or below 1.010, the yeast has done it’s job.

Then I bring out my sterilized five-gallon glass carboy and my siphon tube. I lift the rather heavy pail onto the kitchen counter, put the carboy on the floor, fill the siphon hose with water, fit a plastic filter widget over one end of the hose and my thumb over the other. The filter end goes in the beer. The water in the tube saves me from having to put my germy mouth all over the hose in order to get the suction going. I just take my thumb off the end when I’m ready, empty the water into a pint glass and then stuff the end of the hose into the carboy. Ten minutes later, the carboy has filled up with silky black barley juice. Left behind in the pail is some brown gack that smells like throw-up. Not exactly, but it isn’t pleasant. I throw it away. Then I cork up the carboy, put a new, sterile airlock on, and wait another week.

Yeast, not unlike people, requires three things to survive: a temperate, comfortable environment, nutritious sustenance, and air to breathe. Unlike humans, yeast can be deprived of up to two of these for quite some time without actually dying. As long as you don’t shock it to death with extreme heat or cold, yeast can slow down its metabolism a long way and hold out for better times. By siphoning the beer from one container to another, we have re-aerated the liquid, giving the yeast that has remained in suspension in the liquid (a small proportion of the original colony, but not insignificant) a new lease on life. It will now go back to work on the remaining sugars.

So now it has been two weeks. The yeast has done more work, and more goop has fallen to the bottom of the jug. It is time to bottle.

First, as usual, I sterilize everything I will need, which in this case includes a small, lidded saucepan, a big spoon, enough bottles to hold five gallons of beer, siphon hose, plastic filter widget, hydrometer (mad scientist device for measuring specific gravity), thermometer (mad scientist device for measuring temperature) and racking cane (rigid siphon tube attachment with clever nozzle on the end for bottling). It all goes in my 5-gallon bucket with 5 gallons of water and 2 tablespoons of unscented bleach. This usually takes three shifts of 30 minutes each.

I siphon the beer back from the carboy into my newly re-santized plastic bucket, leaving behind more dead yeast at the bottom of my carboy. There’s precious little of it left in the beer–but I will need those last resilient few in order to produce the CO2 I will need to carbonate the beer. Which means I must re-invigorate them with life by providing warmth, air and sugar. I drop in a warm “priming syrup” made from 1 cup water and 3/4 cup (5 oz by weight) corn sugar. I have never been quite clear on the reasoning for corn over beet or cane sugar. It must have to do with the flavors produced. I mix this in very well, ensuring that it will be evenly distributed among all the bottles so that each can produce enough CO2 to carbonate.

Then, using siphon and racking cane, I fill bottles. I have a plastic cutting board with rubber handles that rests very steadily in the bottom of my sink, which I use as my filling platform, as shown at right. It’s best to do this under direct, bright light, in order to see the dark beer filling up the dark glass bottles. Otherwise you’ll tend to spill.

I use a mixture of 32 and 16 oz brown glass bottles with flip-top ceramic or plastic corks–supplemented with a few regular 12-oz bottles with aluminum crown caps (which lend themselves easily to transport via six-pack and I am not so bothered about if I don’t get back). When I have distributed all the beer among them, I seal them up and arrange them in some milk crates for storage in a dark place at warm room temperature. I will begin to drink them after a solid two weeks of bottle-conditioning.

The entire process of bottling, from sterilization through capping, takes three hours. Two of them require intensive work on your feet in the kitchen. And if you happen to be insufficiently burly to lift 5 gallons of beer up to counter-height, best have a second pair of hands around so you don’t strain your back.

And your reward?

Usually there’s half a pint of leftover uncarbonated beer that doesn’t fill a whole bottle. Ye unadventurous homebrewers might pour this down the sink. I throw it in a glass and sip it for awhile. It makes for an interesting prophecy of what your finished beer will be like.

Other than that, you’ll just have to wait another two weeks.


3 Responses to “Episode 5: Bottling Your Homebrew”

  1. The First Liar on December 28th, 2007 9:01 pm

    I’ve long lusted after kegging instead of bottling and have even already bought a used frig that already stays full with a variety of bottle brew. The use of 16, 20 or even 24 ounce bottles cut down on the bottling time but it’s easier to share an assortment of beers in the traditional 12-ounce six pack.

  2. Michael on January 4th, 2008 8:26 pm

    I completely agree!
    I’ve got two “cola” kegs in my closet. No taps or hardware for them, sadly, and no fridge.

  3. Episode 8: Chili Beer : Not a journal. on July 11th, 2008 6:23 am

    […] for the use of hot chile peppers in beer. I’m always on the lookout for something to top that fragment of Egyptian myth about beer-as-blood and the transformation of Hathor. Trouble is, belief in the mystical power of […]

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