Better bottling

By Gregg Smith

You're bottling your beer, the last step in the process, and as you go about filling you can almost taste it. It seems so simple, just siphon it into the bottle and cap it. What could possibly go wrong? Unfortunately, this one simple step can lead to a lot of problems.

Throughout this column we've introduced a few techniques which can be incorporated into your brewing with very little effort. Even more amazing these have all been fairly simple to implement. By altering a few steps in our brewing we made a change to all malt brewing, vigorous boiling, hops addition, storage of hops and yeast in the refrigerator, cooling wort, and hydrating the yeast. These techniques steadily amounted to an overall improvement of our beer.

Now it's time for the next step - - improving our bottling techniques. Once again we'll start with the simplest. Get rid of all bottle labels. Why? Because they're just the ticket for introducing infections in your beer. Did you ever have a bottle of fine homebrew, which after two or three months, suddenly became supercharged with carbonation and turn into a shadow of its former self. The general traits along with over carbonation usually includes a thin body and somewhat sour taste. If this has ever happened to you it's probably an infection and if you didn't clean off the old labels that's most likely the source. Any malt and beer spilled on the old labels is a cozy nesting ground for bacteria and wild yeast waiting to ruin your beer, and since these are airborne the process of bottling is the perfect time for them to enter the beer. Aside from all this, if you're sanitizing your bottles you don't need little pieces of label floating into the bottle.

Okay, I can hear you saying this sounds about as much fun as bathing a cat, so let's not make it any more difficult than need be. Let's begin with an easy method of getting rid of old labels. Fill your bottles up to the neck with water. Then make one-third a bucket of strong (two or three tablespoons) solution of B-Brite in warm water. Place the bottles in the bucket then finish filling the bucket with warm water to a level just below the lip of the bottles.

Now, grab a homebrew, pop it open, sit back and relax. The caustic wonder in the bucket will effectively eat away and remove most labels within an hour or two soak (usually much less). What's left for you is to clean up the remaining pieces with a beer dedicated nylon scrub pad. This method even works on foil labels. If you get two buckets going you can clean just under a case in no time at all. Best of all those nice clean bottles can now be sanitized by placing them upside down in a dishwasher set on the last rinse and heat dry cycle. The steam generated by thedishwasher in this process will quite effectively sanitize the bottles.

Now we've got clean bottles, great! The next step is priming, the method we "natural types" use to carbonate our beer. When we racked our beer to a secondary and let it settle out we ended up with a brew that looked really clean and bright. In fact, it appeared all the yeast fell to the bottom. Guess what? Not so! In reality there are still billions of dormant yeast cells just waiting for us to give them a wake up call. All these little yeasties are going to provide our carbonation.

Remember how your beer bubbled through the airlock while it was fermenting? The gas was CO2, the same thing which makes the bubbles in beer. Basically the yeast will find this additional food we threw in (primer) and they'll wake up for breakfast. As they gobble up this extra food they burp out CO2 which, since it's enclosed in the bottle, goes into solution in the beer. How convenient.

The way we're going to improve our brew is to shift away from using a primer of sugar, both cane and corn. We want insure our all malt beer is indeed all malt. No, this doesn't mean I want you to put aside some of the syrupy, liquid goop you scrapped from a can of malt. Our process will be much easier. The next time you buy home brew supplies get yourself a bag of light dry malt extract. This is also referred to as spray malt. When you're ready to prime 5 gallons simply measure out 1 cup of dry malt and boil it for a couple of minutes in 2 cups of water. Watch out! This can boil over just as easily as the full wort. Quickly cool it, add it into your bottling bucket\carboy and it will mix quite well as you siphon in the beer from your secondary fermenter. The excess dry malt can be stored in a large zip lock freezer bag.

You may note this is a little more than the 3/4 cup recommended when using sugar, and you're right. The difference is that both corn and cane sugar have many more readily fermentable sugars, and you'll observe this in the carbonation, with big and very active bubbles. Using all malt will make the bubbles smaller and less harsh. The draw back is that it takes longer for the beer to carbonate by this method, probably a month or so, but this gives your beer the right amount of time to mature. The result is better beer.

Now one last word about ageing and storing. Keep your brewskis in the same environment as your fermenter. Make sure the temperature stays steady, swings will lead to shorter life of the beer and give it the character of wet cardboard. Also keep the bottles out of direct light which can cause a skunky trait.

In review: remove old labels and sanitize those bottles, shift to using a cup of dry malt as the primer, age the beer in a cool spot with steady temperatures and keep the bottles out of light. Follow these simple steps and you'll soon be enjoying a smooth creamy head on those all natural beers.

Gregg Smith


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