Beer!–part 2

..bottling and cycling:
(c) 2016, Davd

If you took my reminder to have bottles enough ready, to hold the 23 litres (about 5 US gallons, for those readers who live there) that you started a week ago…
… and if your wort has fermented and is clear or well along in clearing1, then it’s time to bottle. (If it’s not ready, copy the url of this “food blog” for later reference, and expect it’s likely to be in front position for the rest of September.)

You don’t have to bottle beer the first day it’s ready—it can sit in the carboy for a week or two, maybe three weeks, without harm, as long as it’s isolated from the bacteria in the air.. (which isolation is what that fermentation lock does.)

In addition to the beer and the bottles, you’ll need some bleach, a little more sugar, a siphon, funnels, and at least as many caps as you have bottles. With a little bit of luck, you’ll have more caps than bottles, just by saving [and if need be, washing] screw caps from pop bottles. (You can also save empty pop bottles, wash them, and use them for beer. Myself, i think that’s fine if the bottles are plain shaped and made to take pressure2; but cute shapes, i use only for the last bottle or two that have dregs in them—you’ll read more about dregs further down.)

I recommend you also have another beer kit and a spare kilo of sugar on hand, as well, so you can start another batch in your carboy the same day. Having just fermented a good batch of beer, a carboy is obviously in good state to ferment another.

The bottling process begins with sterilization.

I put “a few tablespoons”—maybe 100 ml [3+ ounces] at most–of bleach through a tiny funnel inserted in the top of the siphon hose, and thus through the siphon hose also, into a heavy glass beer bottle—I use one of those European type bottles3 with its own ceramic cam-action cap, but any heavy bottle will do. The bleach, should cover the bottom of the bottle 1-1,5 centimetres [a half inch or slightly less] deep. I follow the bleach with at least twice as much water, making sure the bleach and then the water pass along the whole siphon. That way the siphon is sterilized, and also rinsed so the first bottle of beer is fit to drink. The bleach-water mixture should cover the bottom of the bottle about 5 cm [two inches] deep.

This bleach-water [the sterilizing solution] is then passed through all the bottles I will be using [and generally one or two spares since I cannot be sure exactly how much beer I will get before hitting the sediment]. I use a medium-size funnel: Each time I take a bottle, I immediately put the funnel into its neck. Then I take a cap, and put it on the bottle that contains the sterilizing solution. (If you are cycling, the bottles and caps were rinsed soon after emptying, so in dishwashing terms, they are already clean, as are new bottles4.) I shake the bottle for 2-3 seconds, being sure the neck and the inside of the cap get well wetted; and then I take the cap off, put it in a clean container, and pour the solution through the funnel into the next bottle.

By taking a new cap for each new bottle, I wind up with enough sterilized caps in the same operation that sterilizes the bottles. To be sure, i shake the first plastic bottle i sterilize, 2-3 times, with a different cap each time.

(With a little practice, you can co-ordinate your hands so that one hand moves the funnel and the other caps the bottle that has the sterilizing solution. The only problem is your workspace filling up with a crowd of bleachy-smelling pint bottles, making it hard to position the new and sterilizing solution bottles for smooth co-ordination. Nothing’s perfect… i often put two dozen of the sterilized bottles in a box.)

I could probably fill the bottles as they are, but I rinse them first to minimize the bleach. I think that helps the carbonation start and proceed quickly. Rinsing takes less than half as long per bottle, partly because the bottles are coming off the worktable into a box, and partly because you don’t have to screw a cap on and then unscrew it–just pour the plain water from one bottle to the next, through the funnel, with a good swirl to cover the inside of the bottle you’re rinsing and then pouring.

No question about it, this sterilizing is tedious, and it is equally tedious if you use sulphite solution to sterilize. (I prefer bleach because it is available at far more stores and it leaves far less of a smell and taste. A tiny bit of bleach becomes a tiny bit of salt by the time you drink the beer.)

Two-litre bottles are less trouble to sterilize because you need about a quarter as many. To me, flat beer is more tedious, so I go ahead and use pints [and half litres]; and spoiled beer is worse than tedious–so I go along with the tedium of sterilizing.

When the bottles are sterilized and rinsed, i proceed quickly to fill them with beer and then “prime” them with sugar. I have usually done this work alone, but there’s no harm and some useful “backup”, in cycling beer with a friend.

My siphon is wrapped with a rubber band at the point where the short end will just reach the bottom of the carboy from the top of the neck. I’ve passed a big paper clip through the rubber band. To start siphoning, I put the short end into the carboy, clip the paper clip onto the top, and take a quick “draw” on the other end. The beer never reaches my mouth, because once it’s started, I put the delivery end of the siphon into a waiting mug.

Into the mug goes a sample–two or three ounces–and then the siphon goes into the first pint bottle. The sample will tell me for sure that the beer is OK. I taste it immediately and as long as it tastes like flat beer, I proceed to fill the bottles.5

Filling the first few bottles–like the second or third day of fermentation–is fast-and-furious. The higher the “head” of liquid, the faster the siphon action, and pint bottles will fill so quickly you had better have a dozen or two on your worktable, ready for you to pass the siphon from one to the next.

It is easier to tilt an empty bottle than a full one, so tilt the neck of the empty bottle next to the one that is filling. Then you can move the siphon across with little or no spillage. When the height of the beer in the carboy is lower than the top of a bottle, you’ll need to lower the level of that bottle when it’s full, to move the siphon to another bottle. (If your workspace is fancy enough that the carboy can stand 3-6 inches higher than the bottles, that might be something to do.)

I find with my plastic “carboy”, that after 15-20 pints have been filled, a tall heavy European bottle3 will be just taller than the “stack” of beer remaining in the fermenter. So I have at least 16 bottles in a box, waiting to be taken out and filled, and a space which will hold them all, before I start the siphon.

If there’s room to siphon 2-3 dozen bottles before pausing, that’s probably better than stopping at 15-20; i usually siphon either 25-30 bottles before i pause, or with plenty of work space, i may continue until only 2-3 inches of beer remain in the carboy6. Then i put the siphon into a tall, heavy glass bottle, so both ends are “under water”, stand it next to the carboy, and finish my sample. Then I’ll prime the bottles i’ve filled.

(If you haven’t that much work space for siphoning, stop when the height of the beer in the carboy is below the bottom of the neck of one of your heavy glass bottles, and park the siphon in the heavy bottle.)

Priming amounts to adding a bit of white sugar to each bottle of beer. The yeast will ferment that sugar in the capped bottle; and because the carbon dioxide produced can’t escape into the air, it will stay and give fizz to the beer.

How much sugar to add depends on the size of the bottle. Cooper’s says it’s safe to add up to 4 grams [a level tablespoon, equalling three teaspoons, is about 15 grams; so this could be up to 4/5 teaspoon] to a pint. I use a half teaspoon or a little more, and I get enough fizz for me. You can calculate the amount if it isn’t pints you’re using. .. and adjust after tasting some of your first batches.

I take the sugar from the sugar bowl with a narrow “grapefruit spoon”, because that spoon will insert the sugar into the neck of a plastic bottle with little or no spillage. If i have a tapered rather than bowl bottomed funnel that’s dry, and the right size, i put the sugar in the bottles through that dry funnel—less fuss, less spillage. If i don’t hava a dry funnel handy, though, a grapefruit spoon will do the job if used with care.

Refined sugar is such a “water grabber” that bacteria basically can’t live in it; I have never sterilized my priming sugar and there’s been no problem. (Knock wood–try red cedar or oak because it’s antibacterial itself. But unsterilized white priming sugar is pretty safe, partly because the beer it goes into is already 5% alcohol.)

Once you know how much your usual amount of sugar looks like in your usual spoon, this step will be easy.

If the beer is just ending its ferment, and the yeast is still active, there will be some foaming when the priming sugar goes into the bottle. You’ll have 1-3 seconds to get the cap on before the foam might possibly jump out of the bottle.

If the beer has waited for a while to be bottled, the yeast will be inactive–having run out of sugar–and the beer won’t foam, or very little. However much it foams, I tip the bottle upside down a couple of times after capping, so as to mix the sugar into the beer and get the carbonation started as soon as possible.

This “secondary fermentation” after priming will take up to two weeks; but I find that after 5-8 days the beer is usually fizzy enough to seem normal. If your friends (and you) have not used up all your previously-made beer two weeks after bottling day, put the batch into a cellar or other cool place. There it will improve for another two months, perhaps three.

When there’s less than three inches [7,5 cm] of beer left in the fermenter, (“the last pause”, which with luck might also be the first pause) I tilt it, blocking it up with a short piece of two-inch lumber (a book will also do if you have one that thickness), so that the siphon-end is at the low side. Then I resume siphoning, and continue until the beer runs out.

The last bottle often gets a good deal of yeast sediment from the bottom of the fermenter–because it’s tipped, the sediment slides down as it nears empty–so mark it “dregs” [a twist-tie or rubber band will do, or pencil “D” on the cap]. Don’t worry too much about this, since the secondary fermentation will put a bit of sediment in the bottom of every bottle.

When the last bottle is full or the stuff coming up the siphon is ugly, I lift the bottle and siphon above the carboy table, [maintaining an air gap so the beer won’t go back out of the last bottle] and then lift the siphon high so the sediment returns to the fermenter. I normally slip both ends of the syphon into the neck of the fermenter [=carboy] to wait while I prime the rest of the beer.

Then I take the carboy to a laundry tub or bathtub, or outdoors in warm weather, and rinse it out thoroughly. If I have enough bottles empty, I start another batch right away7.

If you can take that empty fermenter, rinse out the dregs8, have some malt syrup already heated from the next kit, and begin the next batch of beer straight away, that’s best. The empty carboy has the right conditions for making beer—as you know from the fact it just made beer—and you can get the next batch off to a good start without having to park or sterilize the fermenter.

I usually start the can of wort heating slowly in clean water, on its side (with the yeast packet removed, and the label removed also if that’s easy) about the time i start priming. It will take several minutes for the heat of the water to conduct itself to the inside of that can–the wort concentrate temperature will be behind the water temperature until the water has been hot for a while.  If the water around the wort can starts to boil, or threatens to boil, i turn off the heat under it.

Every kitchen is a little different, and the timing of when you heat the can of wort for cycling is something i can’t get exact for someone else’s kitchen. Once your bottles are all capped, that can of wort is hot enough to pour, and the carboy is rinsed clean, put your kilo of sugar in the carboy, add a little cool to warm water, open the can of wort, and proceed as with a new batch.

May you find at least one kit type that pleases you, a good place to ferment and a good cooler place to age your beer, and the sense of your own enjoyment, to drink until the next bottle wouldn’t be quite as pleasant now as tomorrow—then have that one wait for tomorrow. (Oh, and remember that the law’s notion of intoxicated is much stricter than it used to be. The prudent thing to do is make the beer drinking wait until the day’s driving is all done.)


1. Once the fermentation lock is down to bubbling once every 10 seconds, or less often, you can safely quit heating the carboy; when it’s down to once every 5 seconds or longer, you can let the temperature ease down to 18-20 C [65-68 F]. If it’s warmer than that, no harm, though it’s wise to keep it below 30C [85 F]

2. Bottles for drinks that don’t have pressure [fizz], often will lose their shape when the beer carbonates and pressure develops.

3. Mostly, i’ve found Fischer beer from France and Grolsch from Holland, in these bottles; there is also at least one German beer that comes in heavy glass. The Fischer bottles have the widest bases, and so have been the best for holding a siphon without tipping… until my son Erik gave me two litre sized “Aroma Borealis” herbal ale bottles from the Yukon. They have a very wide base, and are best for parking the siphon (but can be a little awkward to fit into some fridge doors,.)

4. In general, care of beermaking equipment is a lot like for pickling and canning. Just as you’d rinse out a canning jar soon after emptying it, so as to make the next use easier; so you should rinse out a beer bottle soon after emptying it. Run 1-2 inches of water into it, put your thumb or a finger or two over the opening, turn it upside down, and shake vigorously until you can’t see any yeast sediment in the bottom. Then pour out the water, run in a little more, shake a few seconds, and pour out. I stand my beer bottles upside down in the dish rack to dry, put them in their boxes [capped or upside down]; and they’re ready for an easy sterilizing, and more beer.

5. If it tastes bad, there are two basic alternatives—try to make malt vinegar of it, or down the sewer… and in either case, a serious sterilizing of that carboy before you try making beer in it again. If your sterilizing follows these techniques, including a fermentation lock with a few drops of bleach in the water it holds, bad batches should be somebody else’s problem.

6. It’s a good idea to have at least two glass bottles, too heavy and wide at the base to tip easily, for “parking the siphon.” I have seldom been interrupted while siphoning—knock wood—but it’s a good idea to be prepared.

7. A batch of beer fills 45-50 pint bottles, so if i have more than 40 waiting, i can expect to have 50 by the time the wort is fermented, and go ahead. It’s quite OK to start a next batch with 10-20 bottles waiting, and simply leave it in the carboy until you have bottles enough to put it in. If there are two of you drinking the beer regularly, 20 bottles when you cycle to a new batch of wort, might be plenty.

If not, I put the bleach solution I used to sterilize the bottles, into the carboy after i’ve emptied and rinsed it, put the stopper [without fermentation lock] into the top, and cover with a clean plastic bag held with a rubber band [string or twine will also do]. This will pretty well assure that the carboy is “sterilized” when it is time to make more beer.

8. If it’s summer or late spring, and slugs bother your garden, save the dregs for slug traps. I used empty tuna cans, back in Acadie, because they’re small and shallow, put in beer dregs, maybe thinned with water, and drowned a lot of slugs. It seems that in dry summer areas, gardeners seldom need much slug bait, so saving a litre or two should be plenty in Alberta as it was on Vancouver Island.


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About Davd

Davd (PhD, 1966) has been a professor, a single father keeping a small commercial herb garden so as to have flexible time for his sons, and editor of _Ecoforestry_. He is a practicing Christian, and in particular an advocate of ecoforestry, self-sufficiency horticulture, and men of all faiths living together "in peace and brotherhood" for the fellowship, the efficiency, and the goodwill that sharing work so often brings.
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