The Complete Guide to Bottling Any Fermentation

Even though bottling your homebrew is one of the original methods of packaging beer, it can be a little bit tricky.  Sometimes it seems that the world is conspiring against your latest brew, leaving it flat or half carbonated, and whether or not you’ve been at this brewing game for a while, there are enough variables in bottling and naturally carbonating anything, be it beer, mead, cider, sparkling wine or even kombucha, that it can be hard to chase down what actually happened.  This week we’ll talk all about the bottling process and the tools you’ll need to be successful!

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Gimme Some Sugar, Baby

We’ve always been pretty gung-ho about kegging, especially after bottling as much as we have in the past before we had the extra, necessary equipment to keg.  But the fact of the matter is that some beers are just made to be bottle conditioned. When we bottle condition beer, it’s usually something that we plan on aging or a cider or mead that needs some extra time to mature.  Does that mean that you should only bottle condition these kinds of fermentations? Absolutely not! If you’re not set up with kegs yet, or even not totally sold on the idea, there is absolutely no reason not to bottle. Even IPA’s, known for having such a short shelf life, can be bottle conditioned with no issues, despite what some may say about hops dropping out during the second fermentation in the bottle.  Sidenote - this is not a thing. Some of the best IPA’s on the market are bottle (or can) conditioned to extend shelf life and lower levels of D.O. (dissolved oxygen).

Your basic bottling process is very simple, and everyone can do it successfully.  What you’re doing is adding a small amount of simple sugar and allowing what little yeast is left in suspension to ferment that small amount, creating just enough CO2 to carbonate your beer inside each of your tiny fermenters.  We generally prefer and recommend dextrose because it dissolves into solution so easily and has a super minimal impact on flavor, but you can use any simple sugar, including cane sugar, honey or any fruit juice. There is even a German method called Krausening where you save some of your wort, then use that as your carbonation sugar. 

What seems to have the biggest impact is HOW you add your sugar, especially if you aren’t using pre-measured Carbonation Drops or Carbonating Tablets.  We’ll go into those incredibly convenient methods in just a minute.  The two most important parts of adding your chosen sugar are the amounts you add, and how well you get the sugar mixed throughout solution.  This is very important for a few reasons, the most obvious of which is having half of your batch carbonated and half flat, or having some of your glass bottles explode! 

There are tons of online calculators to determine how much sugar is needed based on how many volumes of CO2 you want in your finished product and what type you’re using.  We’ve found for normal carbonation levels, around 2.5 - 2.7 volumes of CO2, become perfectly achievable with 0.8 oz of sugar per gallon, or 4 oz in 5 gallons. The antiquated measurement of 3/4 of a cup per 5 gallons usually seems to over-carbonate most home brew, but ends up being perfect for Belgian styles, German styles, or light lagers that you want to add some extra bubbles to.  The dry measurement is also less reliable, and a little harder to work with, so consider using weight measurements on all of your sugars to make your process easier, more repeatable, and more scientific! 3/4 of a cup translates to about 1 oz per gallon, or 5 oz in 5 gallons.

Getting your sugar mixed in right is pretty easy, but it may not seem that way.  More than anything, you need to make sure that the sugar that you use is already dissolved into something, like a cup of water.  The easiest way that we’ve found to do this is by making some simple syrup. This makes your sugar go into solution easily using heat and stirring to get it there, and has the added benefit of sterilizing your water at the same time.

To do this, just bring a cup or so of water to a boil, then remove it from the heat and pour in your sugar, stirring until it all dissolves.  From here, we’ll just go directly into the bottling bucket, or the keg we’re using as a bottling bucket. From here, the finished fermentation gets transferred right on top.  As it transfers, the sugar will automatically spread evenly throughout solution as the mixture naturally strives towards balance. Don’t worry about the temperature difference between the bottling sugar and what you’re bottling because it’s such a small amount that it will cool down quickly and won’t affect the finished product.  .

This method is brilliant because not only does it make sure that your sugar gets mixed evenly throughout your finished fermentation, but it saves you from having to manually stir anything, cutting down on potential contamination and D.O.

If you try to dissolve your bottling sugar directly into your wort, especially if you crash chill (which you should if you can!), you will see more unevenly carbonated bottles in your batch because the sugar will have a harder time dissolving.  By making sure that the sugars are already in solution before you even start, you’re setting yourself up for the most success.

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Pro’s and Con’s of Pre-Measured Sugars

Carbonation drops or carbonation tablets are a thing of beauty, especially if you have some extra product in the fermenter and want to bottle some off, or you are like me and just don’t want to do math to reflect actual volume!  They bring a sense of convenience to the entire process, and change the game from trying to mix sugar throughout the total batch to making carbonated beverages one bottle at a time.

The sheer versatility of carb drops make them fun, too!  Want to try your Saison at three different volumes to see what you like the best?  Want to make just a few of your honey wines sparkling to see what the difference is?  You can do all of that, quickly and easily, just by adding adding them to the bottle and putting on the cap!

There are a few different types of pre-measured, tablet style drops on the market, and not all are created equal, but more in the terms of delivery than the actual sugar.  We’ve narrowed it down to our two favorites. Brewer’s Best Carbonation Drops are probably the fan favorite.  They are extremely consistent, the sugar dissolves easily once you hit the bottle with your fermentation, and they make the measurements easy.  Simply put 1 drop in for a 12 oz bottle, and 2 for a 22 oz bottle.  This puts you in the 2.6 to 2.7 range of volumes of CO2 (for reference, since this is kind of an obscure measurement, Coors Light and most other mass produced American Lagers are carbonated somewhere between 3.0 and 3.1 volumes of CO2).  The only real issue with these comes from their versatility, or lack thereof, when using any other sized bottles. Although they break down easily, it’s not easy to stay consistent if you need 1.25 or 1.5 tabs for a 16 oz bottle because they’re almost impossible to break them into completely consistent parts.

This is where our Carbonating Tabs come into play!  These are smaller, and require more tablets per bottle, but because they are measured in smaller increments, they are way more versatile and you can have very consistent CO2 with every size bottle, from 187 mL Champagne Bottles up to 1 Liter EZ Cap bottles.  Their construction is a little bit more solid than the Brewer’s Best drops, so they don’t dissolve quite as easily.  Plan on some extra time for carbonation if you’re using these.

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The Mechanics of Bottling

The actual, mechanical part of bottling isn’t really tricky, but requires good process to get it right and make it consisten.  First and foremost, you’ll need a Bottling Bucket set up with a spigot as low as you can get it.  This is where you’ll put your simple syrup and your finished fermentation, and works as a clean vessel that isn’t full of yeast, trub and other fermentation mess to mix your sugar in and hold your libation while you separate it out into all of the bottles.  Next, about two feet of 5/16” Transfer Tubing attached to a Bottle Filler, preferably with a spring so that it closes off the flow automatically in between bottles. 

When you attach this to spigot in your bottling bucket, the extra two feet of tubing gives you the freedom you need to maneuver from bottle to bottle, and you can simply leave the spigot open and let the filler stop the flow.  When you press the filler to the bottom of the bottle, and have your bucket raised up to use gravity to make the beer flow, the bottles will fill from the bottom and you can fill them all the way to the top. Filling them to the top serves as a measure of consistency, because when you pull the bottle fill out again, the displacement of the filler leaves you with just the perfect amount of head space at the top under the cap.

This small amount of space is very important to your carbonation.  If you leave a lot of extra space in the bottle, then you will have some issues with consistency in carbonation because the CO2 will be filling all of the extra space in the bottle, making the forced carbonation of the product less likely because all of that carbon dioxide has plenty of room to spread out and make itself comfortable.  You have to have a little bit of space, but less full bottles will end up being less carbonated, as well as increasing your potential for D.O.

Alternatively, if you have a keg, these work beautifully as bottling buckets!  You are literally doing the exact same thing, adding sugar and racking your product on top of it, the only difference is that you will be using a picnic faucet with your bottling wand stuck up inside of it, and using 5 or so psi to push it instead of using gravity to make the flow happen.  My favorite part about this method is that you can completely purge any oxygen out of what you’re bottling, so the only O2 that gets in will be that very little bit left at the top of the bottle when you pull out your bottling wand, which you active yeast will eat up almost immediately when they start the carbonation process.  This will make your beer last even longer!

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Sanitize All Of The Things

As many of you know by now, sanitization may very well be the most important part of this whole hobby.  When you’re working with living organisms and ‘live beer’, there are plenty of wild yeast and bacteria that can get into everything.  This has the normal results that many of us have experienced the hard way, including sour or infected beer and explosive, shrapnel grenade bottles.  Always make sure that all of your transferring gear, bottling bucket and bottles are good and sanitized to avoid that dangerous outcome!

Our process for ensuring clean bottles is elegant in its simplicity, and very consistent.  After making sure that all of the bottles are actually clean, meaning no chunks or fuzzies in the bottom and no dried beer or anything like that, we simply make up a bucket of Star San and sanitize as we go.  We don’t wait for anything to dry or worry about extra foam in the bottles.  We’ll just submerge as many bottles as will fit into the Star San, allow them 2 minutes to ensure sterility, and pull them right out and empty the Star San right back into the bucket.  From there, they get filled immediately, get a Crown Cap pulled from a smaller and more wieldy bowl of Star San (so we don’t have to reach to the bottom of a 5 gallon bucket full of it), and get put in line to be crimped with a Bottle Capper

I know, it sounds too easy.  But it really is that easy! You’ll get Star San ‘Snakes’ coming out of the top of each bottle, which can be a little disconcerting at first, but won’t affect your flavor.  For me, it’s actually kind of comforting because I know that my sanitization is on point, and hopefully won’t be experiencing any infections.

If your sanitizer of choice is Iodine based, like Iodophor, then you’ll need to change up the process just a little bit because while Ioodophor is still a ‘No Rinse’ type sanitizer, you want to make sure that it dries completely before putting anything in that bottle.  This is where a Bottle Tree with a Vinator Bottle Washer comes in handy, and makes life easy!  All you have to do is add your iodine mixture to the bottle washer, mounted conveniently on top of the bottle tree, and use the integrated manual pump to pump sanitizer all over and inside of each bottle.  From there, mount your bottles on tree and give them 15-20 minutes to dry out, and you’re ready to finish bottling your batch!

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Choosing Bottles, Caps and Cappers

When it comes to bottle choice, it’s all about fun!  Keep in mind that anything that you’re bottling with higher pressures, like Sparkling Wines, sours that will keep fermenting for the life of the bottle, or some of the Belgian styles or saisons, you’ll want to choose a bottle that is a little bit more robust than your standard 12’s or 22’s.  Champagne Bottles and Vichy Bottles are made for just such occasions, and can hold up to 5 or 6 volumes of CO2, which is a LOT of pressure!  They generally take a standard, 26 mm cap, but can also be corked and caged for to make sure that nothing untoward happens with the higher pressures.  Other than those special cases, any bottle will do. If you want to re-use Bud light bottles despite their original twist off construction, or save and re-use craft bottles, it’s all fair game.

When it comes to caps, we’ll usually have some fun with that, too!  Each batch gets a different color for quick and easy identification, and most are standardized at the 26 mm size, so unless you’re using European bottles, which can take a 29 mm Cap, you can be fairly secure that the cap you get will fit.

Cappers come in many different forms, and even though the Standard Wing Capper and Red Baron Cappers are perfectly serviceable and work awesome, we’ve found that we prefer the ease of use and versatility of the Super Agata Bench Cappers quite a bit more.  It’s not as easy to break if you accidentally go hulk on a bottle, and the way that it adjusts to bottle size on the fly can’t be beat.

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Thank you all for reading!  For a more concise, step by step guide for bottling day, check out our downloadable Bottling Guide under the Education and More menu on our website.  If you have your own tips and tricks to bottling and bottle carbonation, share your knowledge by adding a comment below!  If you have any questions, leave them in the questions below, too! Don’t forget to connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest!  We love to see what everyone is fermenting and building!  Also, for awesome knowledge about brewing, fermenting foods, making kombucha, and to see killer virtual tours of breweries, commercial yeast labs and distilleries, check out our YouTube channel, BrewChatter TV!  Brew On!
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