Of course, you always have the option of kegging, but homebrewers start out with bottling because it has a cheaper entry point. Even if you do keg, you may still bottle some of your beers due to lack of kegs to put all your beers in. Some beers, like porters and IPAs, get a lot better with age. In a kegging system, you will have to take a keg out of commission for months if you want to achieve this delicious result. So, even though I have a kegging system, I often still use bottles to perfect some beers.
Bottling beer is a relatively easy process, but using bottling to perfect a beer is a little more complicated. Bottling has three aspects, priming, capping (or actually putting beer in to the bottles) and conditioning.
Priming is the act of adding sugar to your beer before putting it in bottles so that the remaining yeast can carbonate your bottles. Yeast produces two things when eating sugar: alcohol and carbon dioxide. Adding a little sugar to your beer right before bottling, won’t add much to the alcohol content to the beer, but it will allow yeasts to produce just enough trapped CO2 to carbonate your beer.
To prime correctly you must add exactly the right amount of sugar to your beer before you bottle it. Most importantly, you must stir it to make sure the sugar is equally spread through the beer. If this step is done incorrectly, it could result in some bottles that are under carbonated and others that may explode due to being over carbonated.
Priming is an area of brewing that most home brewers don’t experiment with much, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t. Now you have the opportunity to experiment with priming and create different carbonation levels.
The two aspects of priming to experiment with are what kind of sugar you use to prime, and how much. You can use any kind of sugar substance to prime beer with: Malt extract, corn sugar, table sugar, honey, priming tablets, etc.… These may not affect your beer much, but they can change the flavor a little. I recommend trying different substances and seeing if you notice the difference. You may find one that you like the best, or you may use different types of sugars for different beers.
How much sugar you use to prime will have a significant affect on how your beer turns out. Mouth feel is an important aspect of beer, and your carbonation level will significantly affect mouth feel. Use the process in “Knowing How Your Beer Will Turn Out” to start getting an understanding of how much sugar to add for different carbonation levels. In addition, start paying attention to differences in carbonation levels between different recipes and styles of beer. You will soon start to notice the differences and see how it is affecting your beer.
Putting the beer into bottles and capping is the easiest part, so I won’t go into much detail about this, but as long as every bottle has been sanitized, you can’t go wrong on this step. An easy-to-use capper will go a long way toward making this process smooth.
Conditioning is the step that can make or break your beer. To clarify, conditioning doesn’t have to be done in bottles. It can be done in a secondary fermenter, but some beers need a long time to condition, so the convenience of storing bottles is a huge advantage.
Yeast needs a week or two in the bottles, with the temperature of 50 degrees F minimum, although 65 or 70 is better suited to carbonate properly. If you don’t give it that much time before sticking it in the fridge, you’re beer will not be properly carbonated and probably taste funky. If you have enough beer to taste, it’s ok to open a bottle or two along the way to see how it’s doing. Your beer will taste best, however, if you wait another two weeks after carbonating before you drink it. For darker, stronger beers, I usually wait at least a month and up to 6 months before serving it to guests. I believe that if you go through all the effort to make delicious beer, don’t want to cut it off before it reaches peak flavor.
If you really want to make your beer as delicious as it can be, and you have the capacity to do this, take the temperature down five degrees at a time while your cooling your beer to drinking temperature. This will allow the aspects and flavors of your beer to cool together and make the most delicious beer possible. However, this is not a very important step. Focus on giving it time to condition in the bottle.
If you prime your beer properly, bottle it properly, and condition it well, you will have the best beer in town. Go the extra step to bottle properly. This is one of the keys to success of brewing really great beer.