The last step in making beer is the bottling. After you have checked the specific gravity for the last time, meaning that it has held steady for a few days and the bubbling through the airlock has subsided, you can bottle the beer. This is now the “priming” step, where you transfer the beer from the fermentation vessel to a priming vessel.
…but first there’s some cleaning to do. It is important to ensure that the bottles and tubing, etc. are completely sterile. Remember that th beer could be sitting for months, if not years, before you drink it – limiting the various critters that could get in there, aside from your yeast, is rather important! You want to limit the soap you add, and you can use bleach or other kinds of cleaners. The key is to rinse very, very, very well! You can’t leave any soap or bleach in there or it’ll kill your yeast, let alone mess with the flavor of the beer!
It’s up to you what kinds of bottles you use. The last time I did this, back in undergrad, we used Grolsch bottles almost exclusively because they were 16 oz and had resealable tops, thus alleviating the need for bottle caps. This time, we went with an assortment of bottles with the same kinds of reusable tops, as well as cappable 12 oz bottles. In the image above, you’ll see a few large 2 L bottles, some medium sized 1 L bottles, and then the standard 12 oz bottles. We’ve been saving all of these as we’ve drank beer over the past few months, so that’s a cheap route to go. Just be sure that the bottles you’re saving are not screw cap style, as you can’t re-cap those.
This part can be done in various ways, but the kit from Northern Brewer comes with a nifty little siphon doohicky that you put about 6 in into your beer, pump twice, and beer flows from the fermentation vessel down to the priming vessel.
Now, the priming vessel is pretty key. The “priming” aspect of the beer is relating to a few factors. One, there’s a lot of “leftovers” in the fermentation vessel that you wouldn’t really want to drink, so we’re siphoning off the top and leaving the remainder on the bottom. You lose some beer in this, but seriously, you don’t want to drink (or see…) that stuff on the bottom of the bucket… Secondly, in the priming bucket, we also add some more sugar. This is being done to get the yeast active again for a brief period, producing a tad more alcohol. For our purposes, however, it’s the CO2 we care about: carbonation. The sugar we add at the priming stage gives the yeast enough food to continue some fermentation in the individual bottles, thus providing the carbonation we need for the beer. It’s all done naturally.
The priming vessel comes with a valve and tubing that you can use to fill bottles with. Really, once you’re at this stage, things go pretty quickly. Also, as the bucket dictates, don’t store your children in 5 gal buckets.
For the record, here’s what our beer looks like after a little over 2 weeks in fermentation. Looks like beer, eh? Tastes like it, too. Granted, no carbonation yet, but it already had characteristic flavors of a nut brown. I tasted it the previous time I checked the specific gravity, which was only two days earlier. I noticed a change in the flavor of the beer just in those two days! In some ways, I probably should have left the beer in the fermenter for an additional week, to let it age a bit more and develop more flavor, but if I wanted to drink it for Thanksgiving, it had to get into bottles. Maybe next time!
In the end, we bottled two 2 L bottles, six 1 L bottles and twenty 12 oz bottles. Not too bad for $30 and a few weeks of fermentation. 🙂