Most homebrewers bottle their beers. It is cheap and easy, but a little time-consuming compared with kegging.
There are two options for bottling your homebrew: glass and plastic.
If you decide to use glass bottles try and avoid the fairly fragile, thin bottles that many beers come in today. Apart from being generally less hard-wearing, they are much easier to accidentally break when capping, thus wasting precious beer, not to mention risking yourself harm. Far better are thicker bottles that some beer comes in. Coopers Brewery's 750ml bottles, widely available in Australia and New Zealand, are ideal. They are strong and sturdy. It is easier to find smaller bottles, of 330ml, 355ml, 375ml, 500ml, etc, that are made of thicker glass.
It's also possible to use old sparkling wine/champagne bottles, although a special adapter and caps are needed to cap them because the crown seals are larger than those on beer bottles.
As for whether screw-top or crown seal bottles are preferable, it's really up to you. Some brewers have reported problems getting a good seal on twist-top bottles, but by using a bench capper and making sure the caps are OK to use on screw-top bottles (which most are) you shouldn't have any trouble. Bear in mind though that screw-top bottles tend to be made of thinner glass than crown seals.
Never use bottles that are not designed to hold pressure, such as wine bottles, because they may explode and cause serious injury or damage.
While glass bottles are still very popular, many people are turning to plastic bottles, either purpose-made amber-coloured bottles or old soft-drink bottles. Plastic bottles have the advantage of being lighter and therefore easier to take to a party or on a camping trip. As well, they also don't break if you drop them and the caps are simply screwed on when you bottle. On the down side, plastic bottles are not suitable for long-term storage of beer because they will slowly leak gas and therefore carbonation. Some drinkers have an aversion to beer in plastic bottles.
Whether you opt for glass or plastic, the choice is entirely yours.
Plastic bottles don't require a capper because the caps screw straight on. Likewise, some brewers who use screw-top bottles unscrew the caps when they open a bottle of beer, then keep the caps and screw them back on when they bottle their next batch. If you're using bottles with crown seals this isn't an option, obviously.
However, most people who use glass bottles put new caps on each time. There are several types of capper available to the homebrewer.
A hand capper is the most rudimentary of all, and the most dangerous. It is simply a piece of wood with a bell attached to the end to crimp the bottle top. To use it, a cap is rested on the bottle, the capper is placed over it and belted with a hammer of mallet, which crimps the top onto the bottle. It's not difficult to break bottles using this method, and you have to be very wary of the cutting your hand on the broken glass during the action of capping if the bottle breaks. To help avoid injury some brewers fit the lid of a steel can between the handle and the bell.
The next step up is a lever capper. With a lever capper a cap is placed on the bottle then the capper placed over it and its handles pulled down to crimp the cap onto the bottle. While it's quite effective at getting a good seal, some brewers report that thinner bottles are easily broken with a lever capper.
The favoured method of capping for homebrewers is a bench capper. It's a more gentle version of a hand capper, which pushes pushes the cap onto the bottle. Simply put a cap on the magnet under the bell, place a bottle underneath it and pull and push down firmly on the handle. Just make sure the cap doesn't go off-centre as you pull the handle. Because there's no sudden impact to the bottle and the force is directed straight down and evenly it is very difficult to break bottles using a bench capper. Still, don't hold the bottle when you're pulling the lever just in case. Rather, hold the top of the capper.
Adding a small amount of cane sugar, dextrose or other type of sugar to the beer before bottling produces a secondary fermentation, in which the yeast converts the sugar to carbon dioxide and a little alcohol. Because the carbon dioxide created cannot escape the sealed bottle, it dissolves into the beer. This CO2 starts coming out of solution when the bottle is uncapped, causing bubbles in the beer and a head. Kegs can also be primed with sugar to produce carbonation, but force carbonation from a tank of compressed carbon dioxide is more common. While this section deals only with secondary fermentation in bottles, the same principles apply to priming a keg.
The unscientific method of priming beer is to add half a teaspoon or measure to each 330ml-375ml bottle, and a full teaspoon or measure to each large bottle. While this works for tens of thousands of brewers around the world and won't ruin your beer, it doesn't take into account the effect of fermentation temperature on the amount of CO2 left in the beer at the time of bottling, or that different styles of beer should have more carbonation than other styles.
The amount of carbonation in a beer is measured in "volumes". Most beers will be carbonated between 2 and 3 volumes. However, some, for example English bitter, which some describe as flat, should be carbonated to about 1.5 volumes, while German wheat beer is particularly carbonated, at about 3.5 volumes.
A beer fermented at a higher temperature, for example a pale ale, will have less dissolved gas in it than a beer such as a pilsner fermented at a lower temperature.
This page is a work in progress and will soon have a priming calculator added to allow you to work out how much priming sugar is required based on fermentation temperature and the style of beer. In the meantime, a Google search for priming calculator will turn up lots of options.
There are two methods of priming: bulk priming and bottle priming.
Bulk priming involves adding a sugar solution to the beer in a fermenter before bottling it. It is easier than priming each bottle individually and, done properly, it will result in more-consistent carbonation. The catch is that bulk priming requires two fermenters and a length of food-grade hose.
The first step of bulk priming is to transfer the beer to another fermenter, following the instructions for racking. While the beer is transferring, dissolve the required amount of sugar in a cup of hot water and add it to the fermenter. Once the transfer is complete, stir it gently to ensure the sugar syrup is mixed in throughly.
Proceed with bottling.
Bottle priming involves adding the priming sugar to each bottle individually. A major downside of bottle priming is that it's very difficult to accurately measure the amount of sugar required for each bottle. For example, let's say that a priming calculator told you that to achieve the desired carbonation you needed to add 130g of table sugar. If you were bulk priming that'd be easy; you'd just dissolve the sugar in boiling water and mix it into the beer after racking. However, if you are bottle priming it would require 4.6g (give or take) of sugar in each 750ml bottle. Hardly something that's easily measured. The other major downside of bottle priming is that if you have bottles of different sizes you need to allow for this when priming. When bulk priming it doesn't matter what sized bottles you use because the correct amount of sugar is already mixed with the beer when it's bottled.
There is an alternative to priming with sugar, called krausening. In this traditional German technique, a small amount of fermenting wort is added to the beer just before bottling to provide the sugar for secondary fermentation in the bottle. Krausening evolved in Germany due to the reinheitsgebot beer purity law, which deemed that beer must not contain anything but malt, hops, water and yeast.
The wort used in krausening can be some that you set aside from the original batch and kept in sterile conditions in the fridge, or a small batch of wort you have made for the purpose, possibly just from malt extract.
More information about krausening will be added to this page shortly.
Step by step: Bottling
Don't forget to make sure your bottles are clean before you start. Just because bottles look clean doesn't mean they are. Have a look at the cleaning and sanitation section for information on methods of cleaning, and an example of how apparently clean bottles can be anything but.
A sanitising machine, which squirts water into the bottle, is a handy addition to the brewing cupboard of anyone who bottles, but is not essential.
This is our guide to bottling. There are many variations on the theme. If you're unfortunate enough to have to siphon your beer rather than draw it out from a tap, then you should be able to adapt these steps.
- If you have a sanitising machine, fill it and squirt sanitiser into each bottle. Otherwise, pour a little steriliser into each bottle and give it a shake to coat all surfaces.
- Hopefully you are using a no-rinse sanitiser such as iodophor, in which case you just need to leave the bottles for about 10 minutes for the solution to kill any nasties, then tip out the excess. If you are using a sanitiser that needs to be rinsed, such as sodium metabisulphite, use the sanitising machine filled with clean water or put a little water into each bottle, shake and empty.
- Count out the caps you require (about 30 for a 23-litre batch if you're using 750ml bottles and 60 or more if you're using "stubbies").
- Sanitise the caps by putting them in no-rinse sanitising solution then draining them, or rinsing them after soaking them in a sanitiser that requires rinsing. If you have a sanitising machine, put them in that while you're sanitising the bottles.
- If you are bulk priming, follow the instructions above or krausen the beer by combining the beer with some fresh wort, then proceed to the step below on bottling.
- If you are bottle priming, add the required amount of sugar to each bottle. Priming sugar cannot be added after the bottles are filled because the rough edges of the crystals will cause carbon dioxide to come out of solution and make the beer foam out of the bottle.
- Attach the "little bottler" (the bottling tube, with its valve) to the tap and turn it on.
- If you did not bulk prime and therefore the beer is in the primary fermenter sitting on a cake of yeast, get a glass and push it up onto the valve to draw off half a cup or so, to clear the yeast that will be in the tap.
- If you want to take a specific gravity reading draw off a sample now.
- Fill each bottle to about 1.5cm to 2.5cm of the top. Remember that when you remove the bottle from the bottling tube this headspace will increase.
- Cap the bottles.
- If you bottle primed and if you feel like it, tip the bottle upsidedown a couple of times to help mix in the priming sugar. It's not necessary to do this because the priming sugar will dissolve by itself, but many brewers feel the need to do it anyway.
Whether you fill all the bottles then cap them all or fill, say, six or 10 then cap them and fill more is up to you.
Then it's just a matter of putting the bottles somewhere about the same temperature that you fermented them so that secondary fermentation can occur and carbonate your beer.