Homebrewers who keg insist kegging is superior in almost every way to bottling. For people like me who have yet to invest in kegs, CO2 tanks, lines, valves, regulators, o-rings, and a kegerator/keezer, bottling is a tedious fact of life. Cleaning, sanitizing, and filling up to 50 bottles is my least favorite part of the brewing process. I have had batches sit in the secondary fermentor for weeks on end that I didn't have time to bottle or was too lazy to bottle. At different times I've had siphons clog, auto siphons break, run out of caps, run out of priming sugar, among other calamities. In that time I've figured out what I think is the quickest and easiest way to bottle.
I have never been able bring myself to buy new empty bottles. Not when I have perfectly good empty bottles at home from commercial beers I had bought and drank. The Fastrack might be the best investment I have ever made. Immediately after decanting my beer into a glass I'll rinse it thoroughly making sure there's no sediment or gunk on the inside. Then I'll just pop it on the Fastrack to drip dry. Not having to individually scrub every bottle with a bottling brush is a godsend. If after drying there is still sediment in the bottle or it there is any visual soiling in the bottle I will scrub it and rinse with a bottle washer.
Once the Fastrack is filled up I'll put any bottles that are still labeled into a plastic tote. A 66 gallon tote is large enough for two cases worth (approx 48) of bottles. The next step is to toss in a couple scoops of OxyClean, fill the tote with warm water, and make sure the bottles are as submerged as possible so the entire label is in the water. Usually this mixture is enough for the labels to come off with little effort. Having a sponge and a razor blade to scrape or wipe away any excess residue is great to have as well. If I am not sure when I will have time to remove the labels I'll make sure to put the lid on the tote so the water does not evaporate excessively.
Some brands are easier to peel off than others. Magic Hat and Wachusett are by far the easiest labels to remove; half the time they just come off on their own sitting in the water. Sam Adams, Harpoon, and Dogfish Head work well and will come off easily enough but you may need to use the razor to scrape the labels off. I think Ipswich Ale ans Ithica use cement as an adhesive. For some reason God-forsaken Shipyard uses screw top bottles with pry-off caps. To state but not assume the obvious do not use screw-top bottles.
Founders, Lagunitas, and Sierra Nevada labels come off easily, but they use stubby bottles. I suggest choosing longnecks or stubbys and sticking with that one size. Having all of your bottles the same height makes stacking and storing easier. For me stubby bottles don't fit as well in the Fastrack as longneck bottles so those are the ones that I use.
The second best investment I have made as a homebrewer was a spigot on my bottling bucket. It's faster than siphoning the beer out of the bucket, it's less less prone to clogging, and you don't need a helper to hold a tube or auto-siphon. It is imperative you remove, clean, and sanitize the spigot after every batch. I used to think just running soapy water and sanitized water was good enough and I had three batches ruined when the beer became infected. To sanitize the bucket I'll fill it with a Starsan solution, and run it through the spigot into the kitchen sink with a stopper in. Once the solution is in the sink I'll use it sanitize the Fastrack, all of the bottles, put the bottles in the Fastrack, and I'll fill a saucepan with the solution to sanitize my bottle caps.
Next I'll bring my priming sugar to a boil in some water. While that's heating up I'll take a hydrometer reading and sample the beer I'm about to bottle. I'll dump the priming sugar solution into my bottling bucket, rack the beer on top to make sure the sugar is mixed in as evenly as possible. After filling and capping I'll put the bottles in 12 pack boxes, label the outside with the beer and the bottling date. From there the beer should be ready to drink in two to three weeks.
Some additional bottling tips:
- A bottle washer is an immense help in cleaning dirty bottles (and carboys).
- Adjust the amount of priming sugar you add at bottling depending on the style. An ESB should be much more lightly carbonated than a hefeweizen. Northern Brewer and Tasty Brew have online calculators you can use to figure out exactly how much priming sugar to use.
- Most brewers use dextrose (corn sugar) when brewing because it won't contribute any flavor to the beer and won't make the beer overly dry like table sugar. Table sugar is fine for bottling since you're using such a small amount. However table sugar is more fermentable than dextrose so use a calculator to make sure you use the proper amount.
- Make sure you fill the bottles to about an inch below the mouth. If over-filled there will be too much CO2 inside the bottle. That can cause the beer to gush when you pop it open, or even cause the bottle to explode. If under-filled the beer might not carbonate enough.
- Be sure to label your bottle caps. If you don't you will inevitably forget what's inside.
After lots of trial and error that's the most efficient way I've come up with. At least until my kegging equipment arrives this week!
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