Archived in 2022

Originally posted on 28 May 2006

After a weeklong delay, I’m finally taking the opportunity to post about the bottling of the Browncoat Ale, the first beer I’ve ever made.

Carboy of nut brown Here is the five gallon carboy, straight from the closet where it’s been bubbling away for a week. If you look closely (I’ll spare you the closeup picture I took of this) you’ll see a light brown layer at the very bottom of the bottle. This is all of the dead yeast which has precipitated out of the beer over the last week. When you think about it, it’s actually fairly disgusting. Naturally, this is not the sort of thing that you want to end up in your bottles (though some yeast will be necessary, as you’ll see soon), so prior to bottling and capping this beer must be racked off from this container and placed into another, hopefully leaving almost all of that dead yeast behind. There is a specialized tool called a “racking cane” for this purpose. Essentially it’s just a rigid plastic tube with a short bend at the top (making the shape of a number 7) and a “foot” at the bottom. The foot is about 3/4 of an inch high with an opening at the top of it. The level of the dead yeast is below the level of the opening, so it stays in the bottle rather than being transferred to the other container. Simple but effective.

Sanitizing the gear However, before any of that can happen all of the gear needed for the day’s work must be cleaned and completely sanitized. Yeast are the only little bugaboos allowed to grow in this brew. Bacteria and mold need not apply and will be turned away at the door. The very helpful folks at The Beverage People{.broken_link} (don’t you just love them?) turned me on to some industrial food-grade cleaning and sanitizing solutions. What you see here is the iodine-based sanitizing solution at work. All of the containers, tools and bottles needed to spend at least two minutes soaking in this concoction (I usually left them for ten or so) and then rinsed three times with clean water. It’s fair to say that sanitation took up the majority of my time during this process. From everything I’ve read on the subject, it’s supposed to be well worth the effort. I’ll trust the experts and do as I’m told.

Racking it off the dead yeast Now that the secondary container (the bucket) is cleaned and sanitized the beer can be racked off from the carboy into it. This is my second least favorite part of the process (sanitizing being the first). Yes, it’s somehow gratifying to see the beer gushing from one container to another, but getting it to that “gushing” place isn’t such an easy task. I had previously purchased a “siphon starter” from The Beverage People. This is just a massive syringe which is supposed to provide enough suction to get the siphon going through the hose. Does it work? Uh, no. Not as such. If the plunger part of the syringe were twice as long perhaps it might be a viable option. But as is you barely have enough time to get a smidge of suction started before the plunger pulls out of the end and the beer drops back into the carboy. Frustrating. So, contrary to brewing best practices, I once again started my siphon by mouth. Those who don’t like this don’t have to drink the Browncoat, I guess. Once the siphon was started it took only a few minutes to transfer the beer to the bucket.

After transferring the beer to the bucket I had to add the priming sugar. So far what I have is some very nice but very flat beer. Though there was a lot of dead yeast at the bottom of the carboy there were still some live ones floating about in the brew. The priming sugar would act as food for these survivors, who would then generate carbon dioxide. In a tightly capped bottle this gives you carbonation. This is the point at which I made my only real mistake. To calculate ABV (alcohol by volume) you take the starting specific gravity measurement, subtract from it the ending SG and then multiply by 131. I took my final SG measurement after adding the priming sugar, which raised the SG and threw off my calculations. At the moment, there’s no way to tell what the final alcohol level of my beer will be. It could be 5.1%. Or it could be 2.6%. Or anything in between.

There is no picture of the next step in the process, which is bottling. My hands were otherwise occupied keeping bottles from overflowing and/or tipping over so there was no logical point at which I could take photos without risking a frightful mess. What is going on at this point is that the beer is being siphoned again, this time from the bucket directly into the bottles. There is a special bottling tool which is used for this. This tool is a rigid plastic tube which attaches to the end of the rubber siphon tubing. The plastic tube ends in a pressure-activated spigot. To use it, you start the siphon then place the bottling tool into the bottle. Press down on the bottom of the bottle and the spigot opens and fills the bottle
with beer until you lift the tube from the bottom, thereby closing the spigot and stopping the flow of beer. It’s quite a clever contraption, but I need to work on my technique. It was very difficult getting the siphon going for this step, so I ended up with a trickle of beer coming through the rubber tubing. It took a couple of minutes to fill each bottle this way.

Capping the bottles This was my favorite part of the process: capping. I had acquired the capper just the day before as a birthday gift from Marc (yay, MEF!), along with a sack of crown caps. Of all the gadgets I’ve had to purchase for brewing, this one is the most fun. The caps are boiled (both for sanitation and, I believe, also to soften up the rubber gasket inside) and then placed on the bottles. Nothing too exciting there. But then you pull out the capper. It’s neater than it has a right to be. Take the two arms and push them down. This squeezes the cap, pushing it very firmly against the bottle, wrapping the lip of the cap down around the bottle and crimping it shut. It makes a very satisfying “ka-chunk” sound when the crimping is accomplished. It was so much fun I found myself thinking of other things that I could put in bottles just so I could cap some more. Thankfully I stopped that line of thought before it got out of control, but I’ll certainly keep this in mind when the other liqueurs come off later this summer.

The finished product And here we are, the finished product. All told there are 48 twelve ounce bottles and a little over half of that Fischer bottle which you see on top. Now we get to play the waiting game again. The surviving yeast needs some time in order to generate that carbonation, so none of these bottles can be opened for another two weeks. One week from today, that is, as they were bottled a week ago. I’ve been checking on them every few days but I can’t tell whether anything is going on in there. So, unfortunately, it looks like I’ll just have to be patient and wait until next Sunday to see how things have turned out. Drat.

So now that I’ve finished my first batch of beer, what’s next on the brewing agenda? Well, I probably should look in on the mead. It’s been over a month since I took the last SG measurement on it or, to be honest, even laid eyes on it. It could be that it’s ready to be bottled and I don’t even know it. Aside from that, I think I might try a batch of ESB or maybe a stout. It might take a few weeks to get around to starting it, however. This is a lot of work and I think I might need a little break so I don’t burn myself out. Besides, it’s berry season and the brewing kettle is going to be needed for canning jars of jam.