Perhaps the easiest and most economical way to package your homebrewed beer is to bottle it. Unfortunately, it is probably also the most time-consuming, which is why many more advanced homebrewers eventually get themselves a kegging system. A chief concern during the bottling stage is the carbonation of your beer. Carbonation can take place either naturally by adding sugar or malt extract, or artificially, by using CO2 from a cannister.

Carbonation and Priming Methods

Artificial carbonation, which involves bottling with a counter-pressure bottle filler, won’t be considered here, as it is somewhat more advanced, and requires special brewing equiptment, and CO2 gear.

Natural carbonation is the method preferred by most homebrewers, mainly because it is easy and economical. It involves the priming of the completely fermented beer by means of the addition of a pre-determined amount of fermentables (usually corn sugar or malt extract). The beer is then packaged (bottled), and the added sugars are allowed to ferment in the sealed bottles, causing carbonation.

It is very important to remeber when priming your beer, that you are fooling around with several dozen potential bombs in each batch you make. If you use too much priming sugar, or if you bottle too soon, you will experience exploding bottles. So be certain to always err on the side of caution. It is far better to have a beer which is slightly under-carbonated, than it is to have a huge mess in your closet one morning because 6 bottles exploded overnight (trust us on this one). This said, however, with a bit of common sense, you’ll never have to experience it. (Well, believe it or not, everyone experiences it once. Everyone.).

In order to prevent exploding bottles please make sure that your beer is done fermenting before bottling it. You’ll know it is done either when you get the same hydrometer reading 3 days in a row, or when the airlock bubbles about once per minute or less. Either of these methods is a reliable way to judge when your beer is ready to bottle.

If going by the hydrometer, remember that your finishing or “final” gravity should be about 1/3 of your starting or “original” gravity. So if your beer started at 1.045, then it should finish at or slightly below 1.015. This is a general rule of thumb which may not apply to all beers. The final gravity could be less than 1/3, but if it is much more than 1/3, then you might have a stuck fermentation.

The homebrewer has the choice of either bottle priming or bulk (batch) priming. With the former method, you add a measured amount of priming sugar to each individual bottle, then siphon the beer into the bottles. With bulk priming, you boil all the priming sugar for the whole batch in 2 cups of water, then siphon the beer into your bottling bucket and mix in the boiled syrup. Finally, you siphon the beer into the bottles.

As with most things, there are pros and cons to both methods.

The proponents of bottle priming use it because the beer gets siphoned only once at bottling, rather than twice as with bulk priming. This cuts out a bit of time (of course, not much time is saved overall because of the need to measure sugar into each individual bottle), and also cuts down on the risk of oxygenating your beer. However, this risk is minimal if you don’t filter your beer (which almost nobody does), since the remaining yeast will gladly consume any free oxygen in the solution. Because the beer is only racked (siphoned) once, bottle priming is less well suited for single-stage fermentation, since there is more sediment at the bottom of the carboy which will make it more likely that it will end up in the last few bottles of your beer. In fact, even when doing double-stage fermenting, bottle primers will invariably end up with more sediment making its way into their bottles. This is not a concern for bulk primers since the beer is carefully racked off the sediment before bottling. Another disadvantage of bottle priming is that the sugar used is never boiled, so you could be introducing contaminents into your beer (although realistically, the risk here is quite minimal). And finally, since with bottle priming an extra quarter teaspoon of sugar is over-shooting by a whopping 25 percent, greater care must be taken to make exact measurements, lest the brewer receive a visit from the ubiquitous exploding bottle.

Bulk priming, on the other hand, is said to produce a much more even prime than its counterpart, since measuring small amounts into each bottle during bottle-priming leaves a much narrower margin of error. Also, bulk-priming is better suited to bottling in different sized bottles, since there is no need to calculate how much sugar has to be added to the various sizes. It is also much easier to fine-tune your carbonation level for various types of beer with bulk priming than with bottle priming, simply by adjusting your total amount of sugar by a teaspoon or two one way or the other. The only real disadvantage to batch priming is that it is more difficult to figure out the priming level for odd-sized batches – a problem that doesn’t exist for bottle primers.

Having tried both methods, we far prefer bulk priming for full batches. We find it easier, more accurate, easier to fine-tune, and safer. For the small amount of bottling that we do these days, however – mainly a few bottles per batch since there is generally a bit too much beer in the fermenter than will fit into a keg – we bottle prime with Primetabs. These little sugar pills are a fair bit more expensive than using powdered corn sugar, but they put fine precision into bottle priming, thus eliminating one of the largest problems with this method. Like most things in homebrewing, if something works for you, then you should do it. This maxim cannot be over-emphasized. There are almost as many ways to brew beer start-to-finish as there are homebrewers. Eventually, everyone finds a system that works well for them, and they usually stick with it. But since we are so convinced that bulk priming is far superior to bottle priming for doing full batches, we’ll only detail the steps of it. If you really want to bottle prime your beer, it should be easy to convert the below procedure.

Bulk Priming

The following is a step-by-step description of bulk-priming your beer. Keep in mind that the amount of sugar or malt extract used is not engraved in stone. Different beer styles require different levels of carbonation. Also, with a bit of practice, you can adjust any beer to a carbonation level which suits your own tastes. Afterall, being able to make a beer exactly the way you want it is one of the beauties of homebrewing!

Now would likely be as good a time as any to point out that we prefer measuring our bottling sugar by weight, rather than by volume. To see why, measure yourself out 3/4 cup of corn sugar, then gently tap the side of the container 10 or 15 times and watch as your 3/4 of a cup becomes 2/3 or even 1/2 cup. So, which was it then, 3/4 cup untapped, or 3/4 cup after tapping? For a mere few dollars we bought ourselves a cheap scale at a local department store, and checked its weights against the commercial scale at a local coffee shop. Our el-cheapo model was out by less than a percentage point in the range of about 40 grams (for sugar) to 3 lbs (for grains). The only downside to keep in mind is that because the scale is spring-loaded, it should be replaced every year or two because of wear and tear on the spring. Below we give the measurements in the more traditional by-volume. If you prefer to use a scale, which again we highly recommend, then use 100g to 130g of sugar to prime 19 litres of beer, or 125g to 150g to prime 23 litres.

If measuring your priming sugar by volume, you can use 3/4 to 1 cup of corn sugar for a 19 or 23 litre batch of beer. Before we switched to measuring by weight, we’ve found about 7/8 cup to be about perfect for 23 litres, and 3/4 cup about right for 19 litres. If you want to use malt extract, 1-1/4 to 1-2/3 cups should be used for either 19 or 23 litres. We usually use 1-1/2 or 1-2/3 for 23 litres. You’ll want to use less if you are using a 19 litre (5 US gallon) carboy. Remember that you may not get it just right the first time out, so keep records of exactly how much you use, and adjust your amount of sugar a bit next time. Remember as well that it is far better to have a slightly undercarbonated beer, than to have exploding bottles. So undershoot it a bit when in doubt.

We initially came to prefer the use of malt extract for priming, but have since switched back to using corn sugar. Malt extract can take longer to carbonate your beer. Even worse, however, is that the percentage of fermentable sugars in malt extract varies widely from one brand to another (Dutch brands are notorious for having low levels of fermentables), so your results can vary widely from batch to batch if you can’t always get the same brand of extract. So we use corn sugar because of how quickly it carbonates our beer, as well as the more predicatable results we see.

You can experiment with both over time to see which you prefer. Keep in mind that bottle priming with malt extract is not a good idea. There are very good physical reasons why it should be boiled first before being put in your beer. We don’t recommend malt extract for bottle priming.

Please make sure that the following equipment is properly cleaned and sanitized :

  • 25 to 30 litre food-grade plastic bucket
  • J-tube
  • J-tube end-cap
  • 3 feet of clear, flexible plastic tubing
  • bottling wand (a.k.a. bottle filler)
  • 66 regular size beer bottles
  • 66 caps

You’ll also require the following, which need not be sanitized :

  • your carboy full of finished beer 🙂
  • 7/8 cup sugar or 1-2/3 cup malt extract (for 23 litres)
  • 2 small pots
  • a medium-sized catch-bowl, or small pot

Now, we’re about to start a siphon here. If you do not know how to do that, you should click the link in the previous sentence and read our page on it.

To bulk-prime your beer :

Stage 1 – priming :

The short description :

  • siphon beer from carboy into sanitized bottling bucket
  • mix in your boiled priming sugar solution

The step-by-step description :

  • at least 1 hour in advance, put the carboy on your kitchen table (the 1 hour allows the sediment to settle after moving carboy)
  • stick a cutting board or thin (1 inch) phone book under one end to tip the carboy, allowing more beer to be siphoned out
  • place sanitized white bucket on floor below carboy
  • place empty catch-bowl or small pot next to bucket
  • fill one small pot half way with water
  • boil your caps in it 10 to 15 minutes
  • put 2 cups water in the other pot
  • dump in your sugar or extract
  • boil 10 to 15 minutes
  • dump this syrup (boiled sugar) into the big white bucket
  • assemble J-tube, end-cap (on long end), hose (on short end)
  • fill sanitzed siphon with water : we do it in the shower — filling the hose, that is 🙂
  • plug the flexible end of hose with your thumb
  • remove bung and airlock from carboy
  • immerse J-tube end into carboy so the end goes halfway to bottom
  • hold thumbed-end over the catch-bowl
  • let go with thumb to allow water to flow into bowl
  • once beer starts flowing into bowl, plug the end again
  • place thumbed end into big bucket and let go (you are now siphoning!!)
  • be careful to keep end of hose below surface of beer in bucket (this avoids oxygenation)
  • keep end of J-tube as far from bottom as possible, as not to suck up sediment
  • as beer level in carboy lowers, the end of J-tube will have to be lowered
  • if things get really cloudy, don’t be afraid to leave a pint or two behind
  • when you can’t get any more beer out without a lot of sediment, lift the J-tube out of the beer to stop the siphon
  • stir the beer in the bucket slowly, but thoroughly

Stage 2 – bottling :

The short description :

  • siphon beer from bucket into bottles
  • cap the bottles

The step-by-step :

  • put bottling bucket on table
  • put something under one end to tip it a bit
  • arrange bottles on the floor below bucket
  • place catch-bowl near bottles
  • flush out hose with water
  • attach bottle filler to flexible-hose end, remove endcap from other end
  • fill siphon with water
  • point bottle-filler towards ground : this stops the end, much like plugging it with your thumb
  • immerse J-tube into plastic bucket, let it go (remember : other end is plugged, so nothing will come out of this end)
  • make sure the end of the J-tube stays the whole time in the crook at the bottom of the tipped bucket. Once placed here, it will usually stay put without any further attention
  • put bottle filler into bowl and press down to allow flow
  • lift up when beer starts coming out
  • repeat for each bottle, filling to very top (removing bottle filler leaves enough head space)
  • it’s best to place a boiled cap over each bottle after filling
  • when all bottles are filled, crimp the caps with your capper

After filling the bottles, we usually leave them sit with caps in place but uncrimped for 1/2 hour to 1 hour. This allows the already fermenting bottles to produce some CO2 which will drive out some of the air in the bottles.

Stage 3 : waiting

  • wait 2 weeks

Stage 4 : drinking

  • place several bottles into fridge
  • wait 1 hour
  • uncap a beer
  • decant into glass, leaving sediment behind
  • drink!