When to Bottle Your Homebrew

One of the first questions that many new brewers have is "When should I bottle my beer?". Well, the short answer is: When it’s done of course! However, the long answer is a bit more complicated, but boils down to: It depends. A variety of factors contribute to when your beer is ready to bottle.For example, a lager needs to ferment longer than an ale, and hoppy beers are considered to be better fresh than malt-forward ones. However, there are a number of steps you can take to figure out when your beer is ready for bottling.

Understanding Fermentation

Knowing what is going on with your fermentation will help you to know when to bottle your beer. After you pitch your yeast or starter, there is a brief lag phase. This typically lasts between 6 and 24 hours. During the lag phase, your yeast is consuming oxygen and reproducing enough cells to ferment the sugar in your wort. After the lag phase, the yeast enters an “exponential growth” phase. This is your active fermentation.

During active fermentation, yeast is converting sugars into alcohol and CO2. The yeast eats sugars in order from simplest (glucose, fructose, sucrose) to most complex (maltose next, and maltotriose last). The yeast also creates its flavor and aroma profiles in this time. It is important to provide yeast an ideal fermentation environment during this time, as this is where most off flavors can be produced. Finally, the yeast goes into a 3-10 day cleanup phase. During this time, the krausen will fall out, and the yeast flocculates to the bottom of the fermenter. The yeast also clean up any hydrogen sulfide and diacetyl produced during the fermentation.
Technically you can bottle your beer safely (i.e., no bottle bombs) once its final gravity has been reached. At this point the yeast will not ferment any more sugars and are now working on dropping out. You may reach final gravity within a week, however you should let your yeast flocculate out and clean up before bottling. This can help prevent cloudier beer that may taste yeasty and bready (too much yeast still in suspension). The beer may also rounds out a lot better if you give it an extra week or two after fermentation is over. This is why many brewers give beer at least two weeks before bottling, but sooner than 2 weeks is ideal for hoppy beers and wheat beers, which are brewed to be drank quickly. You won’t get to take full advantage of the clean up phase, but highly hopped beers begin to lose characteristics quickly. So you’ll have to decide if your hoppy beer needs more clean up (noticeable off flavors), or if you can rush the process for better hop presence. There are some other styles however where you may be waiting much longer than 2-3 weeks.

If you end up with a slow and sluggish ferment, it’s important to make sure the gravity is stable for at least three days. This will help prevent over carbonation in the bottle.

Time Dependent Ales

Shop Bottling SupplisSometimes the style of beer or style of fermentation helps dictate how long a beer should sit before bottling. Stouts and Imperial Stouts are said to improve significantly when allowed to stay in either primary or secondary for 6 to 8 weeks before bottling. However, for a hoppier American Stout, you may want to stay closer to the 2 week timeline if you can to preserve hop characteristics. If you used hops with high beta acids, you may be able to age hoppy beers longer, as beta acids release some of their bitterness as beer ages.

Traditional Sour Ales (beers that are soured post-boil) take the most time before bottling. They go through several phases of fermentation and change. First any saccharomyces converts the sugars it can and begin cleanup (Saccharomyces tend to work much faster than brettanomyces and pediococcus). Next the Brett consumes more complex sugars that beer yeast couldn’t convert. It also consumes yeast byproducts to create its funky barnyard characteristics. This is why 100% Brettanomyces beers are cleaner than mixed fermentations. Pediococcus is also working to create lactic acid. As a byproduct, large amounts of diacetyl are produced, and a thick “ropey” mouth feel is created. Brettanomyces comes back in and cleans up those byproducts (never use pediococcus without brettanomyces for this reason). Sour ales typically take a year at minimum with stable gravity being held for a month before bottling. Giving these beers a year or more to develop will typically create better flavor profiles than younger sour beers. Sours are also highly susceptible to over carbonation caused by re-fermentation in the bottle, so ensuring all stages of fermentation are complete is key.

Post Bottling

thumb2_photo-3-63115After the beer is bottled, it’s important to let the beer condition for another 3 weeks. While the actual carbonation is completed within a week, remember you are undergoing a mini fermentation inside the bottle. Giving the beer 3 weeks in the bottle ensures the yeast drops back out, creates a compact layer of sediment on the bottom (fluffy sediment gets poured into glasses more easily), and cleans up any remaining “green” flavors. This ensures bottle carbonation is completed and ready for refrigeration. Some styles also will continue to improve after bottling. Stouts, sours, barley and wheat wines are all examples of styles that are more likely to continue to improve in bottles over several months. However each beer requires it’s own timeline and shouldn’t be generalized by style, but the recipe. Hoppier beers, low ABV beers, and beers with high wheat content, typically require a faster turnaround than malt forward and high-ABV counterparts.

Resources

Bottled beer image from HomebrewTalk user MattHollingsworth. Image retrieved from: http://www.homebrewtalk.com/photo/caligulaimperialstout-37763.html\

Swing-top Bottles image from HomebrewTalk user Skywze1. Image retrieved from: http://www.homebrewtalk.com/photo/bottling-63115.html

written by David Doucette

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