On Bottling… And the Unintended Consequences of Experimental Batches

Bottling line @Clipper City

Too bad you can’t fit one of these machines in an apartment (Photo credit: cizauskas)

I’ve been unable to post much the last couple weeks because of non beer related things in my life, but at least I have a bunch of topics queued up for posts now.

Whenever the topic of bottling comes up whether in conversation or while reading there is one thing everyone seems to feel:  Bottling day is a pain in the butt.  Maybe I just read books that hate the process, I’m not quite sure but usually people seem to say the faster you move on to kegging, the happy your brewing life will be.  I happened to disagree with this overall idea… although my recent bottling day has made me at least reevaluate that.

Bottling is a pretty mundane process.  There’s the person (people) bottling, the beer, the bottling apparatus, and what seems like acres upon acres of empty bottles.  I don’t know why but I have a joy of setting off my beer into the bottles and waiting for the yeast to do their magic on the priming sugar.  It somehow makes me think of the caterpillar that metamorphoses into the butterfly inside its cocoon.  The process is nowhere as mind-boggling as the insect transformation, but undeniably the taste of the beer before and after bottle conditioning can be quite different.

The actual process of bottling I find quite calming.  Yes, it is mechanical and repetitive but that might be why I find it peaceful.  Once you have the seemingly unending amount of clean and sanitized bottles ready for bottling, the process is quite zen in a way.  The only problem is that getting to that point can be a real annoyance!

I’ve been saving up bottles for my 5 gallon batch of ESB that I’m bringing to the Brooklyn Wort homebrew competition for quite a while now.  Since I brew pretty regularly, I don’t really have all that many extra empty bottles laying around for a relatively big batch like this.  I usually brew in 3 gallon carboys, so scrounging up some bottles for that isn’t very hard…  And if there aren’t enough, you can always bite the bullet and force yourself to go to the store and buy a six pack of good craft beer and empty the bottles in a way you find most acceptable.

I found enough bottles, some reused from my earlier homebrew batches and some in the form of empties from commercial craft brew purchases.  I thought I was ready.  I moved the carboy to the kitchen, got the bottling bucket ready, and then started to give each of the bottles a cleaning.  This is when I realized that this wasn’t going to be as smooth as I thought:  I had many bottles that I had stored that still had labels on them.  I suppose if I were bottling this beer for my own personal consumption I wouldn’t have been as bothered by this, but the fact that I was bringing this beer to a competition made it impossible for me to leave them on.

After an hour soak in warm water and oxyclean the labels were no more and I was ready to move on with the pre-bottling cleaning.  Of course this wasn’t as smooth as I had wanted either.  I had a couple bottles which had deposits that I couldn’t remove from the insides.  Usually this wouldn’t be a huge deal, but I was already cutting it close on the bottles and now I had to discard more.  At this point my whole view of bottling day had changed, and I hadn’t even racked the beer to the bottling bucket.

To add an even more annoying wrinkle, after I had cleaned the requisite amount of bottles I started to clean my siphon and tubing and my worry increased yet again.  I had made a jalapeno beer recently and as I was cleaning the tubing, a distinct jalapeno aroma was escaping.  Time was already growing short and now I had to deal with this as well?  I had no choice but to use the tubing and get more before my next brew day.  I hope this jalapeno flavor doesn’t leech into my ESB, but the small sip I took from the hydrometer test didn’t seem bad.

I guess this bottling experience has changed my views on bottling day:  Bottling day can be a real pain if you haven’t planned ahead.  The actual act of bottling I still find peaceful in a way, but I’ll never be excited for a bottling day ever again.

Beers still waiting to be bottled at this point: Jalapeno Blonde and Vanilla Raspberry Porter with Green Cardamom.  Ah, they will do just fine in their carboys for a bit longer I think…

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