Count me among those birds who like bottling homebrew. I enjoy the process, but especially the rewards. Having bottled beer around means that you always have something to take on the go, give away, archive and of course, drink. Few things can top a well-presented, perfectly carbonated, heady bottle of beer.
To achieve this, priming—adding a bit of sugar to the bottle before capping—is worthy of consideration, as it can make or break an otherwise fantastic beer. Opening a long-awaited special batch and finding it either flat or gushy is a major disappointment.
Haphazard technique or impatience is usually at the root of those problems. Getting something as mundane—but important—as basic carbonation right every time is a habit worth having, an indicator of attention to detail and proficiency in the overall brewing process.
There’s something elegant and elemental about natural carbonation and cask- or bottle-conditioning. The Belgians swear by bottle-conditioning, and it is, of course, an uncompromising condition of cask ale.
There are a few salient things to follow for fail-safe, basic priming, and a few more for stylistic priming. Cleanliness and fully attenuated finished beer are the most obvious things that command attention. But more specifically, carbonation level (volumes of CO2), type of priming sugar and maturation conditions also enter into the equation.
Proper priming and carbonation are also the final touch in crafting a perfectly stylized beer.
Too Many Bubbles or
Flat as a Pancake
Over-carbonation is the most common problem with bottle conditioning. Most often, the issue is not with priming, but with beer that has not completed initial fermentation. This may be due to laggard, incomplete fermentation from poor initial aeration, too-low temperatures causing primary yeast to struggle, notoriously flocculent yeast, high wort gravity where alcohol stuns the yeast or simple impatience.
Fermentation can slow down drastically at the end of the cycle, especially with high-gravity brews. Check your aeration techniques and fermentation conditions. Even when you think it’s done, leave the beer in the secondary for a few extra days: No harm will come of it. Know the behavior of your yeast. If it is a flocculent strain, your wort may need a bit of arousal every now and then.
Another culprit in over-carbonation is contamination. Lambics and sours are so attenuated because the organisms that finish the job chew up everything in sight. Some of those same, or similar, bugs may make their way into your wort or bottles, either as contamination from previous batches or as wild, airborne or surface intruders. I only use bottles that have no visible residue. Rinse your bottles immediately after use and dry thoroughly before storing. They will then need only a no-rinse sanitizing before filling. Attentive, scrupulous bottle care takes most of the pain out of bottling.
Under-carbonation is usually a result of poor measurement or distribution of priming solution, a too-cold temperature or slow refermentation during maturation, or poor capping. All of these are easy to avoid: Measure and mix priming solutions with care, condition and age within the fermentation range of the yeast, be patient and, of course, make sure your bottle rims, caps and capper are shipshape.
The rule of thumb for priming 5 gallons is ¾ cup of corn sugar (dextrose) for medium carbonation levels. Allow to condition for about two weeks to start and then check the progress. Don’t mess around with this priming dogma at first, as it will eliminate one major source of angst and variability. Master the bottling process and you’ll be a happy brewer.
Once you’ve got the basics of priming and bottle conditioning well in hand, you might want to branch out a bit and play around with different priming sugars and style-specific carbonation levels.
First off, not all sugars and syrups are created equal; they have different degrees of fermentability, scattering the amount needed for precise carbonation all over the place. Granular sugar and syrups are obviously the most different. Ounce for ounce, brown or turbinado sugar is not the same as dextrose. Corn syrup is not the same as liquid malt extract, molasses or honey. Even different honeys contribute more or less fermentables from variety to variety.
Rather than learning the difference by trial and error, visit northernbrewer.com/priming-sugar-calculator/ and it will do the math for you. Select
desired carbonation level or beer style,
temperature and volume, and it will give you the perfect amount of sugar to use by weight and volume.
If you are looking to contribute a bit of flavor with your priming sugar, think carefully, since some might add nothing at all and others may be more than you bargain for. Honey or maple syrup may barely make any contribution. They are expensive and may be a waste of your valuable varietal honey or syrup. Dried or liquid malt extract can be used if you are bent on keeping the beer “all-malt.” Keep in mind that when boiled and cooled, it will produce a minimal amount of break product.
The priming sugar can be used as a key portion of the recipe. If yours calls for a specific amount of a flavorful sugar, then that priming addition can count toward the total recipe amount, leaving the finished beer uncompromised for the purists.
Another option, though more challenging, is gyle-priming: priming and carbonating with some of the original wort. It is a little tricky, because gyle (unfermented wort) is as variable from a fermentable standpoint as the main wort itself. A general rule of thumb is 1 quart of average-attenuation clean gyle, OG 1.060, per 5 gallons of beer for normal levels of carbonation. Of course, stronger gyle will require less and weaker gyle, more.
To gyle-prime, freeze the gyle (extra kettle wort) in sanitized pint jars and store until bottling. Thaw the gyle and allow the break material to settle out, decant into a saucepan, boil for a few minutes, cool and add to the bottling bucket. Gyle-priming is an old method used to invigorate and freshen beer and ale when it was ready to serve, and probably done with fresh wort since it predates refrigeration.
To carbonate a keg or cask by priming, use about one-half of the normal amount of priming solution and make sure the vessel doesn’t leak, either by using a bit of head pressure on the keg or a proper spile in the cask.
There are a few more options, especially if you want to carbonate a few bottles only from a batch destined for the keg. Prime Tabs, nothing more than sugar tablets, are simply added to the bottle at the rate of two per 12-ounce bottle, three per 16-ounce bottle or four per 22-ounce bomber of beer. Prime Dose, a newer product, comes in capsule form. One will carbonate a 12-ounce bottle and two will work for a bomber.
Another alternative, one that most of us have used at one point or another, is adding granulated dextrose or sucrose to individual bottles. Use at a rate of ⅔ teaspoon(or a rounded half-teaspoon) per 12 ounces of beer. Put the sugar in the bottle before filling and not the other way around to avoid gushing.
The final critical step in bottling beer to perfection is patience and proper maturation. Regular-gravity beers may carbonate in short order, but be fizzy and prickly at first. In this case, allow the CO2 to dissolve a bit longer for the softer, more diffuse bubbles that help build and sustain a well-formed head.
Strong beers will, quite obviously, require more time and might carbonate more than expected in the long run due to slow, continuous attenuation and fermentation of the original wort. Consider under-priming to avoid this; most strong beers are better with less carbonation anyhow, except for Belgian strong goldens or tripels. A fresh dose of yeast at bottling time is also a good idea.
Well-made beer can last in the bottle for a very long time, and these tips will go a long way toward producing perfectly aged, impeccably carbonated homebrew.
Basic Brown Ale
OG 1.050, 30 IBU, 2.5 volumes CO2
Steeping Grains: 1 pound 80° L crystal malt, 6 ounces chocolate malt
Extract/Sugar: 5.5 pounds amber LME or 4 pounds amber DME, 12 ounces turbinado sugar
Hop Schedule: 7 AAU (about 1.5 ounces) East Kent Goldings, 60
minutes; 0.5 ounces East Kent Goldings, 10 minutes
Ferment with London or English ale yeast
Prime with up turbinado sugar and bottle
French Saison (All-grain)
OG 1.060, 35 IBU, 3.2 volumes of CO2
Mash at 149° F: 8 pounds pilsner malt, 4 pounds Vienna malt
Hop Schedule: 7 AAU East Kent Goldings, 60 minutes; 1 ounce Strisselspalt or Styrian Goldings, 15 minutes, 1 ounce Czech Saaz,
Ferment with Wyeast 3711 or White Labs WLP590
Prime with 4/5 cup corn sugar and bottle
K. Florian Klemp
K. Florian Klemp is an award-winning homebrewer who thinks there is no more sublime marriage than that of art and science.