Seems like the answer should be pretty straight-forward: “So I can drink it!”...right? After all, almost everybody who brews started out by bottling their beer.
However, there are many options out there: kegs, mini-kegs, pressurizable stainless-steel growlers, glass beer growlers, and most recently, homebrew-sized brite tanks.
Bottling beer is a hassle. All that cleaning...and sanitizing….and filling….and capping. Not to mention figuring out the right amount of priming sugar. And if you bottle too early, bottle bombs! Why bother?
While there are definitely quicker and sexier options available, bottles still have a fundamental place in homebrewing. And not only because they are cheap. Bottles of all shapes and sizes are still more portable and convenient than even the smallest keg system. If filled and capped well, bottles stay sealed and carbonated a lot longer than a quick growler fill off the tap.
Some beers really benefit from bottling, especially high-gravity brews that need to be aged. You can easily stash them away and grab one now and then to sample. Do you really want to tie up a keg and fridge space for months at a time?
Presentation value is also important. Many enjoy creating labels and packaging, if simply to have a special gift for others. And who doesn’t enjoy a finely corked and caged Belgian beer?
Cosmetics aside, many of us choose to bottle beer for one reason: competitions. Most homebrew competitions follow very strict guidelines: plain, brown 12-ounce bottles with a plain metallic cap (no colors or markings). Although it is up to the organizers, very few competitions will allow other types of bottles. Uniformity and anonymity are key to a fair competition. Besides, oddly shaped or oversized bottles really mess up the sorting process when there are hundreds of bottles that need to be put into cases. Don’t be that brewer.
Whatever the reason to bottle your beer, there are a few things that can help to produce the best final product, especially for competition.
Get a bench capper. It is worth it, even for a few bottles.
Use a priming sugar calculator to estimate the correct amount of priming sugar to use for a given style. Proper carbonation can make the beer.
When bottling from a bucket, use a bottle filler for a smooth liquid transfer into the bottle. This helps avoid splashing and oxidation.
If you keg your beer, carbonation is easy. Plus, bottles filled from a draft system can be almost sediment free. But, you still need to get that beer into the bottles.
The best method, in my opinion, is a true counter-pressure bottle filler. Yes, they are a pain to use, but when done correctly, you have a very shelf-stable and properly carbonated beer. Flushing the bottle with CO2 removes oxygen and the counter-pressure keeps the beer from foaming excessively. Depending on the style, a beer bottled this way can last a very long time.
One-handed draft bottle fillers offer a similar oxygen-free transfer with minimal foaming, but in a much more convenient one-handed format. They are a better option when you need bottles and need them quick (especially if you do not have the patience for a counter-pressure filler). If you do it right, the bottle will still be very stable for storage. Simply adjust the serving pressure to minimize foam while filling.
In either case, cap each bottle as you go.
So by all means embrace the shiny new serving technology, but don’t disparage the simple brown bottle. You just might need some of them soon.