Bottling beer is probably the least enjoyed part of brewing, and not without reason.
You have to save up or buy bottles, clean them, sanitize them, fill them one by one and so on. There's nothing worse than waiting a month only to find out that they're over/under-carbonated or completely unpredictable. But fear not dear readers, I've got a few tips to help improve consistency in your bottles.
Why bother when kegs are so cheap, you might ask? Well, yes, kegs are cheap, and they're easier, and they allow for more adjustment, but almost everyone starts out bottling, and there are some great benefits in bottling. It's much cheaper to bottle beer, especially when bottles can be had for free; Bottles are easier to transport to parties etc than an entire keg and CO2 system; and bottles take up much less space than a kegerator and kegs. A keg has to be completely empty before it's filled with something else, cases of bottles can be gradually emptied and refilled with the next batch before the last one's finished. At last count, I had 14 different beers available in my apartment, and I certainly don't have room for a 14-keg kegerator. That kind of variety is a huge plus for me.
Now that you're convinced to bottle (or you're forced to enjoy it due to space restrictions, like I am) what should you look out for? Inconsistency in bottle carbonation usually comes from a couple areas: bacterial infection from individual bottles, and inconsistent dosing.
Cleanliness is next to godliness, as the cliche goes. Bacterial contamination from bottles is more of a problem than most people think. A bottle full of beer and yeast residue creates an ideal environment for bacteria. Simply rinsing it out with warm water after use is just not enough. Every bottle should be scrubbed with a bottle brush or soaked with an effective cleanser like PBW or B-Brite. Otherwise, sanitizing on bottling day is not going to be as helpful as you'd like. If you think about it, a beer bottle that's undergoing natural carbonation from a priming solution is like a tiny carboy, and you wouldn't just rinse out a carboy with warm water for 20 seconds before sanitizing and putting another batch in, would you? All the residues from that fermentation can be very stubborn, especially with some Belgian or British yeasts that really cling to the bottle, so keep 'em clean!
The second most common issue, in my opinion, is inconsistent priming. Either, from bottle to bottle within a batch, or as in, "woah, why is this beer so fizzy?" Excessive carbonation can be a result of bacteria (see above) but it can also result from lazy priming. Precise priming can only happen if 1) you know the volume of beer to be primed (a 5 gallon batch can easily yield any where from 5.25 to 4.5 gallons - quite a bit of difference in the priming rate) 2) the exact amount of priming sugar you're using, and 3) the current temperature of the beer. Our Priming Sugar Calculator helps here.
Inconsistency within a batch can also be a simple matter of not distributing the priming solution evenly. It should be stirred back into solution gently every half dozen bottles or so. The specific gravity of priming solution is in the area of 1.090 on the low end, so you can imagine how quickly this sinks to the bottom of a bottling bucket full of 1.010 beer if it's not evenly distributed.
So there you have it folks, a few tips to ease the pain of bottling. So go forth, drink of your real ale. Carbonate the way nature intended, without fear. And enjoy it.