Bottle Carbonating

Bottle conditioning is the process of naturally carbonating beer by adding a priming solution (water + some type of sugar) to the flat beer immediately before bottling to initiate a “re-fermentation” in the bottle. The CO2 produced from the re-fermentation in the bottle is absorbed into the beer, creating carbonation. The amount of carbonation in the finished beer can be controlled by adjusting the amount of sugar in the priming solution. After priming and filling, the newly bottled beer should be stored at 70-75F for 2-3 weeks or until fully carbonated. After this time the bottles can be chilled or stored below 60 degrees to stabilize the beer.

Bottle conditioning also has an effect on the flavor and aroma of the beer due to the presence of active yeast in the bottle. The yeast in the bottle is able to reabsorb or process byproducts from fermentation eventually rounding out or mellowing the flavors. It can also extend the shelf life of beer by delaying the staling effects of oxidation.

Many different types of sugar can be used for bottle carbonation, including corn sugar (dextrose), table sugar (sucrose), or dry malt extract. In order to properly determine the amount of sugar to use, you need to take into account the temperature of the beer and the volume as well as the type of sugar and the level of carbonation desired. Northern Brewer’s Priming Sugar Calculator is a good resource for determining the amount of sugar to use.

When a batch of beer fails to carbonate in the bottle there are a few common causes. After fermentation the yeast cells that remain in solution may be too stressed or too few to re-start fermentation in the bottle. The likelihood of this happening increases with the length of secondary fermentation and the alcoholic strength of the beer. To ensure proper re-fermentation, additional yeast can be added to the beer at bottling. You can use a fresh pack of the original yeast or use a neutral fermenting dry yeast such as the Danstar Nottingham ale yeast (y005).

Another common cause for lack of fermentation is storing the bottles in too cool an environment during conditioning. At cooler temperatures the remaining yeast will not be able to re-start fermentation in the bottle. Make sure the bottles are stored above 65F until the beer is fully carbonated. Sometimes warming the bottles and rousing the yeast from the bottom of the bottle get the process started. If that doesn’t work you may have to resort to dosing each bottle with a small amount of dry yeast after opening and then recapping the bottles.

Forgetting to add priming sugar and not getting a good seal on the bottle with the cap can be other reasons for lack of carbonation in the bottle. The easiest solution to these problems is to dose each bottle with additional sugar. The best way to do this is to open each bottle and add the pre-measured conditioning tabs to each bottle. Only dose with more sugar if you are sure that you forgot to add priming sugar or that the caps had a bad seal, otherwise the extra sugar can result in too much carbonation.

For more information on Bottle Conditioning, see our Advanced Guide to Bottle Conditioning.

Getting Carbonation Right with Kegs

Carbonating your beer, cider, or soda in kegs can be simple, easy, and quick. There are a few things to know in advance, and a few different methods. This guide will go over them for you. Most carbonation in kegs is done using pressurized CO2 from a gas cylinder, a process called force carbonation. The fastest results can be achieved when the beer in the keg is at a cold temperature. This will let the CO2 diffuse into the beer more efficiently and at a faster rate.

The most accurate and easiest method for force carbonating is often referred to as the “set it and forget it method.” On page 2 of this document, select your refrigerator temperature and your desired carbonation rate, set your CO2 regulator to that pressure, and wait 5-10 days for the beer to carbonate.

A more accelerated method of force carbonation involves putting 30-40 PSI of CO2 into your chilled keg of beer, and shaking or rocking the keg to diffuse the gas at a faster rate. Depending on how cold your beer is, and how much you agitate the beer, you can have your beer carbonated in anywhere from 12 hours to 3 days. Once it is carbonated, dial your CO2 regulator down to serving pressure, and vent excess CO2 out of your keg. It is advised that you wait an hour or two for the beer to settle down before serving.

Another way to carbonate in kegs is with priming sugar, or any other fermentable sugar. For a 5 gallon batch, just go by the same amount of sugar that you would for a bottle conditioned batch, typically 5 ounces for priming sugar. This will take 2-3 weeks for carbonation.

For more information, read our Kegging Overview or watch this short video:

Corking Belgian Bottles

When bottling certain styles of beer that require a higher-than-normal carbonation level it may be necessary to use heavy duty 750ml Belgian style bottles with corks and wire hoods. These bottles are the same style used by many Belgian beers such as Chimay. The equipment needed to do this is: 750ml Belgian Style bottles, Belgian beer corks, hooded wires, and an appropriate corker.

The type of corker you use is important because you will need to be able to adjust the depth of the plunger and be able to compress the larger cork: iris-style jaws and an adjustable plunger are required. The Portuguese Floor corker works great for Belgian bottles (and is a real workhorse for corking wine bottles as well).

The process for corking Belgian bottles is similar to corking wine bottles except that the cork only goes in about half-way – test-cork an empty bottle first to find the optimal depth setting on the plunger. You will need to first sanitize all of the equipment, bottles, etc., prepare and mix in a priming solution, and fill the bottles as normal. Then place a bottle on the corker platform, drop a cork into the iris chamber, and make sure that the plunger is set to the correct depth. Once it is corked you can apply the hooded wires by twisting the wire with your hand or use a wire tightener. As the beer carbonates the cork may mushroom further while being held in place by the wire. When opening the bottle the pressure from carbonation should allow you to pull the cork by hand.

The toy you’ll inevitably need

Three reasons to own a handheld CO2 keg charger:

1. You often host parties, late in the evening on weekends. Your guests are so taken with your beer they’re bringing their own steins. When your cylinder goes empty at midnight, you won’t be lamenting your local homebrew store’s hours!

2. You like your homebrew & your personal space, so you’ve chosen to live between major cities where both a LBHS and cylinder filling stores are distant. A CO2 cartridge injection is the easiest way to maintain a steady pour, and several charges over a single day can provide a more than humble level of carbonation.

3. You’re a backpacker or recreationalist who often finds oneself miles from anything. Where anything heavier than a 3 gallon keg can’t go, the handheld CO2 charger thrives!

Be the Envy of Your Peer Group

I do not miss the old days of bottling. In fact I loathe them.

Dishpan hands, interminable dirty bottles, sticky floors, wasted beer, inexact carbonation… and O! the time. The time spent on a weekend afternoon, a slave to the kitchen, hunched over a linoleum floor paying homage with dribbled beer sacrifices to the bottling gods.

In the end you have to ask yourself what your free time is worth. With a kegging system, in the time it takes to wash, sanitize, transfer and package 50 odd bottles of beer, you could wash and sanitize your keg, fill it, carbonate it, make dinner, go outside for a run, brew another batch of beer, cure world hunger, blow your own glass bottles… well, you get the idea. Read more