The beer bottling begins

Posted Feb. 01, 2011, at 8:15 p.m.

I have 45 bottles of beer on the wall — literally. After two weeks of fermentation, my first batch of beer, a Broadway Brown Ale from Central Street Farmhouse, is building up carbonation and aging in its bottles. It usually takes about two weeks for carbonation to build up and another two weeks for the beer to age properly.

I don’t plan on waiting that long. I’ve been assured by other brewers that the beer should build up enough fizz after a week to give an idea of what the beer will taste like at its best.

The bottling process began with — you guessed it — more sanitizing. The average 5-gallon home-brew will fill about 45-50 12-ounce bottles. Empty bottles can be purchased from any home-brew supplies seller, but can cost more than 50 cents apiece. It’s much cheaper to save old beer bottles or pick up some from a recycling center for a little more than the redemption value.

Cleaning and sanitizing 50 bottles takes time, and it would help to have a buddy. I started by cleaning the sink, filling it with hot water and a few tablespoons of powdered sanitizer — bleach works, too — and soaked the bottles. I peeled off the original labels and scrubbed off the residual glue underneath.

After the bottles had time to sanitize, I rinsed them under the faucet, which uses up enough water to make me feel guilty for doing things this way. There are tools that can speed up the process and help use much less water. I plan on buying a bottle washer before bottling my next batch, but for now, I’m stuck elbow-deep in the sink before, during and after I brew.

Then I sanitized my siphon, hydrometer (used to measure the relative density of liquids) and a bucket. I opened the secondary fermentation bucket — the one I siphoned my beer into a week earlier — and took a pivotal hydrometer reading to find out if I’d hit the recommended final gravity mark. In other words, was my beer as dense as it should have been?

I dropped the hydrometer, watched it bob up and down in the liquid for a few seconds before it settled at a reading of 1.012 — right where it was supposed to be. By putting this reading into an equation along with the starting gravity reading I took after dumping the wort (the sweet liquid that comes from mashing grains) into the first fermentation bucket two weeks earlier, I can get an idea of what the alcohol content of my beer might be. Different brewers use different equations to estimate the alcohol content of their beers, but the most commonly used equation I’ve found is:

Percent of alcohol by volume (ABV) = (1.05 x (starting gravity – final gravity) / final gravity) / 0.79 x 100

Inserting my starting and final gravity numbers:

ABV = (1.05 x (1.049 – 1.012) / 1.012) / 0.79 x 100

After thinking back to my days in algebra class and dusting off the old calculator, the number I came up with (rounded up) was 4.9 percent alcohol by volume, which doesn’t seem too far off from most of the brown ales I’ve tried. Most fall somewhere in the 4.5- to 5.2-percent range.

I did a happy dance before moving on to the next step, mostly because the math part was over. I never liked math.

It was time to continue the bottling. I put the secondary fermentation bucket on the countertop and the newly sanitized bucket on the floor. Before siphoning the beer over, I boiled a pint of water and poured in the priming sugar that came with the beer kit, stirring it until it dissolved. During siphoning, I added the priming sugar mixture to the beer. The sugar helps the beer carbonate once it has been bottled. What’s a beer without that satisfying “tsssssst” when you crack it open?

Turns out, it’s still good. As I siphoned, I tried a spoonful of the brew. I could have had a bottle right then. Still, the “tsssssst” is worth the extra week or two of waiting.

After finishing the beer transfer, being careful to leave out what sediment had settled to the bottom of the bucket, I moved the bucket on the floor to the counter, inserted the siphon and started filling the long line of bottles. Note that siphoning goes a lot faster if the container you’re putting liquid into is lower than the one you’re drawing it from.

The siphon in my kit has a feature that makes bottling a lot easier: A spring-loaded stopper at the end that goes into the bottles and allows the user to press down to start the flow and lift up to stop. Once the bottle filled to the top, I removed the siphon and moved to the next one. After repeating this process 45 times — and drinking a couple of Sam Adams Latitude 48 IPAs to make the process less monotonous — I had lined up a small army of beer bottles containing my first-ever batch.

Then came what had to be one of the most gratifying parts of the process so far — capping. My kit came with a two-handed device that you place on top of the bottle and push down to clamp the cap in place. For every cap I pushed down, I got a feeling of accomplishment: “I’ve finished a beer. Look, here’s a bottle to prove it.” Inexpensive homemade labels created using my home computer helped drive that feeling home even more.

Now the 45 bottles are sitting in the corner of a warm room, covered with a towel to keep the light away. They stay in darkness for another two weeks before making a journey to the fridge to chill before they travel to the bellies of my family members, my friends and myself.

To pass the last couple weeks of waiting, I went back to Central Street Farmhouse to pick up my next beer kit — a recipe called Bangor-to-Brussels Stout. Hey, I need something to take the place of my brown ale reserves when they start dwindling a few weeks from now.

Until then, bring it on. Brew on.

Nick McCrea is a Bangor Daily News copy editor. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Maine and a master’s degree in magazine, newspaper and online journalism from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. This occasional column will chronicle his first endeavor at beer brewing.

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