Rick Combe is a jack of few trades and master of none from the southeastern US.
Don't Buy Bottles; Reuse Them
One of the first issues to come up when you get into beer brewing is where to get bottles. Homebrew stores sell new ones; however, they aren't very cheap. There's no reason to pay for empty bottles when you probably throw them away on a daily basis. Clean used bottles are just as good as new ones, and they're free.
Find Bottles With Pop Tops, Not Twist Offs
From my experience, the most important factor is that the bottle has a pry-off top. Twist-off tops don't seal well with a wing capper, which can cause your beer to not prime (carbonate) properly and/or spoil. I have heard of some people having success capping twist-offs with a bench capper, but I have no experience with that, so I can't recommend it.
Some common beer brands with pry-off/pop tops include Corona, Sierra Nevada, Samuel Adams, Heineken, Modelo, and Becks. The majority of craft brews and Mexican beers have pop tops. Most macro brews, such as Budweiser, Miller, and Coors, have twist-off tops.
1. Soak Your Bottles Overnight
Once you have accumulated enough bottles to brew beer (a five-gallon batch yields around 50 twelve-ounce bottles), you will need to soak them overnight in a solution of OxiClean or a generic version of it, which can be found at the dollar store. I don't have any large watertight containers, so I use the bathtub in my guest bathroom to do this.
- Plug the tub and turn the water to mostly hot. If you have sensitive hands, you might want to use gloves for this.
- As the tub is filling, add 2-3 scoops of your oxygen cleaner, more or less depending on the size of your tub/container. It doesn't have to be exact, just enough to make the water "slippery."
- Once the cleaner is mixed evenly and you have a few inches of water in your tub/container, begin filling the bottles with the cleaner/water solution. I set mine upright at this point, so I have room to clean them the next day, but if you want to leave them lying down to save water, that's fine. Either way, fill the bottles with the solution and run just enough water to submerge them fully. If you're married, go ahead and cook a delicious dinner before your spouse finds that the tub is filled with beer bottles.
- Leave the bottles to soak overnight.
2. Clean and Remove Labels
- Once the bottles have soaked overnight, they will be ready to clean. Get a steel wool pad, a trash can, and a chair.
- You will also need something to transfer the bottles to your dishwasher if you have one. If you have a bottle brush, you can use it too. I don't own one, and on the rare occasion that I can't get a bottle clean without a brush, I just toss it.
- Again, you might want to use gloves for this, as the cleaner can dry out your skin.
- First, dump a little more than half the water out of the bottle, then plug it with your finger and shake it vigorously for a few seconds. This should be all it takes to get the inside of the bottle clean. I've used this method on many batches of beer and have never had one contaminated, and I've cleaned some pretty filthy bottles. Occasionally, one will still have visible staining after shaking it a few times. I just throw those away.
- Now you'll need to remove the labels and glue unless you are using a bottle with the label painted on, like Corona. By now, some of the labels might be coming off on their own.
- Use your fingers to peel off what you can and throw it in the trash.
- Now, dip the steel wool in the water and scrub off the rest of the label and the glue. I drink Samuel Adams and Modelo regularly and have found that Sam Adams cleans up really easily, whereas Modelo takes a little extra work. Even the harder-to-clean bottles can be scrubbed clean and shiny in less than a minute.
- Once the outside is clean rinse the bottle with clean tap water inside and out and set it aside.
- Repeat until all of the bottles are clean.
- Remember that you will only have to do this once; from now on, you can reuse your label-free bottles.
3. Sanitize Your Beer Bottles
There are many ways to do this, but I'm going to focus on the two I am familiar with. If you have a dishwasher, you are in luck. Just put the rinsed bottles in (I can fit about 55 in my dishwasher, using the short bottles on top) and run a high-temperature wash and dry with no detergent.
If your dishwasher has a sanitizing cycle, all the better, but it's not necessary. A regular high-temp wash kills anything in the bottles. If you don't have a dishwasher, you'll need to put in a little more effort. No-rinse beer brewing sanitizers are available at homebrew stores and online. Just follow the directions on the container. Before I learned I could sanitize with the dishwasher, I just used bleach.
How to Sanitize With a Bleach Solution
- Rinse out the tub/container you used to clean the bottles and begin adding hot water. One of the most respected books on homebrewing, How to Brew by John Palmer, suggests using one tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water and soaking the bottles for 20 minutes; others suggest using two tablespoons per 5 gallons and soaking for 10. I myself used the Palmer method.
- After soaking, rinse the bottles will. Palmer says to rinse with boiled water, but the times I sanitized bottles with bleach, I just took a chance and used tap water to rinse and had no trouble. I still sanitize my brewing equipment with a bleach solution and rinse it with tap water. I have yet to have any problems.
Now you're ready to bottle beer. Rinse the empty bottles a few times right after you drink them and store them upside down to make your life easier in the future. Be sure to comment with any tips or experiences you'd like to share.