Cleaning out used beer bottles for your homebrew
I'll start out by saying this is probably one of the least exciting aspects of homebrewing. Bottling will never rank as exciting and the process of getting ready to bottle? Yeah, not a lot of fun here. Nonetheless this is a key part in sharing and enjoying homebrew and I guess it does have a kind of meditative quality. Meditative? Is that the word?
Anyway, let’s start with what bottles do you want: brown ones! Don’t even bother with clear or green bottles which allow light to get to your homebrew and skunk it up. Brown bottles will help preserve your beer and keep your friends from thinking homebrewing leads to crap beer. A couple of other things are things I look for when I want to reuse a beer bottle:
~ No twist-off bottles. Twist-off caps are so 1980 anyway.
~ Labels that come off easy. Usually paper labels that have been glued to the bottle come off the easiest.
~ I try to avoid bottles that use foil over the cap. Foil is a total pain to remove.
~ Bombers! You look so cool when you drink a beer from a bomber. Plus you don’t need as many bottles.
Where can you find used bottles? Well the most fun way is to go out and buy a bunch a beer and have a party. Then you will have a ton of beer bottles to use later. This method is highly recommended. Another option is to show up at a homebrew competition and wait until the end. They toss out hundreds of used bottles. And if you're desperate, I guess you could always go to the dumpster behind a bar and find a nice supply. Dumpster diving is not recommended (unless you are already skilled at this technique).
Important tip! Especially on the night you have that party to get beer bottles, rinse out any bottle you intend to reuse as soon as possible. This will seriously save you a lot of time. When you rinse out the bottle of any beer residue inside the bottle you will cut down on the amount of yeast/bacteria that ends up building a little colony in the bottle. I am telling you, this is like the most important thing you can learn here. This makes life on cleaning day waaaaaay easier.
Cleaning Day. You have a carboy of beer waiting to be bottles and a box of dirty beer bottles. Damn. I have to clean all those bottles? Yep. What do you need for cleaning day.
Removing the label. This isn’t a requirement unless you plan on entering your beer into a competition, but, seriously, do you really want to leave that label on YOUR homebrew? And it’s not that difficult to remove the label. This is what has worked well for me:
~ Place your empty bottles in one side of your sink and block the drain.
~ Sprinkle a couple tablespoons of PBW over your bottles. This will make a big difference in getting the labels loose.
~ Fill up the sink with scorching hot water. Scorching! (legal warning: the water is HOT. DON'T BURN YOURSELF)
~ Let the bottles sit and soak up all the hot water for about a half hour. It's kind of like a beer bottle Jacuzzi.
~ Once you start to see some of the labels bubble/peel away you know you can start to dig in.
You’ll notice pretty quickly that some labels just jump right off the bottle and others just don’t want to leave. Slowly attempt to peel away each of the labels. If you find a stubborn one try to get off as much of the label as possible. Once the label is gone (or mostly gone) take the abrasive side of the sponge and scrub off any remaining glue. Some breweries pour a ton of glue on the bottles and you will find it very annoying. You may even want to write a strongly worded letter to the brewery about how they over-glue their labels.
Once the labels have been removed you can start cleaning out the junk inside the bottle.
~ Fill your bottle about halfway with the PBW water from your sink
~ Use your bottle brush to scrub out the inside.
~ Take a good look inside and confirm that all the critters have been removed.
Sanitize! Now that you have a swarm of clean bottles to fill up you still need to sanitize. I know this may seem odd, but the cleaning process can still leave bacteria sitting around. Remember you should bottle your homebrew quickly after sanitizing or you’ll have to do this all over again. There are two ways I use to sanitize my bottles:
1) StarSan. Follow the directions on the bottle for the quantity of sanitizer per gallon of water. Fill your sink with a fresh batch of water or use and empty bucket of water. Just dump the bottles into the sanitizer and make sure you get a good coating throughout. Also toss your bottle caps into the solution. Even the bottle caps need a little sanitation love. After a couple of minutes of soaking the bottles are ready to be filled.
2) The dishwasher. This is my perfered method because it’s just easier—as long as your dishwasher has a sanitize option. Toss your bottles and caps into the dishwasher (bottles pointing down) and set the washer to sanitize. A few notes with this option
~ Don’t clean your dishes at the same time. You don’t want a chunk of food to end up in one of your bottles.
~ Don’t use Jet-Dry. While I haven’t experienced this, I have read that Jet-Dry can leave a film that impacts the ability of your beer to carbonate. This could be BS, but why risk it?
~ Give your bottles some time to cool down. When the sanitize cycle is done the bottles will be screaming hot
Boom! You’ve just cleaned and sanitized a bunch of bottles. It’s actually not too bad, eh? Now all you got to do is fill them and that part is even more fun.
We have more tips here at Pintwell once your bottles are all cleaned up. Check out:
- The easy way to bottle your homebrew
- How to make your bottles fancy by waxing them (not the Brazilian sort of waxing)
- Plus all kinds of out cleaning tips