Lessons from Homebrewing: Bottling and Adjuncts

Alex Fossi, September 03, 2013

In my previous posts, I've talked a little bit about why you should try homebrewing. As a first-time brewer myself, I went over the basics of brewing and what the craft beer drinker can gain from homebrewing. Today, I'm going to talk a bit more about using adjuncts and bottling your beer.

Of course, this is a bit backwards. Bottling is the last stage of brewing, and we're going to look at that first. Why?  Well, as it happens, I just helped bottle up a batch of saison a couple weekends back, so I have some helpful amateur photographs that I can include here. No, no, not that kind of amateur photographs. I doubt you'd want those from me anyway.  

Bottling beer is almost shockingly easy. If you've been on a brewery tour, you've probably seen complicated machines that filter and force-carbonate beer. I expected some sort of miniature carbonator would be needed, but it turns out that the only reason you'd need a machine to create carbonation would be if you filtered the yeast out. Since most homebrewers don't filter their brews, all you have to do is add a little bit of priming sugar to your big bucket of beer right before you bottle; as the yeast works its way through the sugar, one of the byproducts is the CO2 you need to carbonate the beer.

When I'm drinking beer, the amount of carbonation isn't something I typically notice (with the notable exception of Rayon Vert, which seems to be impossible to pour well because of how carbonated it is). With homebrewing, one of the things you get to decide is how much priming sugar to use. More sugar = more bubbles.

One of the cool things about homebrewing is that if you were so inclined, you could even make a clone of a favorite beer and then try slight variations on the recipe. Want to see what Bell's Two-Hearted would be like if it were fizzier or flatter? There's no reason you can't. I'm hoping to make a batch at some point where we make several versions of the same beer with varying levels of carbonation (though, I'm slightly concerned that this is the sort of experiment that ends with exploding bottles). Homebrewing's a great way to test things out, because you can have a "control group" and then change one thing about the beer just to see what happens.

Perhaps the easiest way to add variation to a recipe is to use an adjunct at the end. For those unfamiliar, an adjunct is generally defined as anything you use in beer that isn't barley, hops, water, or yeast. Some breweries use adjunct malts to replace barley, but for homebrewers, most adjuncts will be flavorful ingredients added towards the end of the process.

What kinds of stuff can you use? Fruit, coffee, honey, and the like are common, but you can use whatever you want to try -- the choice is yours.  For the saison we were bottling here, we added figs to a gallon of it, because we'd never had a fig saison and why not.  First, we chopped up the figs in a food processor:

Then, we added the figs to the beer, which can be a bit difficult when the beer is in a narrow-necked jug and the fig chunks are just a bit too large and sticky to get into the beer.  After this stage, we found it necessary to open a beer (a saison, appropriately enough) and take a brief break:

Voila!  Fig saison. This goes into the closet for another week, but the non-figged saison is ready to bottle now. We've got a bucket of beer, a hose, and perhaps most importantly, a bunch of sanitized bottles and caps. 

One thing about brewing that I was surprised by is that there are some steps of brewing that allow for a bit of imprecision. However, there's no cutting corners when it comes to keeping everything sanitized. It's really, really easy to ruin a bottle or even a whole batch of beer if it becomes contaminated.

This batch had enough beer for about forty bottles -- after they were full, we used this fun little device (definitely not for use as a sex toy, FYI) to cap them.  

I was fairly sure I was breaking the bottles at first, because you really have to use some force to get the caps on.  At the end of the day, though, they all made it through, and we had a case and a half of beer.  

The finished product was pretty solid; one thing I'd like to figure out is how Saison Dupont gets such fine, fluffy carbonation in their beer. I'm guessing you might have to force-carbonate the beer to produce that effect, so it might be a bit out of my league, sadly. I've certainly never spent so much time thinking about bubbles before, so that's something I'll be paying closer attention when I drink new beers over the next few weeks.  

The fig version was quite interesting, a touch sweeter and with some bracing bitterness that I was pretty proud of. I've been harboring an anti-adjunct prejudice thanks to an old feud with Magic Hat #9, but this helped me move past that a little bit. Overpowering fruit adjuncts are still not okay in my book, but it's definitely possible to use adjuncts as a minor addition without ruining the rest of the beer.  

Next time around, I'll talk about hops. Choosing hops was one of my favorite parts of brewing, and it's a great way to better understand what your favorite brewers are thinking about as they craft their new beers. It's also one of the areas where you have a lot of freedom to improvise; you've probably seen the plethora of special-edition dry-hopped beers that brewers are making these days (the Saison Dupont Cuvee Dry-Hopped you saw above is a great example). As it turns out, it's not at all difficult to experiment with similar things at home.