Last Tuesday, I had an epic bottle washing session. My normal bottle washing routine is to wait until I have about four cases of bottles that need washed and do it the day of or the day before I am bottling a batch. Four cases is enough, give or take a few bottles, for two normal five gallon batches. So I provide bottles for the batch I’m packaging and enough for one more. Between not bottling anything recently and getting a bunch of new bottles, this was not a standard session and I still have more that I didn’t get to.
I ended up washing all of my twelve ounce bottles, a little over seven cases and starting to work on a couple cases of wine bottles that were in less than ideal condition. I have more wine bottles (and the ones I did aren’t actually ready to use yet), a couple cases of twenty two ounce bombers and a bunch of half liter swing tops still waiting to be washed. About two cases of the twelve ounce bottles were still labeled from commercial breweries, another case or so had my (much easier to clean) homebrew labels and the rest were unlabeled. Unlabeled bottles that have been rinsed as soon as they’re emptied are quick and easy to clean. Any part of that not being true adds to the hassle.
Most of the bottles I use have been through this process before and fit the description of easy work. I have amassed a huge collection of all kinds of beer bottles and haven’t been adding to it much lately, but that is starting to change. I’m working on replacing the deteriorating beer cases I keep most of these bottles in with much more durable and all around easier to deal with milk crates. Twenty five twelve ounce long neck bottles fit perfectly, all the oddball bottles (Sierra Nevada, Anchor, Red Hook, etc.) don’t play as nice. I put out the call that I was again on the hunt for beer bottles and got a bunch of new ones to replace all those Torpedo and Celebration bottles I’ve been saving. This is great, but it meant more labels to scrape off.
For the easy bottles, I use a simple two step washing process. I rinse the bottles with a sink attachment designed for just that and then I soak them briefly in a bucket of Star San solution. Star San is an acid sanitizer. Following the instructions on the bottle, I add the appropriate measurement to a five gallon bucket of water. Star San does not require rinsing, so it is ideal for bottles that are already free from dirt and debris that just need sanitized. The bottles from which I’ve drunk my own homebrew are normally in this condition. Soak them briefly and put them straight on the rack for drying. For dirtier bottles and ones that need labels removed, though you need to do more.
In cases where I have bottles with my own homebrew labels, which are normal printer paper I put on with water soluble school glue, I use warm water with dish soap. This takes the labels right off but does require a thorough rinsing before moving on to the Star San bucket.
For bottles that have commercial labels, I’ve found that PBW, another product from Five Star Chemical, the same company that makes Star San is the best solution. PBW is an alkaline cleaner that is used to wash all kinds of brewery equipment, including all that beautiful stainless steel. Given enough time, it will take off even the toughest to remove labels (Tröegs…) as well. Star San is supposed to sanitize almost immediately, but I usually give it a little time to be safe, PBW on the other hand tells you right on the label to give it time to work. For removing labels, thirty to forty minutes of soaking seems to do the trick. Bottles coming out of the PBW solution usually look perfect, but it is a cleaner, not a sanitizer and they should still go through the Star San after they’re clean.
Bottles that were never rinsed and have dirt, yeast residue or whatever other grossness dried on may or may not come out of the PBW clean. If they don’t, you can always break out a bottle brush. Most beginner brewing kits seem to come with bottle brushes and they work well for these soiled bottles. That said, I almost never use them and I doubt that many people ever invest in a second bottle brush when that first one is worn out. When I started out and was still building the castle of beer bottles that now takes up a large portion of my basement, I was forced to tediously wash individual bottles with this tool. Now that I have bottles to spare, the effort does not seem anywhere close to worth it. If a bottle doesn’t come clean from a spray of water after soaking in PBW it goes straight to the recycle bin.
After the bottles are cleaned and sanitized, they need to dry. There are two bottle drying systems that are popular with homebrewers. The old stand by is the bottle tree and the new sensation is called Fast Rack. I have one of each and I’ll post my thoughts on both later this week. Tomorrow is brew day for Elkland Amber Lager and I’ll be posting about how it goes.