Timing Is Everything – Racking and Bottling

One of the most frequently asked questions from customers in the Market is “When?” When should I rack to secondary? When should I bottle? When can I try a bottle to see if it’s ready to drink?

Not an easy question to answer, in many cases. It depends on a variety of factors: style of beer, strength of beer, yeast used in fermentation, temperature of the brewing and fermenting environment; even convenience affects the answer.

Simplified, in my home brewery, all things going well and as planned (which is rare, I must admit), here is my normal schedule.

  • Brew Day minus 1: weigh and crush grains, prepare yeast culture if necessary, double-check recipe for all ingredients.
  • Brew Day: brew, start fermentation.
  • Brew Day plus 2 or 3: if fermentation has not visibly started, open and check seals, etc… if necessary, re-pitch yeast or take other remedial actions…
  • Brew Day plus 8 – 10: rack to secondary. This lines up nicely with my schedule: I brew on Thursday, and rack on either Sunday or Tuesday (both of which are days I do not currently work). This is generally true for all styles, ale or lager, moderate strength or strong.
  • Racking Day plus 12 – 15 (for moderate strength ales): bottle.
  • Racking Day plus 30 – 40 days (for lagers and/or high-gravity beers): bottle.
  • Bottling Day plus 6 – 8 (for moderate strength ales): taste test.
  • Bottling Day plus 14 – 16 (for lagers): taste test
  • Bottling Day plus 21 (for high gravity beers): taste test.

The taste test will tell you a) if the carbonation is adequate for drinking, and b) if the beer needs more aging for flavor purposes.

One of the indicators of a beer’s readiness for transfer to the secondary is the airlock. If there is still frequent bubbling (say more than 4 or 5 bubbles per minute) it’s probably best to wait a few more days. If it was bubbling regularly and has slowed down to a bubble every 20 or 30 seconds it is fine to rack it. All bubbling should have ceased in the secondary before you think about bottling, and if you are using a glass carboy as your secondary, you should see a nearly clear beer. If fermentation activity is ongoing in the secondary, or if it has not clarified, it’s probably best not to bottle it yet.

A word about shelf life – both hops and alcohol are natural preservatives, therefore a stronger beer or a hoppier beer will last longer; a weaker beer or one that is less hoppy will go stale sooner. Altbiers, Kölsch, Pilsners, Pale Ales and Brown Ales generally need to be consumed within 4 – 6 months. Old Ales, Barleywines, Belgian Dubbels and Tripels, Bocks and Imperial Stouts can last and indeed improve with age, up to 18 months or more.

I was reminded of this tonight when I opened a Belgian Tripel which I brewed way back in February 2009. It was bottled in April, and I tried it for the first time in June. I was not impressed at that point. It looked nice, clear and pale golden color, big white head, etc. but the aroma and taste were harsh. Way too much alcohol in the nose and the flavor, not enough of the yeast-based esters that I expected (my favorite Trappist Tripels have both an aroma and a flavor that remind me of pistachios or almonds). I was disappointed, but I did not dump the bottles, instead allowing them to rest peacefully in the dark. Now, I have about 6 bottles left of what has become a delightful strong golden ale with lots of Belgian yeast character. I suspect it will get even smoother and more delightful over the next couple months if I can restrain myself from drinking it too soon.

Additionally, I was bottling a bock at the same time. It was brewed the day after Thanksgiving and has been lagering for five weeks. It tasted pretty smooth and malty as I bottled it, but time will tell. I hope to be able to hold off and not even taste it until at least February, but we shall see. It will be fully ready, if all goes well, around the time I begin sugaring the first weekend in March, and improve and be even better for summer barbecues. I may even try to save a couple bottles for the last day of summer in September.

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