Brew Tips: Cleaning Bottles

This has always seemed like a no-brainer to me, but how to keep bottles clean for homebrewing is a fairly common question.  So, here’s my take: keep the bottles wet until they are cleaned.  As soon as you pour your brew (or within an hour or two after), rinse out the bottle and make sure to get out all of the sediment and such in the bottle.  Put some dish soap in the bottle (preferably scent free, like you should be using for all of your brewing equipment) and refill it.  Let it sit for a few days to ensure everything has lifted from the surface, including the protein ring around the neck resultant from the second fermentation to bottle condition.  For particularly stubborn protein rings, run a finger along the inside of the bottle neck.  Afterwords, rinse well to get out all the soap, and store someplace clean.  Later, use a no-rinse sanitizer such as StarSan immediately before bottling (don’t fear the foam!).

beer bottles and soap

Bottles to clean

If you do happen to let your bottles sit dirty, don’t bother trying to scrub them out with a brush, it just doesn’t work well enough and can even scratch the bottle.  Instead, mix a solution of about 4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) bleach in one gallon water (16 mL per liter) and fill the bottles in question- a funnel works well here.  After a few hours, you should see everything begin to lift off the surface; leave for a day or few and rinse very (very) well.  Examine with a light; repeat if you see anything suspect.  You can also try a slightly higher concentration of bleach, but anything over this amount should be used with extreme care, only when needed.

As for taking off labels on newly-used bottles, I’ve found letting them sit for about a half hour in in a sink full of hot soapy water allows them to peel off far more easily.  I can fit about 18 bottles at a time in my sink. Different breweries use different glues- some are easily water soluble, some need the heat.  You can use the back side of a butter knife to scrape off less cooperative labels, but some companies use glue I wouldn’t even bother with without some sort of industrial solvent, especially small craft breweries it seems (at least those in my area).  Use the scrubber side of a sponge (not one of those green 3M scrubber pads- they are actually sharp enough to scratch the glass somehow) to get the remaining glue and bits of label off.  I have also heard that hot PWB is an excellent label remover, but I’ve never been able to justify the cost of it.

I’ve always found Sierra Nevada has the easiest labels to get off, while most bottles are doable but slightly annoying.  Make sure to rinse these bottles as you finish them, though- you don’t want to be dealing with gunk on the inside while removing labels.  You probably don’t need to soap-soak them right away so long as they are rinsed, unless it happens to be a bottle-conditioned beer (Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, for example).

[2014.08.02 UPDATE: I now exclusively use PWB to wash bottles.  Its pricey, but its a one-time costI just keep a large bucket full in the garage and move bottles in and out.  I switched because I noticed some bottles, especially from longer-aged brews, had a small bit of build-up that soap alone wouldn’t remove.  A bottle brush would get it off, but would sometimes leaves small patches where the brush didn’t contact.  And brushing bottles sucks.  Hard.  As a bonus, PWB removes labels like magicthey fall right off.  The only trick is to use hot water for rinsing, as it can be hard to wash off otherwise.]

– Dennis
Life, Fermented

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About Dennis
Home brewer, home chef, garage tinkerer. Author of Life Fermented blog.

2 Responses to Brew Tips: Cleaning Bottles

  1. Jon D. says:

    Hi Dennis,
    Still asking questions, reading as much as I can and having fun brewing and building DIY projects to move forward to all-grain. Just finished brewing my first Black IPA and working through a couple Papazian books right now. (I’ve got a question, How can a pale ale be black? Someone’s gotta’ straighten that name out.)
    Anyway, back to the subject at hand. For those like me who don’t like messing with bleach too much, here’s a dollar saver a tip. I have a bartender friend who gets me lots of bottles, but they’re usually super grungy (dried on mold, cigarette butts, you name it). In John Palmer’s “How to Brew”, he recommends percarbonate cleaners and always looking to save a buck or two, I found a generic sodium percarbonate/sodium carbonate cleaner (Awesome Oxygen) at the Dollar Store. Similar to Oxy Clean and PBW, but only $1 per one pound jar. Works great at 1 scoop per gallon for getting the grunge off, but I’ve also found with a simple over night soaking in a bucket that most labels just fall right off and dried-on mold floats right out. Labeling with foil, Mylar and vinyl are another story and I find the effort to be questionable. But if that’s what you got, a hot water soak for 5-10 minutes gets the Mylar and vinyl to peel with some tugging and once that’s done the percarbonate cleaner will loosen most stubborn of gummy glues.

    • Dennis says:

      Hey Jon,
      DIY projects: My Brewing Equipment section has more details on all of my DIY all-grain projects; as I’m sure you know, the interwebs are a-twitter with all sorts of these things.

      Black IPA: This is why many insist on calling it a “Cascadian Dark Ale” or some arrangement of those words (I personally like the ring of that better), after the famed hop growing region where some claim the style was born. I think there was a whole Brewing TV episode about that one time. But, since its basically adding roast malt to an IPA, some people like that name better. The debate goes on.

      Generic cleaner: Great tip! I’ve always heard that PBW is actually the best at removing labels and such, but I have never tried it because of the cost (though if you can save your bucket full, it is supposed to last many uses). You’re right about some labels- unless you have to deal with them, don’t.

      – Dennis

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