There are not many things that I actively dislike about home brewing. However, there is just one task that I would go as far as saying that I dislike and it is probably the job that most of us hate with a passion. Home brew bottle cleaning has to be one of the most soul destroying tasks associated with home brewing but, unfortunately, it is an essential task. Because it is such a boring task, the temptation is to take a rather slap dash approach to getting the job done, but do so at your peril. I for one speak from experience when I say that if you take a sloppy approach to home brew bottle cleaning you run the risk of ruining the wine or beer that you have worked on so lovingly to brew.
When I say that I speak from experience it is perhaps worth highlighting at this point what went wrong.
The very first batch of wine that I ever brewed will forever be blighted because of my less than thorough home brew bottle cleaning technique. How do I know that it was my bottle cleaning technique that let me down? The simple answer is that at the point when I bottled the wine it tasted absolutely fine. In fact I would go as far as saying that I was pretty impressed by how it tasted. As I was quite impressed with my handiwork I would consume the wine at a reasonable rate. But every now and again I would crack open a bottle, pour a glass, take a sip and be greeted with the less than appetising taste of pure vinegar. Of that first batch of wine I would say that up to 50% of the bottles were tainted with the sour vinegary off flavour. Mind you it led to an interesting game of wine roulette, but I think I would rather have forsaken this novelty home brew pastime for a decent bottle of wine.
To prevent this happening to me again I swore that, although boring, I would be stringent to the point of obsessive about cleaning my bottles. Many home brewers have since commented to me that my home brew bottle cleaning routine is a little bit over the top. However, since I have used this method I have never had a problem with my wine or beer. Below I have detailed the home brew bottle cleaning process that I use. Judge for yourself and let me know if you think this is a little bit over the top.
I store my wine and beer bottles in the garage and, I don’t know about your garage but mine is certainly not free from insects such as spiders and flies. For some reason insects seem to love bottles and like nothing more than to crawl into them and then die! Therefore the first thing that I do is to visually check my bottles for any evidence of dead creepy crawlies. After all there is nothing worse than pouring out a beer to find a spider floating in your beer froth. Any evidence of insect infestation is immediately removed.
Next up is a thorough rinse to remove any dirt or easy to remove soil that might be coating the surface of the bottle. At this point I tend to employ a bottle brush to get at those hard to reach areas.
Once rinsed the bottles need to be soaked in a cleaning and sanitising solution. My personal favourite is VWP which is a combined cleaner and sanitiser and really does do a good job.
The bottles are filled to the top with the cleaning fluid and allowed to stand. I will typically leave the bottles for an hour or so with the occasional shake to make sure that all surfaces are coated with the cleaning fluid.
Once the bottles have stood with the cleaning fluid for up to an hour I give the bottles a thorough rinse with cold water.
At this point many of us will use the bottles. In the past I certainly have filled my bottles straight after the final rinse. But for me, with my new found obsessive compulsion for cleaning, I carry out one last task, which I think gives me a belt and braces approach to home brew bottle cleaning. The last thing that I do is take the wet bottles and place them in my oven. It must be stressed at this point that the oven is cold when I put the bottles into it. Once loaded with my bottles I turn the oven on and set the temperature to 150ºC. I then allow the oven to heat up to the set temperature of 150ºC. Once the oven has reached the correct temperature I turn the oven off and allow it to cool. By placing the bottles into a cold oven and allowing them to heat up you are reducing the chances that, a sudden exposure to heat, will cause the bottles to break. Please be careful when using this technique, I have never had a bottle break in the oven but the exposure to heat can weaken the glass and cause the bottle to break when filled. To reduce the risk of a bottle breaking on me I carry out a quick test which I think works really well. As I take the cooled bottles out of the oven I give the body of the bottle a gentle flick with my finger. What I want to hear is a clean crisp ringing sound from the bottle. If when I flick the bottle the ringing is dull sounding there is likely to be an imperfection in the bottle which can cause it to break. This is especially true as the beer in the bottle naturally conditions causing the production of carbon dioxide gas and thus increasing the pressure to which the bottle is exposed. If I have a bottle that does not give a clean ringing sound when I flick it I discard it immediately.
The bottles are now ready to fill.
So there you have it that is my home brew bottle cleaning routine. For some home brewers it may seem a little bit long winded. But I have found that, since using this process, I have never had a batch of beer or wine fail due to dirty bottles which I think suggests that I am doing something right.