Cleaning beer and wine bottles is not fun. In fact, it’s the #1 reason many people make the
switch to kegging. For most people though, it’s a fact of life… the bottles must be cleaned.
Not just cleaned, cleaned thoroughly and sanitized. This blog post goes over how much cleaning you need to do, and how to make it as easy as possible.
Cleaning vs. sanitizing
A quick word about this first. Cleaning means removing solid particles stuck to the inside of your bottles. This can be anything from really nasty caked-on blech, or it can be as simple as dust that’s found its way into your bottle. Sanitizing, on the other hand, means killing any bacteria inside your bottles. The most important thing to remember is that sanitizing is not a substitute for cleaning, and cleaning is not a substitute for sanitizing.
It it clean?
The bottom of the bottle will be where the cleaning effort is needed most. The best way to tell if a bottle is clean is to give it the “spyglass test” by picking it up and holding it about an
inch from your eye, like a pirate looking for land from his ship. Look directly at something
bright like a cloud through the window (not at the sun, though, duh) or at a light if it’s night
time. If you see any cloudiness on the surface, then you must clean the bottle with a cleanser and the bottle brush. If there’s no cloudiness, you should still give it a cleansing rinse.
What is a cleansing rinse?
A cleaning rinse just runs water through the bottle to get out any solids you can’t see like
dust or dirt. The best way to do this is to fill the bottle about 1/3 with hot tap water, cover
the top with your thumb and shake it. You can do two at a time this way. You can also use a Bottle Blast washer to get a sharp spray directly into the bottle.
Cleaning new bottles
Let’s start with new bottles, something almost everyone has bought at some point in beer and wine making. The nice thing about new bottles is that they are already relatively clean, except for some dust that may have settled in them. To clean a new bottle, give it a simple cleansing rinse, and it should be ready for sanitizing.
Removing cloudiness and caked-on junk
The best weapon you have for cleaning beer and wine bottles is your bottle brush. It’s the tool that ultimately whacks dirt and grime off the bottle walls. To loosen that grossness, you’ll need to soak the bottles in a cleaning solution. For heavy grime, we recommend B-brite which we sell at the store and is a very good cleanser. You can also use OxyClean, which you can get at Target or WalMart.
Fill your kitchen sink halfway with a batch of either of these. Submerge as many bottles at a time as you can. To clean, take out a bottle and pour out 2/3 of the cleaning solution back into the main bath. Use the bottle brush to clean the bottle by spinning the brush against the bottom of the bottle and scrubbing thoroughly around the neck. Pour the remaining solution in the bottle down the drain, because it’s nasty.
Once you’ve done this, give the bottle the spyglass test. If it fails, repeat the cleaning. If
it passes, give it a cleansing rinse. The bottle is now clean and ready for sanitizing.
Once a bottle is clean, we are ready to sanitize it. Some good sanitizers are StarSan, C-brite and Iodophor. Some people use a highly diluted bleach solution, but we don’t recommend this because of the amount of work it takes to get rid of the residual smell left behind in the bottles. John Palmer’s How to Brew web site has a great summary of these and others.
Just like with the cleanser, make a batch of this that will fill half of your kitchen sink. Submerge as many bottles at a time as you can. To clean, take out a bottle and pour out 2/3 of the cleaning solution back into the main bath. Cover the top with your thumb and shake it just like the cleansing rinse. It should foam up a lot in the bottle, but do not rinse this foam out. Put the bottle upside down on either the rack of a dishwasher or a bottle drying tree (make sure to sanitize the tree too).
A more economical approach is to get a bottle rinser and fill it with a sanitizing solution. The bottle rinser attaches to the top of a drying tree for extra convenience too.
Tips and tricks
The best thing you can do to make bottle cleaning easier is to thoroughly rinse out a bottle when you’ve finished drinking from it. Give it two or three cleansing rinses and store it upside down in a bottle box. If you do this, then you won’t have any scrubbing to do for your next bottling. However, if you don’t do this, the yeast and beer or wine that’s left behind becomes very difficult to scrub off. Do this same rinse even when you finish a store bought beer that you plan to reuse for bottling. Pre-emptive bottle rinsing is time well spent and will save you lots of work in the future.
Some people also attach a drill to their bottle brushes to get a more thourough scrub. Just don’t drop the drill in the sink.
Use hot water, as hot as your hands can stand it. Hot water does a much better job of breaking down solids when you’re cleaning your bottles.
Some people also run their bottle through a dishwasher with the heat cycle on as their sanitizing step. This works well, but don’t forget that your bottles must be completely clean before you do this because the dishwasher can’t get a lot of water into the bottles with their small openings. Also, never use any kind of detergent when running your bottles through the dishwasher for sanitizing.