Alright, your beer has finished fermenting and now you're itching to bottle the stuff and try it out. The first thing you'll need to do is get your hands on some bottles, of course. Your homebrew shop will sell empties, no doubt, but it's much more enjoyable to buy full bottles and empty them yourself. The only catch here is that screw-top bottles will not work - only the ones you need an opener for will. They're not too hard to come by, though, so this shouldn't be a problem.
Your bottles will need to be sterilized before you fill them with beer. Pour a couple tablespoons of bleach into your bottling bucket, and then fill it with water. Be sure to leave a few inches of space at the top, otherwise it might overflow when you put the bottles in. Now take some bottles and submerge them under the water until they fill and sink to the bottom. When no more will fit, walk away and let them soak for ten minutes or so. Now screw your bottle washer onto your faucet and turn on the water. The bottle washer will increase the water pressure by forcing it to travel through a much smaller opening. It will only release the water once you place a bottle over the spigot and press firmly, so don't worry.
Use the bottle washer to rinse out all the bottles, then place them on your bottle tree to dry. I usually rinse them twice each, just to be sure. Even after rinsing twice, you may detect a faint bleach odor if you lift one of the bottles to your nose. This odor is coming from the exterior of the bottle. Remember, the bleach had contact with the inside and outside surfaces of the bottle, but you're only rinsing the inside surfaces with the bottle washer. This is fine, so don't worry about it. Once you're finished rinsing this first batch of bottles, put another batch in to soak and repeat the whole process until you've got enough bottles. You'll want to have about 3 cases, or 72 bottles, cleaned and rinsed. An average five-gallon batch will net you between 48 and 60 12-ounce bottles of beer, but it's always better to have a few extra just in case you get more than you bargained for.
Once all your bottles are ready, you'll need to make a sort of "mini-wort" to add to your beer right before you bottle it. The purpose of this is to introduce a small amount of unfermented sugars back into the beer. While most of the yeast in your beer has settled to the bottom of the carboy by now, there is still a fair amount of living yeast in suspension. This remaining yeast will ferment these new sugars while in the bottle. Since your bottles will be sealed, the gases produced by fermentation will not be allowed to escape. The resulting pressure increase inside the bottle will force the gas to remain in solution in the beer until the pressure is released when someone opens the bottle. This is the process of carbonation, and without it you'd have very flat beer.
The process of adding extra sugars to your beer before bottling is called priming, and the sugars used are often referred to as priming sugars. To make this mini-wort, bring one pint of water to a boil in a saucepan, then add your priming sugar and let the mixture boil slowly for 15 minutes. As for the priming sugar, you can use either DME or corn sugar. Most brewers of my acquaintance use DME, which results in a smoother, creamier, longer-lasting head on the finished product. It takes two to three weeks for your beer to fully carbonate if you prime with DME. If you use DME, add between 1.25 and 1.5 cups of it to your pint of boiling water. Note that, regardless of the style of beer you are brewing, it is generally considered best to use extra light or wheat DME for priming, as they will be the most easily fermented by the small amount of yeast remaining in the bottle.
Priming with corn sugar will result in a more soda-like carbonation. The "foaming" that occurs when the bottle is initially opened will be more vigorous, and the individual bubbles will be larger, but the head will subside relatively quickly. If you're in a hurry to have your beer ready, corn sugar ferments more quickly as well, often in as little as 7-10 days. Corn sugar, since it is more refined, also contains less non-fermentable sugars, which means that you should only add 3/4 of a cup of corn sugar to your pint of boiling water. If you add more than the recommended amounts of corn sugar or DME, you run the risk of building too much pressure inside your bottles and having them explode.
Once you've boiled your priming sugar for 15 minutes, dump it into your bottling bucket (which you have, of course, rinsed thoroughly to remove all traces of bleach) and take it down to where your carboy is resting. Remove the stopper and fermentation lock from the carboy, and insert one end of your thin, flexible plastic tube into the beer. You are now going to siphon the beer from your carboy into your bottling bucket. Ideally, the bucket should be on the floor and the carboy should be a couple feet above it. This will ensure a constant flow of beer through the tube. To begin the siphoning, I personally suck on the discharging end of the tube to get the flow started. Some people think this is gross, in which case you can just fill the tube with water first, which will have the same effect.
When siphoning, take care to keep the carboy end of the tube significantly above the layer of sediment which has formed on the bottom of the carboy. A little of this is bound to get sucked up anyway, which is no big deal, but keeping it to a minimum will help reduce the amount of sediment which will end up at the bottom of each bottle of beer. Once you've siphoned all the beer you can get into the bucket, set the bucket up on a higher surface and attach your bottling tube to the spigot at the bottom of the bucket. The bottling tube is a cute little device which features a T-valve at the bottom to control the flow of beer. The valve looks like this:
| ----- | <--- Tube
| | |
-- | --
| <--- T-valve
When the tube is filled with beer, the pressure of the liquid forces the T-valve down, which seals the opening at the bottom of the tube. Thus, no beer gets out. When you insert this tube all the way into a bottle, the T-valve gets pushed up by the bottom of the bottle, thus letting beer flow out of the opening. This allows you to bottle your beer with a minimum of mess and spillage. Note that a small amount of dripping or leaking is still likely, so it's best to have a towel or rag placed on the floor under the tube to catch it.
Don't fill your bottles to the top. This will not leave enough space for fermentation gases, and will increase the risk of exploding bottles. On the other hand, if you leave too much space, not enough pressure will be created in the bottle and the gases will not remain in solution in the beer, and your beer will be somewhat flat. Try to leave one to two inches of space at the top of the bottle. If you're using longneck bottles, that's about halfway from the bottom of the neck to the top. If you're using shortneck bottles, that's about the entire length of the neck. Remember that your bottling tube displaces a small amount of beer, so the level will drop slightly when you remove it from the bottle.
After filling a bottle with beer, you'll need to cap it. Your homebrew shop will sell unused bottle caps in bulk for a fairly low price. You cannot re-use old bottle caps. There are several types of bottle cappers, but the most common consists of a central clamp-like assembly with a handle on either side. To use it, place an unused bottle cap on top of a bottle, set the central part of your capper on top of the bottle, and push down firmly on both handles. This will seal the cap. Bottling is a tedious process for one person, and goes much faster if one person fills the bottles while another person caps them. If you must do it yourself, you may find it easier to fill several bottles in a row, then take a few moments to cap them all at once.
As a side note, some people feel that it is necessary to sterilize your bottle caps before using them, either by soaking them in a weak bleach and water solution, or by boiling them for ten minutes or so. I have never found this to be necessary.
When you're done, there will probably still be a little bit of beer left in the bottling bucket, or one bottle that's not full enough to cap. If you're keeping records, this is a good opportunity to take a hydrometer reading and write down your beer's final gravity (FG). By subtracting this from your beer's original gravity (OG) and multiplying the result by 105, you will be able to deduce your beer's alcohol content. For example, if your OG was 1.050 and your FG was 1.010, your alcohol content would be 4.2% (1.050 - 1.010 = 0.040 x 105 = 4.2). Note that this will probably increase slightly as the priming sugars are fermented in the bottle, but carbonated liquid is difficult to measure accurately. You could let a carbonated beer go flat in order to exactly test its FG, but that's just wrong.
Now that all your beer is bottled, put it in cases and return it to your fermentation room. The temperature range will need to remain around the same as it was during primary fermentation in order for carbonation to take place. Once the carbonation period is over, and you have tested at least one or two of your homebrews to make sure they're properly carbonated, you can feel free to refrigerate them.
Many homebrewers will keep their beer at fermentation temperature after carbonation, to allow the flavor and character of the beer to develop further. In general, the flavor of lighter, less hoppy beers will develop more quickly than darker, more bitter beers. When brewing stouts or IPAs, for example, it is not uncommon for this development to continue for months after carbonation is complete. I know that for me, it is difficult to let perfectly good bottled homebrew continue to age, but it is often rewarding to save a six-pack or so from each batch and try them again several months down the line to see how they've changed.
Now, a couple final words on storing and drinking your homebrew. Due to the natural method of carbonation employed by homebrewers, there will invariably be a small amount of sediment on the bottom of each bottle. For this reason, it is best to gently pour the beer into a glass before drinking it, leaving the last quarter-inch or so of beer undisturbed in the bottle. Also, if the beer has recently been agitated (by transporting it in your car, for example), it's best to let it settle for an hour or two before pouring it. Prolonged exposure to light will cause your beer to taste skunky, which is why it is best to use brown bottles and keep your beer in cases or other low-light environments.
Well, so much for basic homebrewing. We've gone through all the steps for making a simple batch of beer, starting with preparation and cooking the wort, and on through fermentation and bottling. The last step, enjoying your fine brew, is something in which I should hope you don't need a node to instruct you. However, basic homebrewing generally only satisfies one for so long. Eventually, you will want to try some more advanced techniques, vary your ingredients, and brainstorm your own recipes from scratch. Future nodes will cover these topics and more - please refer back to the Homebrewing metanode for links to them.