Bottling homebrew is falling out of vogue with many in the home brewing community. Bottling requires a lot of micro management; instead of cleaning one vessel for a five gallon batch, one has to clean upwards of fifty. Another consideration is when performing additional fermentation in a bottle (bottle conditioning) the qualities of a beer will change over time, and many styles don’t improve this way. Oxygen ingress is also very difficult to manage traditionally with bottling, and with dry-hopped beers a person can end up with a one-dimensional beer due to the volatiles degrading. Bottling is a difficult and time intensive process. But the alternative is kegging, and sharing with others is generally restricted to wherever your kegging setup is. I share more than half of my batches with coworkers, friends and family, which is why I decided to improve my process and double-down on bottling by buying a WilliamsWarn Counter Pressure Bottle Filler.
There are several different types of bottle fillers. The simplest way to fill would be to just pour directly into the bottle, however filling from the top causes an excess amount of foam due to turbulence that causes cavitation (cavities of gas forming within the liquid). Filling from the bottom causes less cavitation because of a lessened amount of turbulence. For this a simple poly tube with a clip works either using a gravity feed or a siphon. The method I originally used was a siphon and a spring-loaded bottling wand. I was able to get a negligible amount of mess after becoming comfortable with it. The fancy version of a bottling wand is any of the several beer guns on the market, although those are fed with gas pressure and they have the additional benefit of being able to purge oxygen from the bottle. With turbulence out of the picture more or less, pressure differential also causes foaming, as the fluid is moving from a high-pressure environment to atmospheric pressure almost instantly. Enter counter pressure fillers. These are set apart because not only are they made to evacuate the oxygen out of a bottle but they fill under pressure. There are instructions online to build homemade counter pressure fillers, as well as similar commercial examples available. The WilliamsWarn filler is among that last group, but is the intermediate step between a handheld device and a commercial packaging mechanism.
I still keg every single batch. Corny kegs are adequate at being used as brite tanks, and they make closed transfers efficient. This filler requires a pressurized vessel to transfer beer into the bottles. It comes equipped to work with the WilliamsWarn brewery, a self-contained extract brewing system, but it comes with all the adapters needed to work with a ball lock corny keg as well. Most of the device came pre-assembled, with merely the brace and footing requiring assembly. The feet wobble a little bit, I assume because it allows the suction cups to grip somewhat uneven surfaces. The manifold is a solid plastic cast piece with three valves, liquid-in and gas-in compression fittings as well as the bottle sealing surface. Initial cleaning is required of the manifold, as well as the tubing and ball locks. All connectors are plastic compression fittings that use a push-to-release system for easy disassembly. The provided instructions had step by step procedures and photos for use with either their own equipment, or a ball lock equipped keg. Initial setup took about an hour to complete. Subsequent setting up took about 15 minutes including soaking time for the components. The bottler has a threaded screw, manipulated by the black knob that protrudes from the top. It is also sprung, such that bottles can be quickly inserted and removed. When using this bottler, odd sized bottles get tossed fairly quickly.
Filling bottles is straightforward, although technique does matter. Results from my first bottling were mixed. Some of the bottles were reported as not fully carbonated, while others were fine. Overall though, my first filling experience was a gigantic mess. I’m pretty sure I got beer on everything within arm’s reach in the garage; on the table, floor, various tool boxes, myself, all over the bottles and nearby equipment. My hands were dripping in beer and my thumb and forefinger were raw from the constant adjusting of the knobs. The manual says that a good fill rate is about 45 seconds per bottle. I was filling at about 10 seconds per bottle, and I was getting so much foam that I probably wasted a good two or three bottles of beer blowing it all over the place. Slow and steady is the key and I had a much better experience the second time. Subsequent bottlings showed increasing improvement in carbonation and fill level consistency, especially when learning how to cap over foam to reduce oxygen in the bottle to negligible levels.
This bottler solves several of the issues that many in the home brewing community experience, such as oxygen ingress and inconsistent carbonation. Oxygenation of beer leads to a shortened shelf-life, evidenced by the dwindling of hops flavor and aroma, as well as possibly forming off-flavors. Relying on carbonation in the bottle either by racking prior to terminal gravity or by bottle conditioning can both lead to inconsistent results, in volumes of carbonation and wait time. As an example, my barrel-aged Baltic porter took about five weeks to carbonate to a perceptible level, and about eight to be considered normal for a porter, whereas my second batch of wee heavy was so active every single bottle was a gusher, blowing all of the yeast off of the bottom within about thirty seconds of the bottle being opened. The barrel-aged stout I brewed was properly carbonated just days after kegging and able to be enjoyed immediately after bottling with the filler.
Some beer styles are improved with bottle conditioning, such as an imperial stout, or a brett saison, which leads right back to the messy filling and sugar dosing of each batch or each bottle. There are some who say that transfer oxygenation can be mitigated by bottle conditioning: the active yeast in the bottle will absorb oxygen through its chemical processes while it is busy creating carbon dioxide and alcohol. But bottle conditioning is not obsoleted by this method by any means. There is no reason that a batch couldn’t be dosed with sugar in the keg, then transferred to bottles. The effectiveness of bottle conditioning yeast in removing dissolved oxygen is up for debate, and even more so any affect it may have on oxygen in the headspace which would mix with the CO2 generated by the yeast activity, then subsequently absorb into the liquid. However that worry can be effectively eliminated by using the filler.
The WilliamsWarn filler has some rough edges. The thread cutting left some debris in the tapped holes, requiring some careful removal with a pair of needle-nosed pliers. It also came with an o-ring like rubber-band that broke after a few uses, although with the interference fit of the manifold there really is no necessity for it. The most significant issue I had with it was that the pressure relief valve does not close completely. I spoke with their support, but ended up not following up after I found that it didn’t impede my ability to use it.
This device is not for everyone. Some people serve only from their taps. Others brew smaller batches so there are less bottles, or they may be not keeping bottled beer around longer than a month or two. But there is a niche that doesn’t want all their beer kegged for differing reasons, but also don’t want the frustration and inconsistency of bottle conditioning every batch. I share so much of my beer that serving primarily from kegs is just not practical. I want the flexibility to bottle part of a batch which can be easily accommodated. What I have with this filler is a relatively inexpensive way to approximate the quality control of a commercial bottling facility, but without the cost and complexity of a machine that costs thousands of dollars just to operate and maintain. It also removes most of the problems inherent in opening fermented beer to the air, making a closed system not just possible, but easy.