Breweries like to include a lot on a beer’s label: the hops they used, the flavors to expect, maybe even a little story about the inspiration behind it. Sometimes, two words will grace the label: “bottle conditioned”. What does that mean?
Bottle conditioning is a method of naturally carbonating beer. Adding sugar and yeast to beer that is ready to be bottled will create carbonation, foster longer shelf stability, and develop more complex, mature flavors. The yeast that remains in the bottle may even provide some health benefits.
Continue reading for more on how to bottle condition beer, why breweries and homebrewers alike do it, and the benefits of bottle conditioning.
What does it mean if a beer is bottle conditioned?
Bottle conditioning is the traditional method of creating carbonation naturally by adding a small amount of sugar and using the naturally produced carbon dioxide to carbonate the beer.
It starts with a batch of beer that is ready to be bottled – that is, a batch that has totally finished primary fermentation. You will know it is done by taking gravity readings for a few days and charting the results. Learn more about the process of determining when primary fermentation is over here.
Brewers will then combine sugar and yeast with the beer just before bottling in order to send the beer into secondary fermentation. Just about any kind of sugar can be used – dextrose, dry malt extract, table sugar, honey, brown sugar, molasses, even fruit juices – to complement the beer’s existing flavor profile. Here is a useful priming sugar calculator to reference.
After adding the right amount of sugar and yeast, the bottle will then be sealed to let the yeast get to work consuming the sugar. Secondary fermentation will begin as long as the bottles are kept somewhere room temperature or slightly above. This will prompt the yeast to do its job, which is producing carbon dioxide and a small amount of alcohol in the process.
Yeast will also consume oxygen in the bottle, nearly entirely removing one of the factors that speed beer degradation. With diminished oxygen, the beer is able to be aged effectively (more on that later!).
Bottle conditioning may take several weeks to complete. Over time, the yeast will die and fall out of suspension, leaving sediment in the bottom of the bottle.
Only refrigerate the bottles you intend to drink soon; the rest can be stored upright away from light and at room temperature or just below. The flavor will continue to improve over time if stored properly.
How do you know if a beer is bottle conditioned?
In most cases, breweries will indicate on the packaging if the beer is bottle conditioned. They want their customers to know what to expect when buying their beer. Some breweries are even including a ‘best after’ date in lieu of a ‘best before’ date on their bottle-conditioned beer.
Other clues include a heavier bottle, which may have a champagne punt on the bottom. Bottle conditioned beer requires sturdier glass for safety since the beer is fermenting again. If you have experienced a ‘bottle bomb’ in your time as a homebrewer, you understand the importance of thicker glass. You should also be able to spot yeast sediment collecting in the bottom of the bottle.
Why do brewers bottle condition beer?
Mostly craft breweries will bottle condition beer rather than the giant producers, like Budweiser or Corona. Craft breweries are more likely to experiment with seasonal beers and limited runs because of their smaller size. They can take more risks (say, on a special anniversary release of a bottle-conditioned beer) because they aren’t producing millions at a time.
These breweries bottle condition beer for a variety of reasons:
- Tradition: Beer has undergone secondary fermentation in this way for centuries, before the advent of forced carbonation. Bottle conditioned beers are sometimes referred to as ‘real ale’ for this reason.
- Exclusivity: A brewery can market small-batch, bottle conditioned beers from a couple of years ago and find success among beer aficionados. It’s the same principle as 25-year scotch or a bottle of wine from a great vintage: there’s only so much of it and there will always be people that want in on that slice of another time.
- Shelf stability: Bottle conditioned beer can be kept for a much longer time thanks to the yeast consuming the oxygen in the bottle.
- Taste: Bottle conditioned beers have more mature, deeper, complex flavors than force-carbonated beer. If the yeast is mixed into the beer while pouring or drinking directly out of the bottle, it may lend a spicier note to the beer.
On the other hand, it takes longer for bottle-conditioned beer to be ready to be enjoyed. That time before beer can go to market also means storing pallets of beer. The giant producers are much less inclined to go to the effort, and even craft breweries may find it a little too burdensome to do regularly.
Why do homebrewers bottle condition beer?
There are a few reasons homebrewers bottle condition beer, ranging from the sensory to the practical, just like the craft breweries.
It costs considerably less to bottle-condition beer than to buy equipment to keg it. This low barrier to entry (sugar and yeast vs. expensive equipment) is very attractive for homebrewers, not to mention the space it saves.
Bottle conditioning beer is a great way to extend the shelf-life of a batch. Since secondary fermentation takes place in a sealed bottle, CO2 replaces the oxygen almost entirely. We know that oxygen is one of the enemies of beer, and this exchange means that bottle-conditioned beers can often be stored successfully for years.
In fact, the beer improves with age as more flavors develop and mature. A homebrewer can take note of the flavor progression of that batch over months (or even years!) of tasting and decide when it has reached its peak.
Bottle conditioned beer needs to be stored at room temperature or lower (but not refrigerated). This frees up precious refrigerator space for just the bottles that are destined to be enjoyed soon.
We’ve created an entire resource all about how to bottle condition your beer – check it out!
Does bottle-conditioned beer taste better?
Every palate is different, as is every batch of bottle-conditioned beer. So to say whether bottle conditioned beer tastes better than force-carbed beer is entirely subjective.
Bottle conditioned beer does typically have more complex, mature flavors, finer bubbles, and a more stable head than what you may typically drink, which can be a fun departure from the norm.
Bottle conditioned beer is considered special in the beer community because it is more labor-intensive and requires patience, as well as discernment about the best time for it to be released.
Is bottle-conditioned beer good for you?
Bottle conditioned beer retains some health benefits from the yeast that is trapped in the bottle, including B vitamins and minerals. It can also be a good source of protein.
Some alternative health experts also tout brewer’s yeast’s ability to help with the following:
- Digestive issues like diarrhea
- Colds, flu, or hay fever
- Diabetes and high cholesterol
Of course, anyone with a yeast allergy will want to avoid bottle-conditioned beer. In addition, beer should be enjoyed responsibly in order to protect liver health. The health benefits of yeast do not outweigh the detriment of too much alcohol.
Finally, drinking too much of the yeast in a bottle-conditioned beer (a few beers’ worth) can also lead to uncomfortable gassiness. This shouldn’t last too long and won’t cause damage but it can be unpleasant nonetheless.
Is beer good for gut bacteria?
Bottle conditioned beers are rich in probiotics, which are reportedly critical to gut health and a healthy immune system.
According to Eric Classen of Amsterdam University, drinking one of these kinds of beers daily can promote digestive tract health and boost the immune system.
How do you drink bottle-conditioned beer?
You can either pour bottle-conditioned beer into a glass or drink it directly out of the bottle, whichever you prefer. Some people would rather skip the sediment that collects at the bottom of the bottle, whereas other people consider it part of the drinking experience.
By pouring the beer into a glass, you release aromas that would otherwise remain muted in the bottle. The beer will also develop a head that provides nuanced aromas.
In order to avoid sediment in the glass, follow these steps:
- Tilt a beer-clean glass at a slight angle, pouring onto the wall of the glass rather than directly into the bottom of it.
- Pour confidently in a steady stream. Just don’t pour too quickly: not only could you risk overfilling your glass, you won’t be able to keep an eye on the sediment level in the bottle.
- At about the three-quarters mark in the glass, turn the glass straight up. Stop pouring as the sediment reaches the neck of the bottle. You’ll end up leaving behind a little beer in the bottle.
Can you drink bottle-conditioned beer from the bottle?
You can drink bottle-conditioned beer directly from the bottle. You can tilt it back like any other beer or give the bottle a gentle swirl after opening in order to integrate the yeast with the rest of the beer. Drinking from the bottle almost assures drinking the sediment.
Can you drink beer sediment?
You can either choose to drink bottle-conditioned beer from the bottle or pour it into the glass, with or without the sediment. Beer sediment will not hurt you. As mentioned above, it’s possible it provides health benefits, and in some beer-lovers’ opinions, it fortifies the flavors the yeast developed.