Cleaning & Re-using Bottles
I'm cheap, so rather than buy bottles I try to recycle and clean as many as I can. That means a lot of work on my part, but I see the expense of time as a small price to pay when you consider how costly bottles can be. That said, I have bought bottles several times in the en years I have been making beer & wine at home, but typically only when I've needed specialty bottles or weren't seeing the ones I needed in the loads of bottles my family and friends were dropping off in the garage.
I'm cheap and I'm also not much into appearances, but clean bottles are a must. I might affix a simple print-at-home Avery label on many of my bottles, but the bottles are clean. Clean bottles to those you serve your homemade creations to are akin to the cleanliness of your sink for house guests. It lets them know that you care about the sanitation of the food and drink you serve and what you serve it on and in. I most often see partially de-labeled bottles, or bottles with dirty exteriors, in a competition setting, and it always makes me feel apprehensive about what is in the bottle. If the person who bottled their creation didn't take the time to clean the outside of the bottle, did they clean the inside? Was the wine, beer, cider or mead that went into the bottle a playground for who-knows-what in a dirty bottle? This is a situation that must be avoided. And it really is pretty simple to clean recycled bottles.
As I was cleaning bottles recently it occurred to me that the process I've finally honed in on might be worth sharing. It's a simple process, and I've adopted a low threshold for whether I think I can get a label cleanly off a bottle. If the label comes away and leaves a solid layer of glue that doesn't want to move, the bottle goes in the recycling bin. Fighting with bottles isn't the business I am in, cleaning as many as I can is.
After a few years of experience I have settled on the following equipment for cleaning bottles:
- PBW, B-Brite or other oxygen brewer's wash
- A bottle brush
- Scotch-Brite scrubbing pads
- An old spatula with a straight edge and otherwise sturdy construction
- A two-basin sink (one to soak, one to wash/rinse)
- A dishwasher with a sanitizing rinse cycle
For bottles with commercial labels a soak in very hot water with an healthy addition of PBW is where I start. I also do this for the home labels, but thankfully they don't need very long to come clean off. Before I soak any bottles I give them a rinse inside and out. If bottles have obvious sediment in them I will put a few ounces of the PBW / hot water in them and let them soak upright for a while. Getting that sediment out before placing them in a basin to soak ensures the nasty stuff doesn't linger the cleaner bottles.
Once labels give way I used the straight edge of the spatula to scrape the label and glue off the bottle. Getting as much of the label and glue off before trying to wipe the outside clean will avoid a mess. Next I take the Scotch-Brite pad with some of the PBW / hot water and scrub the outside of the bottle clean.
Once the outside of the bottle is clean I use the bottle brush and the soaking water, still in the bottle mind you, to clean the interior of the bottle. After emptying the bottle I eyeball the inside through the neck to ensure there is no sediment. If there is any visible sediment I fill the bottle with the cleaning water again, let it soak, and return to it a few minutes later. If the sediment is really fussy I may recycle the bottle and invest my effort in another bottle that is more easily cleaned, but that is rare. After rinsing the bottles I place them in the bottom rack of my dishwasher.
Once I have a full load in the dishwasher I run it on the regular cycle with the addition of the sanitizing rinse. I turn off the heated dry both because I don't feel it helps, and if any sediment was left behind the dry cycle ensures it will be stuck to the bottles making cleaning them all over again that much more difficult.
This is my process. I'm not technically evaluating it, not comparing it to other methods, nor do I know what others might say about it. What I do know is that my bottles come out of this process free of labels, glue, sediment, sparkly clean and sanitized. I rack up the clean, dry and cool bottles upside down in clean wine boxes that I retrieved from the local liquor store that will otherwise give them to their recycler. This process works for bottles of all sizes, although very tall bottles may or may not fit in your dishwasher, I know some don't fit in mine. I've never had a sound liquid go bad in bottles I have cleaned this way so I believe I am sanitizing them effectively. In the end that is what we all want and this process works for me.
A wine-making friend asked me recently for my thoughts on volumes in regards to cleaning rather than buying bottles. That can be an issue. Most of the fermentations I do end up in six gallon or smaller volumes so I'm not in need of a lot of bottles for any one batch. In aggregate though, I can easily use 500+ bottles in a year which means lots of cleaning. For my needs I spread the cleaning out through the year, and I often wait until there are several loads so I can make at least a partial day of it. At the end of 2012 I did 11 loads over the time off I had around holidays, the most I had ever done in such a short time. If your volumes trend into demijohn and larger territory you may need to revisit the trade-off between recycling and buying bottles, and at least for some of your volume to keep the cleaning work manageable. For home brewers kegging is the most common alternative to bottling in bulk, although bottling for competition or for aging is still necessary.