Never buy bottles.
Never buy bottles.
Bottles at the LHBS (local home brew store) are going to run you like $.50-1 each. That’s ridiculous, considering your beer will cost like $.80-2 each. If there are specialty bottles you need, like for example you need really thick big bottles for wild ferments that might carb up further than you expected while conditioning, then okay. Otherwise, so many beer bottles get thrown away and recycled all the time. Here are your options:
- Craigslist or other local public commerce sites. I’d start here. You’re likely to find another homebrewer who has been collecting bottles but slowing down on brewing and now has too many. Or someone who bought the wrong size. That sort of thing. Often you can find these for free, or at least cheap. This is probably the best way to get bombers, as they are not very common.
- Ask a local bar. Or several local bars, until you find someone willing to give you bottles. If you don’t have a capper, ask around until you find a place that serves Grolsch and see if you can snag some swingtops. Maybe you like stout little Alaskan bottles (my favorite) or even stubbier Session or Red Stripe bottles. Perhaps there’s a unique style of Belgian beer bottle that you like. Find a place that has them, ask ahead of time if it’s cool to grab some, and then arrange a time where they imagine they’ll be getting rid of a bunch. Since their staff are probably already busy, try to be flexible, which may mean showing up at 2:15 on a weekend evening, when they’ve moved a lot of product and are ready to ditch the empties for the night.
- Let all your friends know. If you have friends who are beer people, perhaps they have a bomber or so now and then they could spare, and will likely have plenty of 12oz bottles. If you need champagne bottles for bigger beers, ask a friend who goes through bubbly regularly.
When I first started, I got a case of bombers from a friend and began saving all my 12oz bottles I’d buy. A month or so later, I was given about 40 bottles from a bar. Another couple months later, I arranged to buy three cases of bombers for only $9, and the seller gave me 18 cool, tall 500ml bottles thrown in. Personally, I don’t keep bottles that have branding in the glass itself, but there’s no reason you can’t bottle your own homebrew in a bottle with a New Belgium band in the glass mold if that’s all you have. At this point, I lose a few bottles now and then as I give bottles out (and will throw out any bottles from a batch that might be infected), but since 3/4 of our product is drank in house, and most of the people receiving it are kind enough to return the bottles, so my loss over time is pretty small.
Once you’ve gotten some bottles, you’ll want to take very good care to clean them. If you got them from another homebrewer, there’s a good chance that person was already in the habit of rinsing them, but no guarantee. Any commercial bottles you have will probably also have labels. My preferred process for cleaning bottles I’ve gotten is:
- Fill a sink with hot water and about 1/2c OxyClean. OxyClean Free (with no scent or blue colored bits) is ideal, and contains the same ingredients as the highly marked-up cleaner you’ll find at your LHBS marketed as Powdered Brewery Wash (PBW). I picked up an enormous box of regular OxyClean at Costco over two years ago that I am still working through, and it does the job just fine with no issues. The OxyClean will break up any crud and residue, and will also easily remove labels. With hot water (make sure not to get distracted and let it cool too far) and about 30 minutes, many labels will come off the bottle and float to the surface, and the rest can be removed easily. I wipe down the outside with a scrubber to remove any remaining adhesive, and rinse the inside a few times. If you have a small bottle brush, that’d probably be smart to use, but I don’t have one and have never had any problems.
- Sanitize the bottles with your preferred sanitizer. If you have a bottling tree with a sanitizer pump or other tool for this, great, otherwise just add about an inch of sanitizer to the bottle, shake, let it sit, shake, let it sit…
Then drain, rinse if your sanitizer requires it, and store.
- You can: put a bit of tin foil or something over the top of the bottle to keep them sanitary, just put them in a box or container and call it good, or sanitize them again right before bottling. I do the latter, as I find the little bit of time and twenty cents of sanitizer a good insurance against the pain and cost of wasting a whole batch.
As a bit of extra precaution, I generally won’t reuse bottles from beers that were bottle conditioned with Brett unless I’m bottling a Brett beer, and some brewers advocate for not using any bottles from bottle conditioned batches at all. While glass should be impermeable, there’s a little extra risk when a bunch of yeast was just sitting in the bottom, versus the relatively clean bottles from force carbed beers.
And that’s it! There’s no need to go spend a bunch of money buying bottles. Just snag them up for free and make sure you’re diligent with your cleaning and sanitizing.