Most home brewers quickly learn how to bottle their beer. Once moving into the realm of kegs, many forget the advantages of bottling beer. While kegging beer is an effective way to serve your home brew on a large scale, bottling your own beer can have more long-term rewards. The problem is how to balance your home brewing operations between the two methods. Holding a private reserve of bottled beer as remembrances of brews of old is a satisfying practice.
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As most home brewers start off bottling their brews, most find bottle cappers and even corkers in their home brew toolkit. These tools sometimes have grown rusty from disuse, but a little penetrating oil can help them to revitalize usefulness. By putting aside a small amount of each batch of beer with the old bottle-capper, the home brewer has a unique opportunity to taste the changes in home brew as it ages.
Most home brews are un-filtered, unlike their commercial counterparts. This is fortunate, because a living beer has a much better chance of tasting good with age than does a filtered an pasteurized ale. But not all commercial beers are pasteurized. Many micro and craft breweries have labels which are bottled conditioned. By leaving the beer alive for the duration of its shelf life, brewers are able to avoid the unpleasant compounds found in filtered beer over time. The living yeast inside the bottle-conditioned ale tends to consume and alter these aging compounds into a beer that evolves rather than degenerates over time. Some bottle-conditioned ales can be ages over ten or more years, flavors evolving and enhancing the beer throughout that time.
One good way to judge whether a bottle conditioned ale is ready to drink or not is to look at the opacity of the beverage. A clear bottled conditioned ale with a layer of yeast on the bottom is a good sign that it is ready for drinking. If it is cloudy, it is likely that it is yet young (either young, or someone shook it up right before handing it to you). If the beer is exceptionally old, it also may be cloudy, but once opened, you will be able to tell through the smell whether it has been spoiled over time.
CAMRA, the U.K. based CAMpaign for Real Ale, explicitly states their support for real ale in a bottle. CAMRA has even developed a logo for brewers who produce bottle conditioned real ales - the logo states clearly "CAMRA says this is real ale". According to their website, they have done this:
"to clearly identify products that are the real thing: natural, living, bottle-conditioned beers. It is important to note that some cask-conditioned real ales do not undergo secondary fermentation once bottled."
The advantages for the home brewer are clear: real ale is much more difficult to put in a keg than a bottle. Unless you have a source of casks for your home brew, this may continue to be the case.
It is clear that home brew varies from commercial beer greatly in that it is un-filtered and un-pasteurized regardless of kegging or bottle conditioning. This is one advantage that the home brewers have in their arsenal, but the reality is that keg beer is consumed rapidly. Although the keg beer and the bottle conditioned home brew share much the same taste, the bottle-conditioned beers will have a greater chance of surviving the next party. Especially if they are labeled private reserve.