The instructions that came with my first homebrew kit directed the brewer to spoon a bit of sugar into each bottle before filling to get things working so that the beer would carbonate. Ever since, I have always primed (i.e. added a bit more fermentable material) my beer when bottling. In time, I switched to the more reliable method of boiling up a solution dry malt extract and adding that to the bottling bucket. This gave more consistent results, but the idea was the same: Get the yeast working again so the beer will carbonate. Some brewers even advocate putting the primed and bottled beer in a warm place to “turbo condition” it. I have done that, you are drinking your beer in under a week, but the beer seemed a bit harsh and raw.
Now I sometimes feel like I am one of the last homebrewers who still bottle conditions their beer. Seems everyone owns, and is singing the praises of, CO2 tanks and counter pressure fillers. They do work slick, but perhaps we are losing something in the process.
In my search for new methods and recipes for brewing I came across a copy of the book Brew Your Own British Real Ale by Graham Wheeler and Roger Protz (1998 ed.). The first thing that struck me was how much simpler their recipes were that those in the American homebrewing publications. I tried some of the recipes, employing my usual brewing methods, and had good luck. See my blog post on recognition and mild ale for the result of one particular batch.
I then dug a bit deeper into the text and read the methods they advocated for brewing real ale. To me the most notable item was that they advocated not priming the beer when bottling. They did not advocate bottling the beer while still working (as some have suggested). In fact, they recommended maturing the ale in a barrel for a minimum of three weeks. The barrel should be allowed to vent so that volatile by-products of fermentation can escape. Then bottle without priming. Carbonation would be provided by the slow fermentation of dextrins.
To me this seemed a recipe for a big batch of flat yucky beer. It was too big a risk. So I ignored this advice, until the opportunity to test it presented itself.
It cam to pass that circumstances conspired and I found myself with a batch of beer in the fermenter that I was not able to bottle until three months after brew day. The fermentation lock had long since stopped turning over. Aha! Here was my chance to experiment with the Wheeler/Protz no-prime method. So on bottling day, I bottled the first half of the beer with no priming. The second half was primed as usual.
I am not a very patient person. After one week I opened a bottle of each. Both were flat and I was worried that even the primed bottles would not carbonate. After two weeks, the unprimed bottles had not changed much. The primed bottles had a healthy carbonation. I figured I would get at least half a good batch.
Wondering where I went wrong, I went back and reread Wheeler and Protz. It was then I noticed an important point I had overlooked previously. Unprimed bottle-conditioned beer needs at least a month, often much longer, in the bottle before it is ready to be drunk. That made sense.
So I forced myself to be patient. It paid off. After one month the beer from the unprimed bottles had a nice light carbonation with the traditional small head of real ales. Beer from the primed bottles had a big white head.
The most interesting part was the difference in taste. The unprimed beer was very smooth and earthy with a bitter bite on the back of the tongue. To me it seemed very traditional and pleasing.
In contrast, the beer that had been primed fairly attacked the tongue with a fizzy, bitter hoppiness. I suspect this has something to do with the interaction of the carbonic acid (from the higher CO2 concentration) with the hop resins. It was a great beer; however it bore little resemblance to its unprimed brethren.
In the end, it appears that I got two great beers out of one batch. So to prime or not to prime is not just a matter of convenience. It truly is a matter of taste and style. I have two more beers in the cellar right now, both of which I have left one half of the bottles unprimed. I eagerly await the results. To anyone who has not tried this with one of their beers, I strongly recommend it.