Cleaning Bottles

Soaking bottles...

Stripping empty bottles of their labels can be a bit of a chore. If you want your homebrew to look the part though, it’s a chore that has to be done. Here’s a few techniques that are working for me.

If only everyone used the same kind of glue and label material, stripping them from bottles would probably be a lot easier, as there would be one commonly know way of doing it. As there appears to be almost the same number of glue and label combinations as there are breweries, it can take a while to work out the techniques required for each type. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s just not worth trying to strip the labels from certain bottles, as the level of effort required is just too high. This poses a problem, as if you only ever drink beer from breweries that use a glue that could survive a nuclear explosion, then you’re a bit screwed.

Bottles stripped of labels... In certain circumstances it’s worth taking the pain though, especially if you are after a particular bottle shape or size. Take the Thornbridge bottles, I’ve given up on taking the labels off those, as they are nigh on impossible to get off cleanly and thus require lots of extra clean up. There are loads of beers I drink that come in 500ml bottles, where the effort to remove the label is much, much less, so I just use those instead; I’m particularly thinking of German beers here. I take the pain when it comes to Moor bottles though, as I want that particular bottle shape and size; at least I did before they changed it. Getting the labels of those is a complete bitch, but worth it.

No matter what kind of bottle you have, a good long soak in hot water is a good starting place. You could, if you wanted to, put your bottles into your homebrew boiler and hold them at simmering point for twenty minutes or so as well. The idea here, it to soften the glue and if you’re lucky to have the labels float off without you having to do anything; German bottles are great for this. If you’re going to simmer them, just make sure they are completely submerged, otherwise you run the risk of getting a tide mark on the neck of the bottle, which can be brutal to shift.

Scrubbing the sticky off... Once the glue is soft, it’s time to remove the label. If you’ve simmered the bottles, they’ll be hot, so take the necessary precautions, or let them cool down first. Labels on BrewDog and Hardknott bottles come off quite easily after a soak, just try and be consistent with the pressure you use to pull them off, as stopping and starting can lead to lines of adhesive being left in the bottle. The Ridgeway Querkus bottle in the photos, has a clear plastic label on it, it came off without a fuss and left pretty much nothing behind it.

Some labels will come off and leave a very sticky patch of glue, or label base behind them, I’m looking at you Thornbridge. The Harbour Brewing bottle in the photos did a similar thing, but it wasn’t quite a sticky as some. You might also get bottles where the label and glue part company, the label floats off while the glue stays on the bottle; a bit like the Brasserie Larché bottles I brought back from France. In some cases the film of glue left behind can just be wiped off, in other cases, it’s worse than the sticky label backing on Thornbridge bottles.

If you’re lucky, all you’ll need to do after getting the label off is to give the bottle a wipe with a cloth and you’re done. If you still have any adhesive, or sticky label backing on the bottle, it’s time to use a bit of elbow grease. I’ve tried in the past to use one of those green scouring pads, but they just get clogged up and become next to useless. Clean and ready to use... I’ve also used the metal scouring pads, which suffer from the same problem, but only if used without first applying some washing up liquid to the bottle. That appears to be the key, dunk the bottle in some water, apply a bit of washing up liquid and scrub away. You should eventually end up with a clean bottle.

You may find that with some bottles, like the aforementioned Moor ones, you can’t get the labels off for love nor money. I’ve found that when the labels have had a really, really good soak, that you can rub them off with the back of a knife. Or, if they’re ultra stubborn, the sharp side of a good chopping knife. It’s a lot of effort, but if you really want that size and style of bottle, you’ve no choice. You’ll most likely have to scrub the bottles quite a bit after the scrapping of the labels too.

Have you found a better way to get the labels off bottles…? If so, please let me know!

Update

I have tried BrotherLogic‘s oven method and can confirm that it works, sort of. I set the oven to 120°C, popped the bottles in and gave them ten to fifteen minutes. Then using a sharp kitchen knife, it was easy to pick a corner of the label off the bottle and then pull the rest of using my hand. Depending on the bottle though, the label would either come off cleanly, or leave all the glue behind it. I’ve found that this is the only easy way to get labels off Prosecco and Cantillon bottles, for example. I’ve also found this this method doesn’t necessarily mean that labels on Moor bottles will come off, sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. I have no fucking idea what glue they use, but I really wish they’d use a different one…

Update

Thornbridge's new embossed bottles...Just a quick update about Thornbridge bottles, as they’ve changed. There are three labels on a Thornbridge and they’re all different, it’s the back label that seems to cause the most grief, the residue left by the other two cleans up with minimal fuss. However, they’re now using custom embossed bottles that have the Thornbridge T embossed around the shoulder, so if you don’t like using embossed bottles, you’ll have to find another source for this style.

Update

For the life of me, I can’t remember how I stumbled across this, I think someone tweeted about it, but it’s been ages. Anyway, evidently peanut butter will remove label glue from your bottles, this I had to try. So I popped into a local supermarket and bought their own brand smooth peanut butter, I wasn’t about to waste my decent wholenut chunky on an experiment like this, and gave it a shot.

As you can see from the photos, it didn’t really work. I did pick the bastard of all bastard bottles though, as they were from Oakham Ales. The labels on Oakham bottles come off really easily, but the glue, my [insert favorite diety here] the glue! One bottle can clog a metal scourer, no matter how much washing up liquid you use. They’re a complete nightmare, which is why I choose them for this experiment.

The peanut butter did take a bit of the sticky off, so they weren’t quite as sticky to the touch, but they still required an obscene amount of scrubbing to get all of the sticky off. The bottles then required a good clean, as peanut butter is oily and the bottles had an oily residue left on them, even after all the scrubbing.

I’m in no rush to try this technique on any other kind of bottle, especially when other labels come off so easily. Your milage may vary though, as there are a few US based websites promoting the technique. Maybe their peanut butter has something else in it that helps, I don’t know…

Update

The Ormskirk Baron has tweeted me a couple of times with his technique, which is to pour boiling water into the bottle and leave it for a bit. He (and a few others to be fair) claim this is all that is required and that the label and glue will them come off. Can’t say I’ve had much luck with this to be honest, as the labels either rip, or leave the bits of glue behind.

I’m also not sure about the environmental impact of having to boil the kettle lots of times if there are more than two or three bottles to de-label. Kettles aren’t exactly the most energy efficient and I can fit a whole box of bottles into the oven in one go, where I’d have to boil the kettle a minimum of four times (my kettle holds 1.7 litres, so depending on the bottle size).

Again, your mileage may vary and it might work better with certain bottles over others, you’ll just have to try.

10 Replies to “Cleaning Bottles”

  1. I feel your pain – I actually got to the point of buying empty bottles! The labels I currently use are still a bit of a pain to get off – they need a good soak – but at least they *do* come off, and without leaving a glue residue…

  2. The trick with moor bottles is to put them in the oven for 20 minutes or so – the heat melts the glue and you can just peel them off. Then a quick rub whilst they’re hot to remove any residue and they’re done.

    Having said that I no longer bother removing labels for homebrew. It’s time spent doing something better

  3. I use old swingtop Grolsch bottles. Yes, yes, I know they are green glass, but the beer conditions in the dark and is stored there too.

    I got given about 400 of them a few years back the main reason for using them is that I got them in plastic,stackable crates which makes storage really easy. The other advantage of them is not having to peel masses of label off, they just have a small tab of paper label at the top that peels off nice and easy. Saves on buying crown caps too.

    1. Amazingly enough, I was given a couple of crates of these bottles just the other month, I was going to use them for ginger beer and stuff like that. How do you sterilise the tops without corroding the metal hanger…?

  4. In terms of glue being left behind once the lable is removed, I find a spray with WD40 and a scourer works a treat, obviously it leaves the bottles quite greasy but a bit of fairly liquid applied afterwards and you’re laughing. Boak and Bailey recently suggests washing up power in hot water for a long soak works well too.

  5. Has anyone successfully removed labels from a Crafty Dan bottle? Soaking does absolutely nothing at all! Will try the oven approach suggested by brologic but not seeing anything working at this stage and I’d really like to use the bottles…

    1. I’ve not tried to be honest, as it’s not a style of bottle I collect. You could try pouring boiling water into the bottle and leaving it for a few minutes, then trying to peel the label. This is similar to the oven method, but can sometimes take more of the residual sticky off the bottle with the label. To be honest though, I’ve had variable results with this method though, sometimes it works a treat, sometimes the labels just catch and rip, so your milage may vary…

  6. I’ve got over 100 Thornbridge bottles in the garage needing to be de-labelled. Before i throw the lot against the garage wall in anger, and final suggestions? much appreciated!

    1. Thornbridge bottles tend to be quite easy to clean up, certainly in comparison to some. I used to collect them, until they started embossing the bottles, whenever I find an unembossed one, it’s processed and into the stash!

      The labels should all peal off without too much trouble, some may split, but they’re pretty easy to get off with out doing any processing up front. The labels will leave some resudue behind, I can’t remember which, but either the front or the back label is the worst for this. Then soak the bottles in hot water until the residue goes all opaque and then scrub off with a bit of washing up liquid and a metal pan scourer. The soaked residue comes off pretty easily, so you shouldn’t have to scrub for too long, if you’ve soaked them for long enough.

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