Monday, May 14, 2012

How to effectively remove bottle labels

When I first started brewing, I was buying cases of empty 22 oz bottles to bottle my beer in. Being that they cost around $1 a piece to buy new ones, I was determined to save money and have my friends donate their empty bottles to me to use. The first obstacle I was faced with was how to remove the labels without a lot of hard work. Everywhere I looked has some method that sort of worked, but often involved a lot of scrubbing and waiting, or the use of hash chemicals. I knew there was a better way, so I set out to figure out how to do it.

The way that I've figured out involves soaking the bottles in a hot bath (~180-190 degrees F) of water with a mixture of baking soda, PBW (or bleach-free oxyclean), and borax. All of these cleaners are readily available and quite inexpensive. Using this method, I've found that about 75% of all beer labels literally fall off the bottle, and the rest are easy to peel off with tongs. As far as wine labels are concerned, about 50% of the labels fall off and the other half require a little scrubbing and scraping (It must have something to do with the adhesive type they use on some wine bottles, but I'm not quite sure).

Below, I will detail this process with photos and information. Please feel free to post any questions you may have. For this process you will need the following:
  • A large cooler with a lid (50+ quarts is best, especially if its wide and shallow)
  • PBW, bleach-free oxyclean, or an equivalent product (about 1 tablespoon for every 4 quarts of cooler size)
  • Baking Soda (about 2 tablespoons for every 4 quarts of cooler size) 
  • Borax (about 1/4 cup for every 4 quarts of cooler size) 
  • Tongs 
  • Strainer 
  • Lots of very hot water, ~180-190 degrees F 
  • A sponge with an abrasive side 
  • A separate pot or bucket of warm water for rinsing adhesive off
  • A bottle tree (this is not a necessity, but it sure makes things a LOT easier)
Alright, let's get to it:

First, heat your water. You will need enough water to nearly fill your cooler, so measure appropriately. 

High-pressure burners make this a breeze!

Next, add your measured PBW, baking soda, and borax into the cooler. Stir the solution until all of the particulates are dissolved.
It's a cleaning trifecta!

Fill the cooler about 3/4 full, add your bottles, and arrange the bottles in the cooler. I've found that its easiest to use long BBQ tongs to submerge the bottles so they fill completely. Repeat until you've cannot fill any more bottles, and then add the rest of the hot water. Then, continue to fill and place the bottles in the cooler until you cannot completely submerge any more bottles.

Close the lid, sit back and have a few beers! It takes about an hour to an hour and a half for the labels to loosen.

You'll know the labels have loosened because they will easily come off of the bottles with tongs. Some labels literally fall right off the bottles!

Peel the label off with tongs

Once you remove the label, scrub the bottle in the wash water!
Nice and clean!

Put your bottles on your bottle tree, or place them on a towel to dry.
These guys sure are handy!

Use a strainer to skim out the gross parts!
Yeah, get it!

Once you're done, you can refill the cooler with more bottles and repeat the process. Once you've finished, its time to wash em! I take them to the bath tub and fill it partway with hot water and PBW.
Time for bath #2...

Soak them in the bath for a few minutes, scrub them with a sponge, and then shake 'em a bit. This is just to make sure that you get out all of the residual paper and adhesive bits off of your bottles.

Once you've got them all on the rack, you can technically just let them dry and call it quits. However, I find that PBW leaves a residual film on the bottles, and I prefer the look of a clean and shiny bottle! So, I like to rinse them after they've dried a little bit from the PBW bath. 

Put them on the rack to dry, and you're done! Sweet :)