Brewing Beer: What Is Conditioning and When Does It Occur?

Brewing a top-quality beer takes a lot more than a custom brewing equipment and a couple of hours of your time. It is actually a longer process than most people realize. There are four steps involved, one of which is conditioning. This particular step is critical in determining what the finished product will taste like. Fail to condition properly and you will end up with a brew that may not do it for your taste buds.

What is conditioning? It is the process of adding carbonation to a beer product. Conditioning is the final step in a four-step process, which is as follows:

  • Mashing – the process of creating wort
  • Boiling – to get rid of water in the mash
  • Fermentation – to convert sugars into alcohol
  • Conditioning – to carbonate the finished beer.

There are a number of secondary steps in between each of the four primary steps. For example, mash is cleaned and separated before being sent to boil. However, all of that is a separate topic for a separate post. Conditioning is what we are dealing with here.

Fermentation and CO2

Fermentation occurs in two stages known as primary and secondary fermentation. Primary fermentation produces about 80% of a beer’s total alcohol content. During primary fermentation, yeast is converting sugar into both alcohol and CO2 at a fairly rapid clip. The yeast is also multiplying.

In order to keep the fermentation process going, CO2 is allowed to escape. There isn’t much CO2 left when secondary fermentation begins. By the time it is complete, almost all the CO2 has been depleted. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in terms of producing a beer that will not harm you. But no CO2 also means a flat beer with a less-than-desirable taste. So what’s the solution? Put some CO2 back in.

Conditioning Beer

Conditioning is the step during which CO2 is introduced back into an otherwise flat beer. Industrial breweries utilize a separate conditioning tank that allows them to treat large volumes of beer more quickly. Some craft breweries do so as well. When a brewer doesn’t have access to a separate conditioning tank, beer can be conditioned either in kegs or bottles.

In a tank or keg setting, the beer is added to the receptacle first. From there, CO2 is slowly added with a pressurized tap line. It can take two or three days to fully condition a beer with this method.

Bottle conditioning doesn’t require forcing CO2 into the beer. Rather, it takes advantage of the fermentation principle. Bottles are primed with a little bit of sugar and water before beer is added. Any remaining yeast in the beer will start to ferment once it is poured into bottles. Fermentation produces CO2, thus carbonating the beer sealed inside.

Triple Fermented Beer

Small breweries that utilize the bottle-conditioning method sometimes market their products as being ‘triple fermented’. As the thinking goes, the combination of primary, secondary, and bottle fermentation equals three fermenting processes. Yet this is just a marketing gimmick.

A triple fermented beer is nothing more than a bottle-conditioned beer. The fermentation required to condition the beer is minimal. In fairness, bottle-conditioned beer may taste slightly different due to this minor amount of additional fermentation. But it is not enough to make for a drastically better product.

In the end, conditioning beer is the process of adding carbonation. It is that which gives beer its foam and bubbly texture. It is also what provides the bite when beer first hits the taste buds. Without conditioning, you would be left drinking a flat beverage with very different taste.