It seems ironic that I am writing a post about the importance of cleanliness in brewing and providing tips to ensure a healthy brew without any extra nasties getting in. Why is that ironic? Well, because I am currently worried that my latest batch may have my first ever infection. That’s right, no matter how much you know about sanitation, we all get lazy sometimes. I’m not sure that it is an infection yet…but we will know soon enough. Maybe it is just on my mind because I am writing this post.
Cleaning, Sanitizing and Sterilizing
Sanitation is critical to ensuring a successful batch of home brew. Even a tiny amount of contamination can destroy an otherwise great beer. That is not a feeling you ever want to have! Before we talk about how to make sure your equipment is prepared for brewing, we should make sure we understand the difference between cleaning, sanitizing and sterilizing; and which are integral to brewing beer.
Clean: To make free from dirt, marks, or stains.
Sanitize: To make sanitary or hygienic
Sterilize: To make free from bacteria or other living microorganisms
Basically, what this means is that cleaning involves getting all of the dirt and grime off by scrubbing with good old-fashioned elbow grease. To sanitize something, you typically use a chemical that will eliminate virtually all bacteria, molds or wild yeast. Another term for this would be disinfecting.
Home brewers are typically not able to truly sterilize anything because to eliminate all living microorganisms requires chemicals not commercially available or extreme heat for an extended period of time. For all of our needs, everything just needs to be sanitized.
The first thing that you should always remember is that everything MUST be cleaned before it can be sanitized. If you only use sanitizer, you are going to miss areas due to dirt or marks that could have been scrubbed off during cleaning.
All of your brewing equipment must be cleaned. But not all of your equipment has to be sterilized. Any equipment that will be touching the wort prior to the boil only needs to be cleaned, because the act of boiling it will kill anything that would have been killed by sterilization. However, don’t let this fool you! Cleaning is still very important because you don’t want any dirt or other things that could affect the flavor of your beer getting in even at these early stages.
To clean your equipment, you can use a few different cleaners. Below is a list of common cleaning items along with their pros and cons:
Dish Detergent: While great for your dishes, this is not typically a good choice for brewing equipment for a couple of reasons – it can leave a film that is hard to rinse off, and most detergents are scented, and you don’t want your beer smelling like soap. However, it will clean your equipment, so you can use it in small amounts, but make sure you rinse everything well after you wash.
Bleach: Unscented bleach is an affordable choice for cleaning your equipment. Use a mix of about one tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water and make sure you don’t like things soak in the bleach for too long, as it can start to eat away at certain materials. Bleach can be absorbed by plastic, leading to off flavors in your beer, and should never be used for stainless steel, since it can actual eat holes through the stainless steel if given a long enough contact time. Also make sure you rinse well because this is another one you don’t want making its way into your beer!
Precarbonates: Below is a lit of precarbonates, which are some of the best cleaners for your brewing equipment. They break down bacteria without harming your equipment and are easy to use. They utilize oxygen to clean and are environmentally and sewage-friendly!
Sodium Precarbonate (Oxiclean): This is the most common and easily-available precarbonate, as it can be found at any grocery store. Make sure you buy unscented, and I recommend the store brand verses actual Oxiclean because there are fewer extra ingredients, it works just as well, and it is cheaper!
PBW (Powdered Brewery Wash): PBW is a stronger version of Oxiclean, designed to be used on brewing equipment. Letting equipment soak for about 20 minutes will get it clean. If things are really dirty, you can even leave it overnight without causing any damage. Use between 1 and 2 tablespoons per gallon.
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Straight A, One Step and B Brite: These are three other precarbonates sold at homebrew shops. They are not as strong as PBW, and must be mixed with hot water (PBW can be used with any temperature water). They have similar characteristics to Oxiclean, so I recommend just using the store-brand oxiclean instead of purchasing one of these. But use them in the same way, about 1 tablespoon per gallon of water.
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Any equipment that will be touching your wort after it is boiled needs to be sanitized. This includes fermentors, air locks, stoppers, siphons, hosing, funnels, etc. Remember, these things must be cleaned first, before being sanitized. Below is a list of the more popular sanitizers. Make sure that you note whether your sanitizer needs to be rinsed off or if it is “no-rinse” and you can just empty it out and pour beer in right behind it.
Bleach: Again, chlorine bleach can be used to sanitize your equipment. Just mix up about 1 tablespoon per gallon of water and let it sit for 15 minutes. Be sure not to let it sit any longer than that, as it will eat away at your plastic and stainless steel. It must also be rinsed off very well, so that none is left in contact with your equipment or gets into your beer.
Idophor: This has been the sanitizing agent of choice for a long time, and is commonly used in the food and medical industries to sanitize equipment as well. In a solution of about one tablespoon per 5 gallons, you can get all of your equipment sanitized by letting it soak as little as 60 seconds. Idophor is a no-rinse sanitizer, but I would recommend a light rinse if you are using this – at least let it drip dry first. Be careful, because idophor can also stain your clothes!
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Star-San: Star-san is sold in homebrew shops and can be used in a mixture of about one ounce per 5 gallons of water. It is also a no-rinse sanitizer. You will notice that it creates a lot of foam, which is OK, as the foam will also clean your equipment. Once you drain the star-san, if foam remains, don’t sweat it – it will not affect the flavor of your beer at all. The other good thing about star-san is that it can be stored and reused over time. As long as it doesn’t start to get cloudy or the pH doesn’t change dramatically, it will still be affective after several batches. I personally use Star-san whenever I need to sanitize anything.
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Heat: You should also note that heat can be used as a sterilizer. This is practical in only a few applications. The first is to sterilize your immersion wort chiller, which can be dropped into your boiling wort during the last 15 minutes of the boil to sterilize it. Other ways to use heat to sterilize is to pump boiling water through your brewing equipment after cleaning. This works well if you have a brewing system that utilizes a March pump, such as a HERMS or RIMS brewing system. Lastly, you can use the oven and/or dishwasher to sanitize bottles prior to bottling your beer. Make sure not to use detergent in the dishwasher, as it can leave a film which will reduce head retention in your beer as well as affect the flavor/aroma.
A few things to keep in mind when cleaning and sanitizing your equipment: clean everything, clean before sanitizing, and clean and sanitize as soon as you finish. This will keep you from having to deal with stuck-on or hard-to-clean residue later.
For glass carboys, I recommend a carboy brush, but make sure not to use abrasive brushes on your plastic fermentors, as any scratches can harbor bacteria. Also, stick to soft sponges and cloths when cleaning stainless steel, because you can scratch off the stainless surface.
For cleaning, I typically use Oxiclean for everyday use and PBW whenever things are really dirty or I’m cleaning something for the first time, like a used corny keg. For sanitizing, I always use Star-San. It works like a charm, can be used multiple times, and is colorless, odorless, and doesn’t require rinsing. But what works for me may not work for everyone, so just make sure you are keeping everything clean and sterilized so that you don’t ever have to deal with (or throw out!) a contaminated/infected batch of home brew!
If you have any additional tips for cleaning and sanitizing, or if you use any products not listed above, I would love to hear about what works for you, so leave a comment below!
“How to Brew” by John Palmer