Cleaning and Sanitizing Your Home Brew Equipment
Out of all the things you can do to make sure your brew day goes well, cleaning and sanitising your brewing equipment has to be one of the easiest. I would be willing to wager that it’s one of the least favourite things as well. Neglecting this simple task though is one of the easiest ways to ruin a batch of beer, I can assure you that having 5 gallons of sour infected beer is the last thing you want to happen. So with that in mind, in this post I am going to cover the best tools and techniques to make sure your brew equipment is sparkling clean and bacteria free.
Cleaning vs Sanitizing
There is a difference between cleaning, sanitizing and sterilizing. First off lets get sterilizing out of the way because as home brewers, sterilizing is not something that can be done economically. To make something sterile you have to remove all traces of bacteria and spores, no chemicals available to home brewers can do that. Sterilization can only really be done in an autoclave or with heat for an extended period.
What us home brewers need to do is remove as much of the bacteria as possible to levels where they won’t be able to infect your beer, when we talk about sanitation we are actually talking about disinfecting.
Cleaning on the other hand is something everyone is familiar with and usually involves scrubbing and elbow grease. The purpose of cleaning is to remove all the organic material and dust from your equipment.
So now we have our terms defined, cleaning gets your equipment to the point where you can’t see any dirt then sanitizing reduces bacteria to negligible levels, meaning they won’t be around in enough numbers to infect your home brew.
Some cleaning and sanitizing is more important depending on which part of the brew day it’s for. As a general rule anything you use before the beer is boiled doesn’t need to be sanitized to such an extent because when the beer is boiled, any contaminants that are in the beer are killed off. That is not to say you don’t have to worry about it being clean.
The Importance of Cleaning
Bacteria are microscopic and hide out in hard to get to places, things like scratches and the corners of your equipment are places that will naturally accumulate dirt and grime. Bacteria will happily live in these scratches and crevices and will be protected from any sanitising you may do. Later on when the dirt is dislodged the bacteria will be exposed and ready to infect your beer. This is why all traces of organic material need to be removed before sanitising.
Common Cleaning Agents
Dish Detergent: One thing you want to take caution over is reaching for the dish soap. A large proportion of dish soaps will leave a film that cannot be completely rinsed off and leave traces in your beer, also most soaps contain perfumes that will interfere with you beer. If you do use dish soap then use it in small quantities and rinse thoroughly, its better and usually more cost effective to use something like bleach.
Bleach: Ordinary household bleach is one of the mainstays of brewing equipment cleaning. It’s one of the cheapest solutions and is available almost everywhere. You will want an unscented bleach and mix 1 tablespoon per gallon, it will break down most organic material so it can be scrubbed clean and then rinsed away. Do not leave metals in contact with bleach for too long however as corrosion can occur. If cleaning metals then contact time should be minimized and then rinsed thoroughly.
Sodium Percarbonate or Oxiclean: You may of heard of Oxiclean or similar products which are touted as oxygen cleaners. Sodium percarbonate is the active chemical in these cleaners and when combined with water, release hydrogen peroxide which will break down nearly all organic material. These types of cleaners should be used according to manufacturers instructions and rinsed thoroughly. The good thing about these are you can get one brand or another at most big supermarkets.
Dedicated Brewery Cleaners: If you go to your home brew shop they will usually have a large array of cleaners suitable for washing your equipment. It goes without saying, just follow the manufacturers instructions.
Everything that comes into contact with your beer after the boil needs to be disinfected and sanitized. There are a number of cheap solutions available and they will all minimize the risk of infection in your beer
Bleach: Again bleach is one of the cheapest and most commonly available options for sanitizing your brewing gear. You’ll want ordinary unscented household bleach in a quantity of 1 tablespoon per gallon and leave your equipment to sanitise in this for around 10 minutes. It then a good idea to rinse with boiled water although most people do use tap water without any issue.
Star-San: This is one of the most cost effective sanitisers and one of the easiest to use too. Star-san is a no rinse sanitizer and is diluted in water according to the instructions. This solution can then be sprayed onto your equipment which will be sanitised within 60 seconds. Star-san foams very easily which helps it penetrate into all surfaces, also the foam needn’t be rinsed as it will act as a yeast nutrient. As you are diluting Star-san is such small quantites everytime you prepare it, one bottle can last quite a while.
A number of other sanatisers are available from your home brew shop and should be used according to instructions. Most of the time I use either bleach or star-san because they are so cost effective and easy to use.
Tips on Cleaning and Sanitizing Your Brew Gear
First off, whatever chemicals you are using make sure you protect yourself, most chemicals require the area to be well ventilated and wear gloves to protect your hands.
Clean Items As Soon As Possible: Your fermenter will be a lot easier to clean just after you racked beer out of it rather than a few days later when everything has dried out and stuck like glue. Rinse everything straight away and make cleaning later on so much easier.
Use the Right Tools: If you use a carboy invest in a bottle brush, you will make life so much easier in the long run if you make cleaningless hassle. Another thing to point out is that using an abrasive pad on plastic equipment is not a good idea, all that you will do is scratch the surface and create more crevices for bacteria to inhabit.
Be Consistent: I know it’s not the best part of brewing but being sloppy with cleaning and sanitation is a good way to ruin a batch of home brew. Take your time, be thorough and you will never have to risk getting an infected brew.