Cleaning and Sanitizing Your Homebrew Equipment

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The Why and How of Keeping Your Brewing Equipment Clean

You’ve undoubtedly heard the old saw “Cleanliness is next to godliness”? Well, if you dream of being a brewing god, then you might want to take this to heart. Nothing can ruin a batch of beer quicker than the devilish bacteria in your home brewery.

When speaking of beer spoilage bacteria, it should be noted that we are not talking about e. coli or salmonella or anything that dangerous. It is the every day, garden variety bacteria that does the damage; the bacteria that is on our hands and in our mouths. They’re on every surface in your home.

While you can’t possibly kill every single germ in your home environment, you can take positive actions to guard your beer against the unwanted and unwelcome bacteria that can spoil it. Be forewarned that attention to detail is important. Failure to properly sanitize your brewery can result in loss of time, effort and money.

Three Steps to Success

So, how does one protect beer from contamination? By simply cleaning and sanitizing all of the equipment that will come in contact with the beer. Clean, as it pertains to homebrewing, means that all dust, dirt, scum, stains, and other visible contaminants are removed from your brewing equipment and bottles to the best of your ability. Once the visible contaminants are removed, you need to sanitize your equipment and bottles; this is the ridding, removing, and rinsing of invisible contaminants; the bacteria and other microorganisms that can ruin your brew. Cleaning requires a little elbow grease; sanitizing requires chemicals.

A third, and equally important word, is sterilize. Sterilization is another method of germ-killing accomplished with very high temperatures (over 200° F). Boiling your wort (the brewing term for unfermented beer) for at least an hour is an effective way of sterilizing the ingredients in your beer. Once your wort cools, however, it can be easily re-contaminated by air-borne, water-borne, and human-borne germs. Because freshly brewed beer is warm and sweet, it is the perfect breeding ground for microbiological opportunists. This is where the importance of cleaned and sanitized equipment comes in to play. From the boiling point forward, your wort needs to be treated like a person without an immune system, constantly safeguarded from the bacterial world we live in.

Plan of Attack

So, how can you get rid of these little beer-ruining pests? Well, in truth, there are just too darn many to be rid of them completely; the idea is to keep them away from your beer and to minimize their effect. Here are some things to consider:

  • Keep your brewery (kitchen, laundry room, basement, or wherever you make your beer) as clean and dust-free as possible.
  • Quarantine all family pets in another part of the house while you brew or bottle your beer.
  • Consider every cough and sneeze a threat to your beer.
  • Treat your equipment well. Clean and sanitize it properly prior to brewing, rinse it well and dry it off after every use and before storing it away. Keep your equipment stored in a dust and mildew-free location if at all possible.

Cleaning and Sanitizing Agents

The variety of chemicals that you can use to clean and sanitize your homebrewing equipment includes iodine-based products, chlorine-based products, caustics, ammonia, and a couple environmentally safe cleansers that contain percarbonates.

The following bits of information are some pros and cons to the use of these various chemicals:

Ammonia is best used for cleaning bottles in a dilution of 1 cup of ammonia to 5 gallons of water -if you can stand the pungent odor. If you use ammonia for sanitizing, be sure to give your equipment a thorough hot-water rinse.

Chlorine can be found in simple household bleach, which is very effective and cost-efficient for cleaning homebrewing equipment. A 1 ounce per gallon dilution ratio is sufficient. Be sure to buy unscented bleach and to rinse all equipment thoroughly with hot water.

NOTE: Never mix ammonia with chlorine bleach; this combination releases toxic chlorine gas.

Iodine-based sanitizers are widely used in the medical field and the restaurant and commercial brewing industries as a disinfectant. You can apply the disinfectant properties of iodine to homebrewing but note that it stains plastics as well as human skin. Although iodine-based products may vary in strength, the typical dilution ratio is 1 ounce per 5 gallons of water.

Lye is a caustic that you want to use only to remove the most stubborn stains and obstinate organic material from bottles or glass carboys. Technically, caustics are not considered sanitizers, but cleansers. However, most small concentrations of caustic material dissolve and kill almost any bacteria along with organic buildup.

Percarbonates accomplish their cleaning activity with oxygen molecules; they produce oxygen bubbles and help to loosen soils. Because of the unique method employed by percarbonates, sanitizers that work with them do not require rinsing.

Sodium Metabisulphite is another food-grade sanitizer that doesn’t require rinsing. A 4-ounce-to-1-gallon dilution is a standard mixture, but at larger volumes, this is not very cost effective.

Tri-Sodium Phosphate (TSP) is a safe and effective non-sudsing powdered cleanser good for cleaning beer bottles, glass carboys, and even glasses used for beer drinking. This is not a sanitizer, however, and thorough rinsing is required.

The capacity of these products to clean and sanitize homebrewing equipment is in direct proportion to the way in which they are used, meaning, if you don’t follow instructions, don’t blame the manufacturer for a blown batch of beer. Keep in mind dilution rates and contact times are important variables to consider when cleaning and sanitizing. Read all product instructions before using and wear appropriate safety equipment such as rubber gloves and goggles as recommended.

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