Importance of Proper Sanitation Techniques

It is of the utmost importance to strictly follow proper sanitation procedures when brewing or bottling beer. It is commonly accepted that most bad batches of homebrew can be traced back to improper or inadequate cleaning techniques. It is so easy to properly clean your equipment, and takes such little time, that one really has trouble understanding why some people don’t do a proper job of it.

Afterall, even the most sophisticated high-tech brewery will produce swill if the proper sanitation techniques are not adhered to.

Sanitize vs. Sterilize

First of all, lets get our terminology straight — you are not sterilizing anything. That it simply not an option for even a mega-brewery, let alone for a homebrewer. What you want to do is sanitize, or get rid of the vast majority of any harmful bacteria, but not all of it.

Anything whatsoever that comes in contact with your beer should be first cleaned, then sanitized. The only exception from this rule are things that will be boiled. For example, although you’ll want to give your brewpot a good wash with water and dish detergent beforehand, you won’t need to sanitize it since the boiling liquid will take care of that. The same applies to any spoon used to stir the boiling wort. However, spoons used to stir the cooled wort should most certainly be cleaned and sanitized.

First clean the equipment with a good mild dish detergent, then rinse well with warm to hot water. We find that the lemony-type anti-bacterial detergents do a wonderful job. Remember, unless your equipment has first been cleaned well, the sanitizing agent won’t be able to do it’s work properly. For example, if there is a scum on the wall of your primary fermenter, bacteria will certainly find it and take up residence there. Afterall, that’s bacteria food! Furthermore, the sanitizing solution will not be able to get at the bacteria because they will be protected by the scum on which they are feeding.

So always wash your equipment first, then sanitize it.

When cleaning, please be careful not to scrub any plastic surfaces with abbrasives, as this will scratch the plastic and provide a wonderful breeding ground for unfriendly micro-organisms. Instead, just use a dish cloth or sponge to do the job.

High-Powered Cleaning Agents

There are a few newcomers on the cleaning scene which have become widely available to homebrewer. The household wonder-cleaner OxyClean (or any of the copycats) uses powerful oxygen to eat away just about any kind of brewing grunge imaginable, including the post-fermentation residue almost always found on fermenter walls. As little as a tablespoon per 20 litres / 5 US gallons will eat just about anything. Higher concentrations can be used for faster cleaning, but very low concentrations are extremely effective overnight.

If OxyClean cannot eat it, then Straight-A from Logic, Inc or Powdered Brewing Wash (PBW) from Five Star Chemicals almost certainly will. Both are almost identical formulations and were specially formulated for the brewing industry. You can literally watch the stuff eating through just about any kind of organic material imaginable. Use according to the manufacturers instructions.

All of OxyClean, Straight-A and PWB can leave a slick film behind on equipment so you have to rinse extremely well after using them. They can be stored in a sealed bucket and remain effective over a few days to a week. Though OxyClean will not last as long as the others this way. Since Straight-A and PBW are a fair bit more expensive than OxyClean, and since OxyClean is so effective anyway, we use it OxyClean for most cleaning applications and only haul out the PBW when OxyClean can’t handle it. We also always use PBW for cleaning our wort chiller, just because that is precisely what it is designed for – cleaning brewing equipment where you cannot see the surfaces.

Cleaning and Sanitizing Agents

Agent Use Mixture Contact Rinse Environment
OxyClean clean 1-3 tablespoons per 20 litres as required Extremely Well friendly
PBW clean 1-3 tablespoons per 20 litres as required Extremely Well friendly
Straight-A clean 1-3 tablespoons per 20 litres as required Extremely Well friendly
bleach sanitize 4ml / litre – 1 tbsp / gallon 15 minutes Extremely Well unfriendly
diversol sanitize 4ml / litre – 1 tbsp / gallon 15 minutes Yes unfriendly
iodophor sanitize read instructions 60 seconds No unfriendly
Star San sanitize read instructions 60 seconds No friendly
B-Brite both 4ml / litre – 1 tbsp / gallon 15 minutes Extremely Well friendly

Sanitizing Agents

There are several very effective sanitizing agents which the homebrewer can use in his or her brewery. Some are extremely inexpensive, yet harmful to the environment, while others are a bit more expensive and more friendly to the environment. The most popular agents used by homebrewers are listed in the table above

For the record, we use primarily bleach and iodophor. Both are relatively inexpensive, and very easy to use. We’ve tried some of the powders, but find that one must be far more meticulous with rinsing, so we stopped.

The above table shows the recommended amount of each agent which should be used, as well as how long items must be soaked in it to be considered sanitized. Note that the first 3 each require one tablespoon of agent per gallon of water. It is extremely important to note that you cannot reduce soak times by increasing the concentration of the agent. It simply doesn’t work that way. By increasing the concentration, you are simply wasting your agent, and therefore your money. You are also increasing the chances that rinsing won’t get rid of all the agent.

Some agents like bleach not only sanitize, but they also clean to some degree. Nonetheless, it is still a good practice to manually clean your equipment before putting into the sanitizing solution, or use a cleaning solution from far above. Bleach is known to be a fairly corrosive substance when in contact with most metals, but it’s fine to use as long as you don’t exceed the concentration and soak-time listed above. If you do not believe me, check with John Palmer. He’s a homebrewer and a metallurgist by profession. Plastics can be left in longer, but note that most of the clear plastic siphoning tubes will become discoloured if left in a bleach solution for several hours.

Not many homebrewers know this, but iodophor is also mildly corrosive to metals. An E-friend of mine in Austria has a son who studies at the prestigeous Weihenstephen brewing university in Germany, and I have this information from him. No breweries in Germany will use iodophor because of this. However, it’s significantly less corrosive than bleach, and we still use that in our kegs and other metal parts of the brewery. Again, just make sure you don’t exceed the concentration or soak times.

Procedure

We usually maintain 2 buckets – one with an OxyClean solution for cleaning and the other with an iodophor solution for sanitizing. Both get the lids tightly sealed onto them when not in use. Equipment first gets soaked in the OxyClean solution, then rinsed extremely well, and finally soaked in iodophor.

Whichever sanitizer you use, simply fill a bucket with water, and stir in the proper amount of agent according to the above table. Then allow your equipment to soak for the listed time. For longer pieces of equipment like racking canes and plastic spoons, you can save yourself a lot of solution by soaking in a plastic wallpapering trough instead of a bucket. This should require as little as 10% of the amount of solution as used by a bucket.

After soaking, remove equipment from the solution, and rinse well under your hot water faucet. Iodophor used to be the only sanitizing agent which need not be rinsed off after soaking, but the new kid Star San falls into the category as well. See below for details. With all other agents it is extremely important to rinse well, otherwise the agent will make its way into your beer, and in the best case produce off-flavours, while in the worst case it could completely ruin your beer. We once messed up an otherwise very promising batch of beer by not rinsing the keg properly after trying out a new sanitizing agent on it. This is when we learned that B-Brite is a great sanitizer that is friendlier on the environment than bleach, but it has to be far more carefully rinsed after soaking in it.

If you are using iodophor, you absolutely should read the excellent article by Robert Arguello.

As mentioned, Star San from Five Star Chemicals is the new Wunderkind of the brewing industry. Not only does it only require a short contact of a few seconds, but it can also be stored and remain effective for long periods of time. So although the cost of the agent itself is at face-value expensive, the fact that you can store it for a long time dramatically reduces the cost of the agent. Store in an air-tight container, and dispose when the pH rises above 2.9.

Due to the extremely short contact time required for Star San, a popular way to use it is in a spray bottle. For example the inside walls of a plastic fermenting bucket get sprayed down, and after a few seconds the remaining sanitizer gets poured into a bucket to reclaim it for further use. And since no rinsing is required, the bucket can now be used immediately. For carboys simple put a litre or two of solution into the carboy and slosh it around thoroughly ensuring to get complete coverage. Then pour out the excess into a container to reclaim for future use.

Cleaning and Sanitizing Metals

For hard metals like stainless steel there is nothing like a bit of good old-fashioned scrubbing with dish soap and water to clean it. For stubborn grunge, or lazy people, soaking overnight in OxyClean or PBW will clean just about anything.

For cleaning soft metals like copper, or aluminum it is not advisable to scrub with anything abrasive since that can actually etch the metal very easily. Simply use a soft sponge or washcloth, instead. In the case of aluminum brewpots you do not want to scrub away the oxide layer which after the first use prevents your wort from coming in contact with the aluminum.

Soaking metals in bleach is OK so long as you stay with minimum concentrations and contact times. Any longer than this is a very bad idea as we learned the hard way. We used to let our smaller pieces soak in our SS brewpot in a bleach solution. When the pot one day sprung a leak, we had learned our lesson.

Cleaning and Sanitizing Plastic

Do not use abbrasive materials on your plastic parts, since that will scratch the plastic, thus giving bacteria a nice place to take up residence. Use a regular dish-cloth or sponge with a bit of dish detergent. Again for stubborn grunge or lazy people soaking overnight in OxyClean or PBW will clean just about anything

It is also advisable not to soak soft plastic racking hoses for extended periods in chlorine. Even an overnight soak can cause the chlorine to react with the hose to turn it extremely cloudy. Hard plastics do not suffer this fate. The same type of clear vinyl hose soaked in iodophor for extended periods will take on a red-orange tinge in colour, but can still be used afterwards.

Re-Use

To economize, it is possible to store some sanitizing agents for use over extended periods. Chlorine-based sanitizers are particularly useful in this regard. Indeed, since they are so detrimental to the environment, if you do use them, please consider storing a bucket of solution for continued use. As long as you can smell chlorine in the bucket, it is still active. Since chlorine does evaporate over time, you may have to add more agent from time to time. Any re-used cleaner or sanitizer should be kept in a tightly sealed container both to keep pets and children from drowning, as well as to keep the active ingredients in the agent from evaporating away, as most of them can do. For iodophor, when the colour goes out of the solution, it is time to discard it and make up some more. For Star San you discard when the pH goes above 2.9.