Cleaning and Sanitization TipsSaturday, February 21st, 2009
Consistency is the Virtue of Home Brewing
Part 1: Cleanliness
One of the most frequent comments heard about home brewed beers is “this guy brewed a batch of really good beer, this one time…” meaning he never managed to duplicate the feat. Consistency is the first, best virtue of a home brewer. Being able to produce a consistent beer means that when you do change the yeast or grains or hops, you’ll be able to know exactly what that change did to the taste and aroma. And on a personal level, there’s nothing quite as frustrating as brewing a wonderful beer, and then failing to reproduce that first, delicious batch.
Consistency starts with cleanliness. Anything that the water, mash, wort, or beer comes in contact with needs to be cleaned and sanitized, because these elements could carry wild yeasts, mold, or bacteria that can alter the final product. Fermenting beer is a sugar-rich, oxygenated liquid stored in a dark, temperature-controlled environment, perfect for encouraging yeast growth, but also for bacteria and mold. Cleanliness is the first, easiest, and most effective step in keeping unwanted agents out of fermenting beer.
My own exposure to the “clean and sanitize as you go” approach was Boy Scout camping, where the penalty for failing to clean your cookware was a case of the Kybo Quickstep (excessive need for the out house). That’s not a risk in homebrewing, but the practice remains the same. After using a tool (mash tub, boil pot, spoon, siphon, strainer, etc.) it should be cleaned in soapy water and scrubbed as necessary. Both in Scouts and in brewing, we like to keep a bucket on-hand filled with soapy water used exclusively for washing. Any soap suitable for dishwashing can be used, but many brewers favor no-rinse cleansers such as One Step or Star San; these products don’t leave a residue and don’t require additional rinsing, which is a plus. PBW is another popular cleaner used by brewers that helps get rid of stains and grime, but is not a sanitizer and needs to be rinsed off.
After cleaning, the item should be immediately sanitized in a one step sanitizing solution. Again, we kept a second bucket on-hand filled and waiting. A third and optional bucket is empty, having been sanitized beforehand, and works as a ‘catch bucket’ where cleaned, sanitized items can be put without re-contaminating them. Using the catch bucket is optional, some people just soak their items, but it depends if you are using a no rinse sanitizer or a bleach or iodophor solution.
Do not rinse items after they’ve been sanitized; while the water might be sanitized, the taps and hoses it goes through aren’t, and rinsing cleaned items undoes the work of the sanitizer. With bung and corks that should be dry before use, air drying is fine, set on a fresh towel on a clean table. Many new home-brewers make their sanitizing solutions much stronger than necessary, which will leave a residue behind. Until you’re sure of the correct concentration, iodophor is a safer choice than bleach, as its residue is neutralized by exposure to sunlight, while bleach residue is reactivated by exposure to water. Bleach taint is a serious concern for flavor contamination.
When you put away supplies, beware of standing water. Pots and mash tuns should be stored uncovered, upside down, with any spigots open to allow for full drying. Tubing should be given close attention to make sure no pockets of water or beer remain inside when put away. Standing water (or beer) are prime sites for mold growth, and even a small amount of mold in a tube is enough to infect a batch of beer if that tube is used to transfer beer.
There is one other aspect of cleanliness that isn’t addressed above, and that’s maintaining your equipment. Just a small patch of mold is enough to ruin 5 gallons of beer, and a small amount of bacteria can skunk your latest batch. Cracks and scratches in your tubing or food-grade buckets are perfect sites for bacteria to live: they’re nearly airless, inaccessible to cleaning tools, and difficult to fully sanitize. A scratch or crack, especially one that has visible discoloration, is sign that the item shouldn’t be in contact with the beer any more. Cracked or scratched buckets work fine for holding soapy water or sanitizer or as catch buckets, but we don’t want to be pouring wort or beer across their surfaces.
Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but it’s only one part of brewing consistent beer. In the next article, I’ll discuss the role that good record keeping plays in consistent brewing. Like cleanliness, it’s something you do both before and after the boiling, fermenting, and bottling, and like proper sanitation, it’s a good habit to develop early.