Cleaning and Sanitation for Beer Brewing

by Brad Smith on June 21, 2009 · 17 comments

carboy_webSanitation is critical to brewing good beer at home. Even the slightest contamination of fermenting or finished beer can ruin a perfectly good batch. This week, we take a look at good sanitation techniques for home brewers.

Good Brewing Sanitation

Anything that comes in contact with your wort or beer after it has been boiled should be both washed and sanitized. Items used prior to boiling should be washed, but need not be sanitized as boiling the wort will sanitize it.

Washing is simply the act of removing dust, dirt and grime from your equipment. Sanitizing your equipment is a separate step to kill off remaining bacteria and micro-organisms that might linger after washing. A thorough washing is a precursor to sanitizing, as sanitizing agents alone will not be able to remove built up grime and deposits on equipment that harbor bacteria.

Cleaning Agents

A good mild anti-bacterial dish detergent makes a good primary cleaning agent. A scrubbing sponge or brush will help to remove any deposits, though be careful not to use abrasives on plastic as this tends to scratch and pit the plastic, creating a home for micro-organisms.

For stubborn stains, a number of stronger cleaning agents are available. These include Oxiclean, PBW, and Straight-A. Oxiclean is widely available, and as little as 1-3 tablespoons per 5 gallons will rapidly clean the residue found on fermenter walls. Powdered Brewing Wash (PBW) provides a somewhat stronger solution for tougher stains. Straight-A is another specialty cleaning agents that works well on tough stains.

Personally, I primarily use a mild detergent for day-to-day cleaning, and oxiclean if I have a tough problem to clean up, as it is readily available at most retail stores and I generally clean my equipment right after using it. Note that all of the cleaning agents require a thorough rinse, as they all can leave a filmy deposit if not rinsed properly.

Do not leave bleach based cleaners in contact with stainless steel for any extended period of time. A short wash is acceptable, but extended bleach exposure will pit stainless steel and may even bore a hole in it if left long enough. Similarly you should not soak plastic in cleaning agents for extended periods as plastic tends to absorb many of the chemicals.

Sanitizing Agents

After washing your equipment, it is important that anything that touches the wort or beer after boiling is thoroughly sanitized. Some of the most popular sterilizing agents include household bleach, iodophor, Star San and B-brite.

Bleach is one of my favorite sanitizers as it is inexpensive and easy to get. Using 1 tbsp per gallon of water yields a solution that will sanitize with a soak time of 15 minutes. Some care needs to be taken when using bleach with stainless steel or plastics, as you should never exceed the 15 minute soak time – bleach will pit stainless steel or soak into plastics if left in contact with the materials too long. Rinse thoroughly with hot water.

Another sanitizer I use extensitvely is iodophor. Iodophor is a iodine based sanitizer available in liquid form. I like to use iodophor for stainless pots and kegs as it works rapidly and is not as corrosive to steel as bleach. It requires a relatively small amount of iodophor (read the instructions – as concentrations vary) and will sanitize very quickly – as little as 60 seconds. Again you should not leave metals in contact for an extended period. Iodophor does not require rinsing, but I usually rinse lightly after use.

Star-san and B-Brite are available from your local homebrew store and are also easy to use. Star-san requires only 60 seconds to sanitize and does not require rinsing. B-Brite takes approximately 15 minutes to sanitize and does require mixing. B-Brite can also be used as a cleaning agent with a good soak. One advantage of star-san is that it can be stored for an extended period of time and reused several times.

As a final point, be sure to clean and sanitize any piece of equipment that comes in contact with your fermenting or fermented beer. This includes fermentation vessels, siphoning equipment, spoons, hydrometers, tubing, and your kegs or bottles. Clean, sanitary equipment will result in better beer that is free from infection of off-flavors.

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