Cleaning and Sanitation for Beer Brewing

by Brad Smith on June 21, 2009 · 16 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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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Scott-TheBrewClub June 21, 2009 at 7:58 pm

Wow – I’m really just getting into the idea of homebrewing and am trying to read as much as I can on the process. Apparently, sanitizing is one of the mose important steps!

Here’s a possibly dumb question – lets say you don’t get one piece of equipment 100% sanitized for whatever reason. Will the next batch of beer simply taste awful or would it potentially get you sick?

Brad Smith June 22, 2009 at 8:40 pm

If it is not properly sanitized you run the risk of infection. Infections will generally ruin the flavor of your beer, though it will probably be quite noticeable before it gets to the point where the beer will make you sick. Infected beer generally has a very strong smell and off flavor.

Drafternoon June 26, 2009 at 6:09 am

Good Advice :)

do you think that sanitation could sometimes be the culprit to having your bottled beer explode? or is it just the wrong environment
I remember helping my parents brew as a kid, and some batches, the bottles would explode, and others not…i think brewing soda had more bottle explosions…I just remember that as a kid

Brad Smith June 27, 2009 at 7:35 pm

Yes – bad sanitation can lead to excess pressure, but a more likely cause is incomplete fermentation in the original batch caused by poor yeast or old grains/extract. I recall in my early days I had a few large gushers and even one explosion, but the quality of ingredients including liquid yeast have largely eliminated that problem for me now.

CEMan July 7, 2009 at 12:41 pm

Brad
I have always understood that B-Brite is a cleaner not a sanitizer. Am I mistaken?

Brad Smith July 7, 2009 at 5:30 pm

Yes – B-Brite can be used as either a cleanser or sanitizer. As a cleanser it does a good job after a solid soak. As a sanitizer it works OK as well (and contains no bleach to pit stainless steel) but it requires a long soak of about 15 minutes.

Terry Hromidko September 19, 2009 at 9:55 pm

Sanitizer iodophor, where can this be perchased?

Thank You, Terry

admin September 20, 2009 at 8:31 pm

Most major online brewing supply stores carry iodophor sanitizer. Go to your favorite online brewing store and do a search.

JudithPrietht January 2, 2010 at 2:37 pm

I haven’t been homebrewing for all that long, and there’s something about rinsing sanitized surfaces that has always made me uneasy. Doesn’t rinsing in tap water potentially expose these surfaces to any bacteria that may be present in the water? Or is that not really a concern?

Thanks,
Judy

Brad Smith January 3, 2010 at 9:12 pm

Judy,
There is a slight risk using tap water to rinse, but most brewers consider it acceptable. I’ve certainly used tap water for many years with no problems. However, some brewers also use no-rinse sanitizing solutions such as iodophor to minimize the risk. No matter which route you take you want to make sure you don’t leave water or cleaning fluid at the bottom – drain the vessel and let it air dry if possible upside down before using it.

South Florida Commercial Cleaning Services November 30, 2010 at 10:29 am

It is good that Star-san and B-Brite are available from our local homebrew store

Scott May October 17, 2011 at 9:12 pm

I just brewed for the first time. I cleaned the fermenting and bottling vessels well (6 gallon plactic buckets). However, the fermenting vessel still smells like beer. Is that ok? Do I need to bleach it?

Dan Aron March 17, 2013 at 1:09 pm

If alcohol is present after fermentation why is sanitation still important? Wouldn’t the alcohol kill and bacteria after fermentation?
Thanks

Brad Smith March 17, 2013 at 4:25 pm

The problem is that there is not enough alcohol content in beer to kill of the alcohol – that’s why sanitation is more important with beer than with wine or distilled spirits.

chris October 1, 2013 at 6:34 pm

I got a question, I used b bright to clean my carboy. but I forgot to rinse before I poured in my juice. how bad will this effect the wine?

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