Cleaning and sanitation
Rogue microbes are the biggest enemies of all brewers, closely followed by dirty equipment. Keeping your equipment clean and ensuring good sanitation when brewing gives you the best chance of making great-tasting beer.
One of the best habits to get into is to always clean or rinse equipment as soon as you've finished using it. Once crud has dried onto equipment it takes an eternity to remove, even after being soaked.
Detergent is the enemy of a good head on beer, so avoid using it on equipment. If you do use detergent, make sure it is thoroughly rinsed off in hot water before you put the equipment back into service.
Far more effective cleaners for brewing gear, bottles and kegs are products such as Powdered Brewery Wash (PBW) and sodium percarbonate, which is often called "oxyper". Oxyper is an oxygen bleach and is the active ingredient in nappy cleaners such as Napisan. In fact, many brewers use unscented nappy cleaners to clean their equipment.
The cleaner is mixed with hot water and the equipment left to soak to loosen any crud. Even without scrubbing, these cleaners remove a lot of dirt from equipment. A soft cloth can then be used on any remaining dirt. On bottles, use a bottlebrush if necessary.
Recently, Oliver decided to use oxyper on 30 of his bottles that had been rinsed immediately after use and showed no sign of dirt or caked-on grime when held up to the light.
This is what the oxyper solution looked like after a little was put into each bottle, shaken, left for a while, shaken again and emptied:
Products to avoid when cleaning equipment, particularly equipment that will come into contact with the cooled wort or fermented beer, is abrasive cleaners such as Jif (Cif) or harsh cloths such as scourers. These scratch plastic easily, leaving perfect places for microbes to avoid being killed by sanitisers and ruining your brew.
There are good microbes and there are bad bacteria. When it comes to brewing, the only good microbe is usually yeast athough there are some other microbes that can be used in brewing. Bad bacteria are the millions of other microbes and wild yeast that are all around us and would love the opportunity to ruin your beer at every stage of the brewing process. If you do get an infection by wild bacteria the effect can range from negligible to making the beer undrinkable.
The unfermented wort is most prone to infection. The risk reduces as the beer ferments, which increases the alcohol content and the reduces the amount of sugar. That's not to say you don't need to be stringent with sanitation at all stages of brewing. Anything that touches or will be in proximity to the beer, including fermenters, airlocks, spoons, bottles, kegs, etc, needs to be sanitised. There are two exception: things that will be boiled such as saucepans and the ingredients, and hops added to the wort or beer at any stage.
A note on sanitation versus sterlisation: sanitation involves killing as many microbes as practical, while sterilisation means killing 100 per cent of the bacteria. Sterilisation is not practical or possible for homebrewers because it usually involves using an autoclave to heat equipment for extended periods to kill all microbes.
There are two types of sanitiser available to homebrewers: rinse and no-rinse.
One of the most widely used sanitisers in the "good old days" of homebrewing was sodium metabisulphite. It's still used by some today. A solution of water and sodium met, as it's often called, works by giving off an acrid gas that kills microbes. These fumes also mean it's nasty to work with and can cause extreme discomfort if inhaled. As well, the solution needs to be rinsed off with water. Of course, if the water you rinse with contains microbes these are washed onto the surface of the equipment you've just sanitised!
Neo Pink and Stericlean are two other sanitisers that need to be rinsed, and they can also be used as cleaners.
Many people use unscented bleach to sanitise their brewing gear. Use at about 5ml per litre. The bleach must be rinsed well in hot water.
The most popular type of sanitiser today is no-rinse, which is far more user-friendly than sodium met. No-rinse sanitisers are usually acid-based (with brand names such as Star San or Saniclean) or iodine-based (called iodophor and with brand names such as IO-Star). They rely on contact to kill microbes, so equipment needs to be thoroughly coated with the sanitising solution. Because the solution only needs to be drained off, not rinsed, these types of sanitisers save time as well as water on brew day, or when bottling or kegging. Most acid-based sanitisers have the advantage that they can be reused, while iodine-based sanitisers lose their efficacy after half an hour or so (when the solution loses its purple-brown tinge).
Here at homebrewandbeer.com we recommend no-rinse sanitisers.
Whatever sanitiser you choose, follow the instructions on the pack.
Some brewers use boiling water or a hot oven to sanitise equipment. However, this can't be guaranteed effective and if used on glass bottles or fermenters (carboys) risks cracking or weakening the glass. If you decide to use boiling water or an oven to "santise" equipment, don't say you weren't warned of the perils!
Step by step: Sanitation
Mixing up a simple kit and kilo brew should only take 10 minutes or so. Immediately before you start preparing your brew, santise your fermenter and associated bits and pieces. Obviously, if you are doing a brew that will take longer, time sanitation for when you'll be ready to use the fermenter. The instructions below assume you are using a no-rinse sanitiser. If you are using one of those that need to be rinsed, do so immediately before you use the fermenter.
- Disassemble the fermenter by unscrewing the tap and lid, and removing the airlock, rubber grommet and seal from inside the lid.
- Mix up a sanitising solution to the recommended dilution.
- Pour some of the sanitising solution into the fermenter.
- Put your hand over the hole for the tap and swirl the fermenter, including on its side, to make sure the sanitser comes into contact with all internal surfaces and the thread in the hole for the tap.
- Turn the fermenter upside down to drain.
- Run some sanitising solution through the tap, turn the tap off and submerge the tap in the solution.
- Refit the tap to the fermenter (make sure it's turned off).
- Pour some solution through and over the lid, airl lock and grommet (if you plan on using them — more on that later).
- Leave the fermenter and bits and pieces to drain.
You're now ready to fill your fermenter with sweet wort!