There’s a battle waging for your beer. The battle takes place every time you brew, whether you realize it or not.
On one side are you and your yeast. On the other side are bacteria and other beer spoilers. Now about the rules: Each side can do whatever it takes to win. After all, this is war.
The spoilers can hide in cracks and crevices or even float in on dust particles. Fortunately, you have a powerful arsenal: sanitizers, disinfectants, even the much-dreaded high-temperature blast.
The key is to maximize your advantage. There are times to bring on the shock troops (sanitizers and disinfectants), and there are other times when the regulars (cleansers and general cleanliness) will do just fine.
An object is considered clean when it contains no visible deposits of dirt or grime. For glass this means that when the glass is examined, it is free of film or discoloration on the surface. For metal, vinyl, rubber, or plastic, this means there are no deposits that could be removed through scrubbing or by using cleansers. Remember that metal, vinyl, rubber, and plastic can become permanently discolored through exposure to heat or certain chemicals. This type of discoloration does not alter the container’s ability to be clean and usable for brewing purposes. For example a vinyl hose can go from clear to cloudy white if it is repeatedly exposed to high temperatures. This does not impact its utility as a siphon hose.
It’s not always enough to use a good cleanser; you occasionally have to use a brush and scrub. That’s why most homebrewers have a collection of brushes for cleaning their equipment. This can include bottle brushes, carboy brushes, and even special hose brushes that can be pulled through your hoses to clean them. Besides using brushes, you need a good detergent. The detergent makes it easier for the brush to do its job. There are a variety of cleaners, some liquid and some powdered, that can be used to help you get your equipment clean (see Homebrew Cleansers, page 23).
As a rule of thumb, all of your brewing equipment should be clean when you use it. The dirt deposits make a great hiding place for bacteria to accumulate, just waiting for the opportunity to begin reproducing. This means that you should check all the equipment, utensils, and other parts individually to make sure that they are free of all dirt deposits and slime. Especially check your hoses to make sure that they are clean on the inside and free from small cracks. Small cracks make wonderful places for bacteria to hide, and it is virtually impossible to clean cracks. This means that any of your hoses or plastic containers that develop small cracks should no longer be used.
Another place to check is where these hoses connect to something else. The connection point is an area where there could be accumulations or deposits of some type. These could easily be the home of the beer spoilers.
When something is sanitized, it has been treated to make it virtually free of germs, or disinfected. This treatment can come from using chemicals that are able to destroy or incapacitate bacteria and fungus, or it can come from exposure to extreme heat. Either way, the effect is that any germs that were present before treatment have been killed or permanently disabled.
So you can use either chemical disinfectants or high heat to sanitize your equipment. Typically, using heat for sanitizing vinyl or plastic is not a good idea. You end up with a gooey puddle of mess. With this in mind, most homebrewers usually use chemical disinfectants for sanitizing. (The sidebar Homebrewing Sanitizers, page 24 identifies some commonly available disinfectants.)
When to Sanitize
So when do objects need to be sanitized, and when can you get away with clean? By considering the entire brewing process, it’s possible to identify those times when the wort is most susceptible to contamination by bacteria or wild yeast and thus requires as sanitary conditions as possible. With this in mind, the three times that are most critical for proper sanitation are during primary fermentation, transferring from primary to secondary, and during priming for conditioning. (If you are conditioning your beer by using CO2, then this third exposure does not apply.) It is during these periods that your wort, which is an extremely appealing host to both wild yeast and bacteria, is most exposed.
During other stages of the brewing process, sanitation is not as critical, but general cleanliness — at the least — should never be overlooked. This is usually because even if the bacteria do get in, there will be less for them to eat so they won’t reproduce as quickly or they will be killed off by the following stage of brewing before they can get much started. It is during their reproductive cycle that bacteria and wild fungi produce all their beer-spoiling tastes and smells.
For example it is not uncommon to have quite an assortment of unwanted germs and fungi during the mashing process. These have been hitching a ride with the grains for quite some time. There they lie, dormant and just waiting for the right conditions to begin growing. But you don’t really need to worry about these potential beer spoilers. That’s because the amount of time devoted to the mash is far too short for the bacteria to get into reproducing very much before they get zapped during the boil. An adequate boil (20 minutes) is also the reason tools used during this period, such as the brewpot and stirrer, should be clean but do not have to be sanitized. The heat of the boil will take care of it. The boiling wort can also be used to sanitize tools to be used immediately after the boil, such as immersing a chiller in the wort for 10 minutes before the end of the boil.
If Not Now, When?
Both primary fermentation and priming are times you are expecting the yeast to do some work for you. To get the yeast to do this work, you offer it food in the form of sugar. When this sugar is available to the yeast the beer spoilers, also suspended in the wort, can get activated and steal that food for their own undesirable purposes. Remember, unfermented wort is an excellent growing place not just for brewing yeast but just about any sugar-eating bacteria or fungus, and there are quite a few of them out there. So the real problem is to keep out as many bacteria as possible during those times when they could begin growing and spoil your beer.
Now, a few bacteria in the wort won’t have much of an opportunity to affect the flavor of your beer. It’s all a game of numbers and population size. For the bacteria to have much impact, they need time to reproduce and grow their population. You want the yeast population to get big very quickly. That’s why you pitch an actively fermenting yeast starter.
Once the yeast is in place, it will get busy doing things that the bacteria may not like. First, the yeast starts consuming all the oxygen in the wort. In a fairly short time there will be none left. Many of the wort-spoiling bacteria need oxygen to reproduce. Second, the yeast will start making alcohol, which makes the environment even more unpleasant for bacteria and slows them down, especially as the alcohol concentrations get higher.
Bacteria actually act faster than yeast, but then there is so much more yeast in the wort than there is bacteria (at least there had better be or you’re wasting your time). This is one reason that you should always use an actively fermenting yeast starter and a proper pitching rate when pitching into the cooled wort. It helps ensure the yeast will quickly overpower any bacteria that may be present in your wort.
Considering that there are three times when your wort is most suscep-tible to attack by beer spoilers, these are the times that you should maintain sanitary conditions at their highest. Sanitation during primary fermentation is many times more important than it is during priming for conditioning. This is because the amount of sugar available during conditioning is much smaller than during primary fermentation, and the presence of alcohol in the already fermented beer acts as a natural disinfectant.
During the primary fermentation phase of brewing, all the equipment and utensils that come into direct contact with the cooled and unfermented wort need to be sanitized. Specifically, this includes your fermenter, hoses used to transfer cooled wort, and your fermentation lock and stopper (just in case the kraeusen — the foam formed on top of actively fermenting wort — gets high enough to touch them during primary fermentation).
During priming everything should be very thoroughly cleaned, at least. After all, this is your last chance to spoil a nice beer by not taking the time to perform a few simple steps. It makes sense to thoroughly clean all the siphon hoses, the bottling vessel, the bottles, and the caps.
One standard procedure is to sanitize the bottles in a weak solution of bleach and water, then rinse them with very hot tap water with a jet washer attachment. If you are kegging your beer, be sure to clean and sanitize the keg and its fittings. Make sure that everything that touches the beer during the bottling process is at least visibly clean, and you can take the extra step to sanitize. After all, anything that touches the beer can potentially introduce something unwanted to the brew.
In fact it’s a good idea to boil the priming sugar or priming malt extract in a couple of cups of water before adding it to the fermented beer. This is just an extra precaution in case there are any spoilers lurking in the sugar.
Cleanliness is very important in all the brewing steps, but absolute sanitation is not always required. Good cleanliness and sanitation practices are ways of stacking the deck against the germs that want to spoil your beer. Then, by using a good, active yeast starter when you pitch, you can virtually ensure that the homebrewers win and the spoilers lose.
Used to wash bottles and containers, but it is difficult to work with because of the strong odor. Rinsing is required. Use about one cup in five gallons of water. Do not combine ammonia with any chlorine products. This will cause the release of poisonous chlorine gas!
B-Brite (Sodium percarbonate/sodium silicate).
Made for sanitizing surfaces that come in contact with beer. No rinsing required. Follow the directions on the container. Product of Crosby and Baker.
Any good detergent can be used to wash the surfaces of glass and plastic containers. These can be either liquid or powdered, but the liquid detergents are easier to use. Rinsing is required. Use as directed.
Sodium Hydroxide (caustic soda, lye)
Used to clean stubborn stains from glass and stainless steel. Do not use on aluminum. Rinsing required. Use as directed. Very dangerous to use. Wear gloves and goggles.
PBW (Buffered alkali with active oxygen)
As strong as caustic but not as hazardous because the active oxygen in the product enhances the weaker alkali. Easily rinsed. Use as directed. A product of Five Star.
Tri-Sodium Phosphate (TSP)
Excellent and safe cleaner for glass. Rinsing required. Use as directed. Skin and eye irritant, so wear gloves and goggles.
Can also be used to wash glass and plastic containers. It is especially good for removing labels from bottles. Rinsing required. Use one-quarter to one-half cup in five gallons of water.
Before You Sanitize...
You must clean your equipment before you sanitize if you are using a no-rinse sanitizer. Really light soil can usually be cleaned and sanitized in one step with sanitizers that need a rinse.
This is an excellent sterilizing agent. You should rinse the items thoroughly with very hot water after soaking or rinsing with a bleach solution. Use about two ounces of bleach in five gallons of cold water.
Iodine-based sanitizers are good disinfectants for glass and stainless steel. Not recommended for plastic because of staining. No rinsing required for the foaming (iodine and acid combination) iodophors. Rinsing is required for non-foaming iodophors. Use as directed. Use gloves because it can stain your skin.
Rinse Your Trouble Away
Some sanitizers require a thorough rinsing after use while others do not. The disadvantage to using a sanitizer that requires rinsing is that you run the risk of reintroducing some germs during the rinsing process. How great this risk is depends on how free of germs your water supply is. If you are on a municipal water supply, you probably can rinse with no problems.