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Proper Cleaning and Sanitation

When it comes to homebrewing there are many elements that are essential to making your final beer turn out as expected: Fresh ingredients, sound techniques, and temperature control. But everything can easily fall apart if your equipment is not kept clean. A proper cleaning and sanitation regime prevents spoilage from unwelcome bacteria, yeasts, and mold as well as undesired flavors from old deposits. The process of cleaning and sanitizing can be time-consuming, however, doing it right in the short term can means big savings in the long run.

Defining The Terms

From the Oxford English Dictionary, clean means that you leave your equipment “free from dirt, marks, or stains.” You will notice that after cleaning your glass equipment, it will be clear and see through with no residual film. Stainless steel should bring back a shine while aluminum is a bit tougher to see since the gray oxide layer should be left intact when cleaning. But upon feel and visual inspection, no obvious biological deposits should remain visible.

The Oxford English Dictionary has the definition of sanitized as, “make clean and hygienic, disinfected.” In brewing, the sanitation step can only be achieved if larger biological deposits have been effectively removed during the cleaning process, so we always start by cleaning, before the sanitation step. Let’s clear up two common misconceptions in the brewing world when it comes to sanitation: 1) Any equipment that touches the wort prior to chilling does NOT need to be sanitized, just cleaned! 2) Sanitation is not the same as sterilizing . . . you are never going to kill everything unless you autoclave. You are most likely simply greatly reducing the threat of infections, not removing them.

Be The World’s Best Janitor

You have two cleaning options, soak or scrub. Soaking may be more time-consuming while scrubbing takes a bit more elbow grease. There are often times when soaking is the only option while scrubbing is the best option in other places. Both should be employed when possible for the most effective cleaning. Often hot water and soap are the first weapons for scrubbing away residue. But this is ineffective when a surface is not exposed (such as draft lines or inside valves). In these cases, a rinse followed by a chemical soak should be employed. There are several chemical concoctions that contain either a caustic or peroxide for effective cleaning. Many can be found as a blend of chemicals that work in union to eradicate biological buildups by loosening their grip on the surface. These chemicals will make your hands slippery, something to be careful of when handling glass. The same chemical principles that make your hands slippery are attacking the biological buildup. A half hour soak with water at 160 °F (71 °C) mixed at the proper dilution ratio with a peroxide-based cleanser such as PBW (Powdered Brewery Wash), AmBrew Cleanser, or Craft Meister Oxygen Brewery Wash will clean those hidden spots with all water types. Cold water can be used when a caustic cleaner such as BLC (Beer-Line Cleaner) or Craft Meister Alkaline Brewery Wash is employed.

While these cleansers are great at what they do, if possible you should be breaking the equipment down on a semi-regular basis to see what is inside. And don’t forget about other solvents such as rubbing alcohol for equipment like a plate chiller that can’t be broken down or scrubbed with a brush. Learn to be the world’s best janitor in order to be make great beer.

For Sanitized Sake

Many times the sanitation step can perform two duties: 1) Kill off all of the microorganisms the cleaning step exposed. 2) Neutralize the basic (alkaline) nature of the chemical cleaners mentioned earlier. So your mash tun doesn’t actually need to be sanitized, but you probably want to hit it with some sanitizer if you use an alkaline cleaner.

There are generally two types of sanitizers that homebrewers use: Phosphoric acid-based sanitizers and iodine-based sanitizers. Both types of sanitizers are acidic and will effectively neutralize the basic cleaner. Bleach can be used to sanitize glass and plastics (never on metals!), but due to the fact that a thorough rinsing after the sanitation step is required when using bleach, I say don’t use unless in extreme situations (like you left a dirty fermenter bucket on the back porch for a month that could be considered a biohazard by some government agencies. But who would do that . . .)

The Nitty Gritty

Kegs, wort chillers, transfer tubing, racking canes, fermenters, draft lines and taps . . . everything the wort and beer touch after the boil should be properly cleaned and sanitized. Cracks and scratches in equipment can pose the greatest threat to the cleaning and sanitizing task. If there are cracks in your equipment you will want to replace them with new equipment. Here is a sample of my keg cleaning regime: 1) Clean with hot water and soap, 2) Mix in an alkaline cleaner like PBW with hot water around 160 °F (71 °C), 3) Soak or recirculate for about 30 minutes, flipping the keg if not recirculating, 4) Sanitize with an acidic-based mixture. When it comes to any draft equipment it is a good idea to use a little stronger product like the lye-based BLC.