We decided to test six cleaning compounds: B-brite and C-brite from the homebrew store, trisodium phosphate (TSP) from the paint store, and bleach, sudsy ammonia, and automatic dishwasher detergent from the supermarket. Prices per gallon of diluted solution ranged from a low of 2 cents to a high of 34 cents.
Each solution was tested on an unbelievably grungy Samuel Adams bottle. We chose Sam Adams because Boston Beer’s “metallic” labels are notoriously difficult to remove. The bottles were grunged up by placing them in front of the stereo and playing Nirvana real loud. In reality, we used a mixture of equal parts milk and ketchup. Because the ketchup would not dissolve well in cold milk, we heated the mixture. This produced a bonus — the milk turned sour, creating a really disgusting matrix of filmy, sticky goo with solid bits of curd clinging to the inside of the dirtied bottles.
After the grunge juice was swirled in the bottle and emptied, the bottles were baked at 300° F for about 30 minutes, until the film of schmutz baked on hard and caramelized.
The Nitty Gritty
Man, the bottles were nasty when they came out of the oven. Thankfully, baking them removed the odor they might have otherwise produced. To keep the minerals, pH, or impurities in the tap water from interfering with the cleaning agents, we used distilled water for each soak. And we kept everything at room temperature, around 60° F, to eliminate the effect of heat.
We soaked one bottle in plain water as a control example. The others were soaked in the various compounds for just under 24 hours and rated according to the following criteria: grunge removal, label removal, and ease of rinsing. Rinse water was around 110° F from the tap.
To test for cleaning power, the bottles were half emptied and shaken 10 times to gauge the cleaning agent’s ability to loosen the baked-on sludge.
Label removal was gauged by scratching the label with nothing more than a fingernail to see how well the glue was loosened.
Each compound was diluted according to label directions, except the dishwashing compound, which is not meant to be used outside of automatic dishwashers and includes no mixing instructions. For that we used the dilution rate of one tablespoon per gallon.
• C-brite: 1 tbsp. per gallon
• B-brite: 2 tbsp. per gallon
• TSP: 2 tbsp. per gallon
• Bleach: 1/2 cup per gallon
• Ammonia: 1/2 cup per gallon
Cost Per Gallon of Mixed Cleaning Fluid:
• C-brite: 14 cents
• B-brite: 34 cents
• TSP: 20 cents
• Bleach: 4 cents
• Ammonia: 4 cents
• Dishwashing compound: 2 cents
Our favorite cleaner/label remover was the sudsy ammonia. It’s cheap, readily available, and combines all the qualities needed for a good homebrew cleaner: It cleans well, rinses easily, and dissolves label glue without much trouble. B-brite was tougher on labels but not as tough on the grime inside the bottle.
Second choice was the automatic dishwashing compound. It is very strong on cleaning ability, tough on labels, and economical. However, it is difficult to rinse and requires more diligence and more hot water for rinsing than some of the other agents tested. This will marginally add to the cost of using it as a general-purpose cleaner. Anecdotal evidence from “the field” indicates this is a favorite among keggers looking for a good cleaning product that will not damage stainless steel.
B-brite did not score as high as its price tag, but C-brite did very well. However, sudsy ammonia scored almost as well for 10 cents a gallon less. TSP (trisodium phosphate) did well on the grunge but not well enough on the label to justify using it regularly.
If you are not trying to remove labels, any of these cleaners would do the trick. Bleach is an obvious choice because it cleans and sanitizes, obviating the need for an extra step of sanitation with a second soak. Dishwashing compound has chlorinating agents and may have an antimicrobial effect. This theory needs further research!
The B-brite and C-brite are billed as “cleaner/sanitizers” so are good choices for saving labor, but they are the most expensive of the agents tested. Even so, all of the cleaning agents are relatively inexpensive on a homebrew level.
Try This At Home
You should wear rubber gloves and old clothing when working with any of these products. All of them can be irritating to the skin and damaging to clothing. So reconsider that silk cocktail frock you planned to wear during your next brewing session. Also, keep splashing to a minimum to keep the product out of your eyes. To enhance your beer geek image, wear thick, black-rimmed safety goggles (with a head strap, of course).
C-brite is billed as a “no rinse” cleaner, but B-brite was the strongest label remover. Labels positively cowered in fear at the thought of B-brite coming near them and practically disintegrated and fell right off the bottles.
Some other things you may need to know: TSP is available in hardware and paint stores. Bleach should not be used on stainless steel. Keep bleach away from all other cleaning compounds, especially ammonia, as mixing the two creates dangerous, poisonous chlorine gas. Ammonia should not be used on aluminum and should be kept away from bleach.
Hints from Heloise the Homebrewer
Here are a few cleaning tips collected from homebrewers around the country:
See the Light
Mount a night light, with no shade, near your bottle sink. Hold bottles in front of the naked bulb to easily inspect the inside. (Just don’t get the lamp wet!)
Taller is Better
“One of the best improvements I made to my brewery setup was the purchase of a kitchen faucet with an oversize, tall spigot,” says one homebrewer. “Now I can fit carboys and big fermenters right in the sink and clean them very easily.”
Do it Quick!
Nearly everyone agrees when it comes to cleaning: Do it quick. As soon as you empty a bottle, rinse it in hot water and drain it upside down. This will make cleaning and sanitizing much easier later — compared to letting beer dry and mold grow inside the bottle.
The same goes for carboys, kegs, fermenters, and anything else that comes in contact with beer, fermented or unfermented. In pursuit of making cleaning a little easier, a variety of innovations have been reported.
Rick Chapman of Elkhart, Ind., suggests: “Use a faucet adapter and five or six feet of garden hose to rinse carboys and fermenters on the floor instead of the countertop. I bought a 20-gallon rectangular Rubbermaid container for bottle soaking. This doubles as a sink for washing fermenters. It’s much less awkward than the kitchen sink or the bathtub. Keep your racking hoses short. If you need a long hose, splice two or three short lengths together with small pieces of rigid tubing. It’s a lot easier to clean short hoses.”
Magic Compound Cleans Everything
From Don Rutledge, Oregon City, Ore.: “I use the cheapest brand of automatic dishwashing detergent I can find. My wife buys a 13-pound pail of the stuff for around $5.
“I use about a half-cup per five gallons warm water for Cornelius kegs and carboys. I let them sit overnight, or longer, give them a quick scrub, rinse twice, then sanitize with 12.5 ppm iodophor.
“For delabeling I mix the dish detergent and bleach, about a cup of each in a 32-gallon trash can. This can holds about 100 beer, wine, and champagne bottles. After a soak of at least 48 hours, up to a month, 99 percent of the labels will slide right off. I rinse well, then sanitize with 12.5 ppm iodophor.”
When Life Gives You Lemons, Clean Your Brewpot
From Dennis Cobb, Coconut Creek, Fla.: “I brew on an electric stove and always seem to burn a bit of malt at the bottom of my stainless pot, no matter what. To get this off with limited elbow grease, I squeeze a lemon into the pot and let it soak for a few hours. After this, it wipes right off with a sponge. I have tried bottled lemon juice, which also works.”
Wash with Washing Soda
Jeff Lange, Everett, Wash., finds sodium carbonate does the trick for tough dirt:
“For those really crusty, grungy messes — like blow-off hoses — a simple soak in warm sodium carbonate diluted at one tablespoon per gallon melts the grunge right off. Nothing could be simpler.” His sodium carbonate came from the homebrew store under the name “Super Grunge Remover.” It is also available in supermarkets as washing soda.
Use Soap Now For Easy Cleaning Later
For outdoor brewers, Mary Samuels, Tenino, Wash., and Joe Hyland, Bartlett, Ill., remember the camping trick of using soap on the outside of your kettle to make soot and black carbon easy to remove after brewing. Mary uses liquid soap, but Joe prefers just rubbing the pot with a bar of hard soap.
Dan Listermann of Norwood, Ohio, who manufacturers homebrew equipment for a living, uses lye to clean stainless half-barrels, which he sometimes uses for fermenting. “I scrub it with a carboy brush, rinse, then fill it to the rim with hot water and add a little Red Devil lye. This will remove almost all residue after an overnight soak,” he says.
Lye, by the way, is what the pros use in their “clean in place” breweries. There it’s called “caustic soda.” The chemical name is sodium hydroxide. Read all the label warnings if you use it; it can be dangerous.
And remember in the brewery, proper cleaning pays major dividends in uncontaminated, good-tasting beer down the road — assuming you do the rest of your homework!