Over the years I have noticed the confusion that arises when new home beer brewers confront the issue of home brewery cleaning and maintenance. Several terms get mentioned and often they are used incorrectly when they are not truly interchangeable. Terms such as: cleaning, sanitizing, and sterilizing seem to be used interchangeably when they really should be used to describe specific home brewery maintenance tasks.
Cleaning/Washing: In the home brewery, this usually refers to the process of using soap, water, or other suitable cleaners to scrub away visible dust, dirt, and debris from the surface of various brewing apparatuses. A thorough cleaning is generally a precursor to sanitizing since most sanitizing agents alone cannot remove built-up grime and deposits that harbor bacteria on equipment.
Sanitize: In the home brewery, this usually refers to partially freeing brewing apparatuses of microorganisms by disinfecting.
Sterilize: To kill, deactivate (denature), or destroy (break apart) all living, viable microorganisms and spores that would be on a surface, in a fluid, or contained in a compound, such as culture media or a medical product.
Generally speaking, sterilizing brewery components in a home environment is virtually impossible. However, home brewers can easily clean and sanitize their brewery by utilizing a variety of commercially available products. Sanitation in the home brewery is very important because even a small contamination of the fermenting wort can lead to off-flavors or even a completely ruined batch of beer.
Mild anti-bacterial soaps and gentle scrubbing with sponges or brushes are usually all that is required in order to properly clean brewery components. It is important, however, to avoid creating deep scratches or abrasions in plastic brewing gear such as buckets or plastic conical fermentation tanks since these can harbor bacteria.
More difficult cleaning jobs or areas of staining may require the use of slightly stronger cleaning agents. Oxiclean, PBW, and Straight-A are some more common varieties and they can do an amazing job of deep cleaning your home brewery.
Oxiclean is a commercial product that is readily available in the United States. It is generally recommended to use the Oxiclean varieties that are chlorine-free, however, since extended contact with stainless steel can cause chlorine to pit the surfaces.
PBW is a slightly more expensive solution but does an incredible job of cleaning brewing surfaces. It can be purchased through most homebrew supply shops and is my favorite cleanser. Many DIY brewers create their own PBW variation by simply mixing Oxiclean (70%) and TSP/90 (30%). Although this home-made version works quite well, it lacks a few of the other chemicals PBW contains that really makes the commercially available product excel.
The hour to hour-and-a-half boiling of the wort during a normal home brewing session will generally sanitize the solution so it isn’t necessary to sanitize brewing components utilized prior to this step. It is extremely important, however, to sanitize any brewery components that come in contact with your wort or beer after the boiling process is complete in order to minimize the chance of contamination before and during fermentation.
Since 2004, my favorite sanitizing solution has been an iodine-based no-rinse product called Iodophor. It requires very little of the product, very short contact times, and no rinsing. It does a great job, is not very expensive, and is an excellent alternative to bleach.
Bleach is a very popular sanitizing agent that only requires about a tablespoon per gallon of water to create an effective sanitizing solution. Bleach can pit stainless steel if left in contact with the metal for too long so it is important to minimize contact time. Bleach also needs to be thoroughly rinsed from brewing components to avoid introducing off-flavors, etc…
Other sanitizing agents include B-Brite and Star-san. These are available from many local homebrewing stores but tend to be slightly less economical solutions although both are very effective sanitizing products.
Ultimately, the choice of products a brewer uses to clean and sanitize his/her system is a personal decision that may be affected by cost or convenience. The choice of products, however, is not as important as making sure the brewing equipment is thoroughly cleaned and sanitized. Nobody wants to dump a batch of home-brewed beer simply because we didn’t clean and sanitize our equipment.
Is there a cleaning or sanitizing solution you use that you find to be extremely effective? If so, leave some information about it in the comment section below. You might help a fellow homebrewer by doing so.