If you talk to professional brewers, you are bound to hear a few of them say that a brewer is really a glorified janitor. The same is true for homebrewers. If you want to get the beer you intend to make, you need to make sure that all your equipment is clean and sanitized. But what does it mean to be clean? sanitary? How are they different? What about sterilizing?
To clean is remove any dirt. This includes stains, gunk, or any “foreign matter”.
To sanitize is to kill, or at least drastically reduce, spoiling microorganisms to negligible levels.
To sterilize is to eliminate all forms of life, especially microorganisms. This may be chemically by killing them or physically by removing them totally.
In brewing, winemaking, or anything in which there are microorganisms we want to, we need to do some cleaning and some sanitizing. Sterilizing would be great, but usually is not needed and is much more difficult.
Cleaning typically involves some sort or detergent, some chemical, and some physical scrubbing. Common soaps, dish soaps and laundry detergents, can be used to help clean equipment. The problem with many of these is that they include perfumes, they smell pretty. You don’t want those smells to get into your beverage.
There are several options to avoid these perfumes. One is using sodium percarbonate, like Arm and Hammer Super Washing Soda. Oxygen cleansers are also popular, like Oxyclean. There are several products that have been approved by the FDA as cleansers to be used in food-manufacturing. Duluth Homebrew Suppl y has a variety of these.
Powered Brewery Wash (PBW) is powerful percarbonate cleanser. You can soak fermenters and PBW will loosen almost anything so it can rinse off.
Straight-A is a similar percarbonate cleanser that has a similar effectiveness.
One Step is another cleanser that advertises itself as a “no rinse cleanser.” You must clean all of your equipment. I recommend that you clean after you use it and before you put it away. You won’t want to brew if you have to clean before even starting.
There are not as many options for sanitizing as there are for cleaning, but it is just as important for anything that touches liquid after it has been boiled. For brewers, anything after the boil should be sanitized before touching your wort or beer. For wine and other beverages that don’t boil, everything should be sanitized. As important as sanitation is, something cannot be sanitized unless it is clean. You cannot get in there behind any dirt to kill unwanted microorganisms. Clean first, then sanitize. Unfortunately, this is a two steps that cannot be avoided without risk.
There are a few options to sanitize for homebrewers. One is to use bleach. Bleach is cheap and readily available. The drawback is that bleach probably should be rinsed after using. You need to rinse with freshly boiled water or you risk reintroducing microorganisms back in. If you do not rinse, you might get a chlorine flavor in your finished beer. Some homebrewers use an iodine-based iodophor sanitizer, like IoStar. Iodophor sanitizers do not need to be rinsed if their concentration is low but they can stain plastic. IoStar and other iodophor cleansers do not necessarily need to be rinsed, but it is common to because of the color.
StarSan is a sanitizer made by the same company as IoStar, Five Star Chemicals. StarSan is an acitic sanitizer. StarSan is extremely popular with brewers because it requires a short contact time, as little as 30 seconds, it will not stain plastics, it is less hazardous to your skin than bleach, will not contribute off-flavors in your beverage if used at the recommended concentration, and it foams. Many people are afraid of the foam, but, as you may hear supporters of StarSan say; “Don’t fear the foam.” Anything the foam touches is sanitized like the liquid. Also, the foam is a low concentration that it does not need to be rinsed. I have hear of people accidentally racking wort into a fermenter with a gallon or so of StarSan still in it. The beer turned out fine, although I hope to never have to try it to make sure.
Sanitization can be done without chemicals. To do this, heat is needed. Some homebrewers use their oven to sanitize their already cleaned and dry equipment. The problem with this is that it takes time, oftern more than an hour, and after you are left with very hot equipment, some of which is not very stable at high temperatures (I’m looking at you glass bottles). Some dishwashers have a sanitize cycle that uses high heat and water, making steam, to sanitize.
Sterilization is not needed in home breweries. If objects are properly sanitized, the extremely small number of microorganisms will be outcompeted by the organisms we want; by the yeast and whatever. To sterilize, steam is the surest bet. Even with the high heat, dishwashers cannot be relied upon to sterilize. An autoclave or pressure cooker is really needed, and finding one large enough that is not super expensive is difficult.
Homebrewers, winemakers, mead and cider makers, and everyone else need to pay attention to cleaning and sanitizing. You cannot sanitize what is not clean. You need to clean first. Then you can sanitize anything that is contact with your liquid after bit has been boiled. What you use it up to you and what works best in your home brewery. We have a selection of safe chemical options here at Duluth Homebrew Supply. We can give you recommendations and answer any questions.