Keeping It Clean

Dirt and microbes are the mortal enemy of every brewer – but proper cleaning and sanitizing can take your beer from good to great!  Here are some tips on how best to remove ‘dirt’ from brewing equipment.  What cleaner should you use and which should you not?  How can you ensure your equipment is actually clean and can be sanitized? Let’s first talk about how to clean fermentors and fermenting equipment.  

Dirt is a general term used to describe organic and inorganic build up. For beer and wine, the most common sources for ‘dirt’ are protein and mineral build up.  They come from the grain, fruit, hops and water, and will adhere to plastic easily resulting in scale, scum and biofilms when bacteria start to grow.  Your fermentor may appear to be perfectly clean, but this is deceiving and could be a recipe for disaster.  

First, make sure to use a powerful cleaner designed specifically for brewing and winemaking.  Skip the dish soap! It is a fragrance-filled degreaser, so it does us no good against protein and mineral scale. Additionally, the fragrances will leave a film of oil which will ruin head retention and affect flavor.  Bleach is corrosive and must be rinsed carefully, and Trisodium Phosphate (TSP), a PBW alternative, is not environmentally friendly. A strong alkaline cleaner designed for brewing, like Powdered Brewery Wash (PBW) is the ticket. Oxygen Wash and One Step are good alternatives.  These brewery-specific cleaners are safe for all materials we use in brewing.

To prevent biofilms and caked-on scum you will want to get to cleaning as soon as possible. So dump and rinse, then fill your fermentor most of the way with warm water and the correct dosage per gallon of the cleaner.  Scrub well with a soft cloth or sponge and let soak for at least 20 minutes or even overnight.  Abrasive pads or brushes should not be used as they may create scratches in plastic that will harbor bacteria. Scrubbing is essential for most approaches so we can physically remove that dirt.  Scrub as much as you think you need to and then scrub that much again. Biofilms and deposits can be invisible to the naked eye.

For fermentation equipment that is more difficult to clean, such as spigots, racking canes, siphons, and even tubing, the only real option is to rinse and soak. Fully disassemble and scrub what you can. Soaking must be done using a strong cleaner and immediately after use, or else you invite deposits that cannot be cleaned. Improper cleaning prevents proper sanitization, and could lead to awful, infected beer.

Anything plastic needs to be replaced eventually, while steel and silicone do not. If you experience an infection, consider anything plastic to be suspect – it could need a very thorough cleaning. The safer thing would be to replace your siphon and tubing. Most homebrew authors have recommended replacing those items every 6 months to avoid issues.  

I’d like to bring up a trend in infected homebrews I call the rule of threes. This means that it could take as many as three batches to reveal microbe growth and off-flavors. If microbes are being introduced somewhere, the negative effects may not be obvious right away.  The first batch should be just fine.  The second may seem off somehow.  The third batch could be just awful once the microbes have taken root on an item and have been able to grow a population that can seriously impact flavor.  Nothing in a beer can hurt you, so don’t hesitate to give it a taste – or have a ‘guinea pig’ friend try it.  

Clean and sanitary equipment is essential to great beer.  Keep it clean, make great beer & stay tuned for part 2: Sanitizing!

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