Dirt and microbes are the mortal enemies of every brewer. Even if you follow every step of the brewing process to the letter, if you do it in dirty equipment, the resulting beer will be riddled with off flavors.
The good news? When done properly, cleaning and sanitizing turns good beer into great beer.
When it comes time to clean, you're faced with many questions: which cleaner should you use and which should you not? How can you ensure your equipment is actually clean and can be sanitized? Here are a few tips to help answer all these questions and more.
Let’s talk about dirt first.
What is dirt?
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.
Dirt is sneaky. Your fermentor may appear to be perfectly clean, but be lined with unseen microbes and bacteria. Never "assume" cleanliness. It's a recipe for disaster.
How to Clean a Fermentor
Choosing Your Cleaner
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) is not environmentally friendly. A strong alkaline cleaner designed for brewing, like Powdered Brewery Wash (PBW), is the ticket.
How to Clean
To prevent biofilms and caked-on scum you will want to get 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 on plastic carboys or buckets as they may create scratches 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.
How to Clean Fermentation Equipment
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 sanitation 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 homebrewers replace those items every 6 months to avoid issues.
The Rule of Threes
Let's talk about a trend in infected homebrews that we call the Rule of Threes. The rule is simple: 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. Here's how it looks:
- The first batch tastes just fine.
- The second seems off somehow.
- The third batch is just awful.
A bad third batch means that 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 never hesitate to give your brew a try if you're worried that microbes might be lurking. You'll be just fine.
Now that you've mastered cleaning, let's move on to the second, no less important part of making beer: How to Sanitize.
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