October 23, 2018

How to Sanitize Homebrew Equipment

How to Sanitize Homebrew Equipment

In my last post about How to Clean Brewing Equipment I discussed the importance of cleaning your brewing equipment. To all the brewers that are now using alkaline cleaners instead of dish soap, you made my day; your brew will thank you.

That is - as long as you remember to sanitize everything. Sanitizing protects our beer from mold, bacteria, and wild yeast that could be in the air, on dust, and covering every surface. Cleaning is just the removal of biomass, the dirt that we as brewers are not very fond of. While my relationship with dirt is one of disdain and annoyance, my real hatred is reserved for the microbes all over my brewing equipment. They don’t care that we just scrubbed our hands raw! They can still ruin some delicious brew.

Sanitizing is a little simpler in practice than cleaning. Mix up the solution to the recommended concentration, coat the item in sanitizer, let it sit for the recommended contact time, then let it air dry depending on the instructions. Once the item is sanitized, you want to avoid it touching anything else that is not sanitized. If it touches something - including you - that is not sanitized, the item is no longer sanitary and you really should start over.

How should you use the sanitizer? One simple approach is to put the sanitizer in a bucket and soak small items. For carboys, just fill with a couple gallons of sanitizer and shake it around. For even larger items, I like to have a very clean rag on hand, and use that to spread the sanitizer. This approach works well for large fermenters, or any with large openings like buckets or Big Mouth Bubbler® fermenters. You can also put some in a spray bottle and spray any item to cover it; large or small.

We should talk safety. An effective sanitizer should be treated with respect as we are talking about chemicals that may be rated as hazardous in their concentrated form and come with appropriate warning labels. This label is a reassurance that you are using the product correctly and safely when following the recommendations. Once diluted, these solutions are food safe and as long as you do not top up your wort with Star San (true story) or let the dog drink it up, you should have little to worry about.

Keep any concentrated sanitizer in a safe place where you will not regret it if it spills, leaks, or a toddler comes by and sees some ‘juice’ on the counter. Use common sense and there is no danger. I hope that didn’t scare you guys. Relax, have a homebrew, and put the sanitizer somewhere safe.

Let’s go through the main types of sanitizers, their pros and cons, and how to use them effectively.

Oxygen-Based Sanitizers

Products: One Step and PBW

Contact Time: 2 minutes

Pros: Great for the new brewer because it is one step, no fuss, and hard to mess up when using it with brand new equipment. Dual purpose cleaner & sanitizer.

Cons: Must be used fresh, say, within about 30 minutes. Ineffective in a spray bottle, so soaking is the only way to go. Once your equipment has been used once and gotten dirty, you need to carefully clean and then sanitize again to be effective.

Iodine-Based Sanitizers

Products: IOStar, BTF Iodophor

Contact Time: 30 seconds

Pros: A little bit mixes up a big batch so it is pretty cost effective. It will last weeks to months in a sealed container, and a cheap iodine test strip can check that it is still effective.

Cons: It does stain like nothing else so watch out to not spill it on anything. You should check its concentration carefully to ensure your bucket does not turn brown. You must be careful to let the items air dry before use otherwise any leftover liquid can affect flavor.

Sodium Metabisulfite

For you winemakers, sodium metabisulfite is a good choice.

Contact Time: 1 minute

Pros:  It is easy to calculate the 1250 ppm needed to sanitize, about 3 tablespoons per gallon. And when stored in a covered container it can last 2-3 months. Cheap and your wine already has sulfite in it so any leftover has no effect whatsoever.

Cons: You cannot check if it’s effective easily without specialized equipment or expensive single use tests.

Acid-Based Sanitizers

Most brewers’ favorite big league hitter is Star San.

Contact Time: 30 seconds

Pros: Where to begin? It’s a phosphoric acid based sanitizer which is very effective on clean equipment. It does not stain easily when mixed, except for granite counters. It comes in a handy bottle with measurement lines for making a homebrew sized batch of sanitizer which, when stored in a covered container, lasts for months.

If you are uncertain whether your stored batch is still good:

1) Check the pH: Star San must be below a pH of 3 to be effective

2) Check its haziness - hazy Star San may be losing its effectiveness.

Star San has another feature which makes it far superior – it foams! Surfactants make this sanitizer foam when splashed around. Give it a quick shake, and your carboy is completely coated in the foam and can easily get 30 seconds contact time. A little foam left on an item does no harm to the beer or wine so “do not fear the foam”.

If you want a no-foam option, try Saniclean. Same sanitizer, no surfactants and foam, so many prefer it. Saniclean is designed for use with pumps so the bubbles do not cause cavitation in the pump and harm it over time – perfect for that keg washer.

Contact our brewmasters if you have additional questions, and happy sanitizing!