A Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine reader recently asked us the following question:
What is the difference between cleaning, sanitation, and sterilization of equipment?
I’ve seen a lot of brewers use them interchangeably.
There is actually a substantial difference between the terms and how they are applied in brewing. Obviously clean equipment is critical in beer making, more so than for wine or mead due to the low alcohol levels of the beer and high risk of infection.
Cleaning is the first line of defense. Cleaning means removing the dirt and debris from the equipment. If you don’t remove dirt and debris, they can be both a source of infection and a location for infection to fester and grow. Cleaning is typically done after you brew to remove dirt from your fermentors, pots, tubing, and other equipment; and we often clean equipment before brewing again to remove any debris or dust that has gathered in between brew sessions. Cleaning is done with products such as PBW, an alkaline detergent developed for cleaning brewing equipment.
Sanitation is a separate step taken right before brewing. It sanitizes the surface of the equipment to remove any bacteria. It is done after the equipment is already clean and free of dirt and debris. While it is not that important that you sanitize hot-side equipment such as a boil pot, it is critical for equipment that touches the wort or beer after it has been chilled. Any tools or equipment not sanitized can lead to infection.
You sanitize equipment using a sanitizing solution. Common sanitizers used in brewing include Star San, Saniclean, Iodophor, bleach, and IO Star. Bleach is less commonly used these days because it is hard to rinse and can lead to pitting of certain metals. I personally prefer “no-rinse” sanitizers such as Star San and Saniclean.
Interestingly, some brewers also use the term “sterilization,” which is actually inappropriate for brewing. Sterilization is done for medical equipment and some foods using processes that most often involve steam, heat, or very harsh chemicals. A good example is essential surgical equipment, which is often steamed or cleaned using heated gases. Brewing equipment does not need to be sterilized at the same level as surgical tools. Sanitizing your brewing equipment is sufficient.