The most important (and common) advice that new brewers get is that sanitation is paramount. This makes perfect sense because many of the common off flavors stem from contamination from wild yeast or bacteria. Most of us take this message to heart and dutifully sanitize the obvious stuff such as the fermentor and hoses (everything on the cold side of the brewing process should be sanitized). Much of the time, that works well enough, but sometimes, something goes awry and a batch develops a clearly unintentional funk. An off beer may convince you that you should be more diligent, which is a good idea, but there are three key areas that will lead to cleaner, tastier beer.
Sanitation vs. Cleaning
Sanitation and cleaning are easily confused, but both are important to nurturing your yeast. You want to make sure that every surface that touches your beer, from the boil kettle to the glass, is free of microbial wildlife. Without cleaning everything first, though, you’re missing the point. Dried gunk stuck to your carboy provides an irregular surface that the sanitizer can’t easily reach. Beasties can lurk in crevasses and wait things out. Later, while your beer is fermenting, they can reproduce and come into contact.
You need to remove dirt and other deposits from your equipment so the bacteria have nowhere to hide and your sanitizer can do its job. That’s why you should follow a two-step process of cleaning your equipment first, then sanitizing. Cleansers, such as Powdered Brewery Wash (PBW) or OxiClean Free, will strip away dirt, dried beer and wort, and other residue. After a quick rinse, you can bring on a sanitizer such as Star-San or Iodophor to finish the job.
The Basic Foundation
You already know the baseline fundamentals—everything that touches your wort or beer needs to be sanitized. It’s a pretty big list: the fermentor, the airlock and stopper, hoses, bottles, and so on. That’s why it’s good to walk through the whole process at the start of your brew day to identify everything you need to handle, from your yeast starter to the tap on your keg. You can do this as a thought exercise and make a list, or just pay extra attention to sanitizing each piece as you brew. Unexpected items may jump out, such as the scissors you use to open the yeast pouch and the outside of the pouch itself.
Work surfaces are also important if you set things down and then use them again later. Spoons, racking canes, and stoppers can all pick up bacteria from the counter surface if you’re not careful, so give them a quick dip in a sanitizer solution each time you’re about to use them. Also, don’t forget that your hands touch everything, so it’s best to minimize the risk. For instance, hold your hoses so that your fingerprints won’t come into contact with your beer. You can also use a short-contact sanitizer such as Star-San on your hands when necessary.
Less Obvious Vectors
Even after you find all of the gaps in your process, there are a few other vectors for infection that you need to consider. In particular, you should think about the water you use and the air around you, because your home is not a sterile laboratory. This level of concern may seem obsessive, but if you have a contaminated batch, it’s worth taking the time to wipe down the surfaces of your brewing area with a bleach solution and making sure that you’re using clean water for rinsing and topping up your fermentors. There can also be issues if you brew in the same room where you grind your grain. Grain dust and moisture are a recipe for fostering infections.
Finally, some items have a limited useful life in your brewery. Plastic items in particular should be replaced periodically. Fermentor buckets and bottling spigots can get scratched, while harder plastic items such as racking canes and airlocks can develop very fine surface cracks and crazing. Much like grungy surfaces, cracks and scratches are difficult for sanitizer to penetrate, and bacteria can hide out. You can mitigate this risk somewhat by using soft brushes and scrubbies to avoid scratching the plastic. Even so, keep an eye out for signs of wear and replace equipment before it becomes a problem. If you see persistent stains or obvious scratches on a plastic fermentor, or if clear plastic items or vinyl tubing begin to look hazy, it’s time for new gear.
While you can develop a paranoid mindset with respect to sanitation, don’t let it turn your hobby into a chore. Keep it fun, but the extra attention up front will make your beer taste better later.
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