The (Clean) Fight Club

In the ring of brewing anarchy, be in the know, armed with the knowledge of which cleaners work and why they work—because in this fight, ignorance is the first-round knockout.

The (Clean) Fight Club Primary Image

Boil overs. Hop explosions. Leaky barrels. Yeast “poops.” Brewing, my friends, ain’t for the squeaky clean—it’s a gritty affair. We're not talking about playing house with some everyday cleaning supplies. No, sir. This is Fight Club for brewers, where every “janitor” is armed with a squeegee and hose to remove brewing grime. This is taking down microbial institutions, and if you don’t use the right chemicals, well, let’s just say there’s a laundry list of calamities waiting to unfold.

Microbial Contamination: Inadequate cleaning can lead to the growth of unwanted microorganisms such as bacteria, wild yeast, or mold, which can spoil beer flavors or cause off-flavors.
Cross-Contamination: Insufficiently clean equipment and surfaces can result in cross-contamination among different beer batches or among different areas of the brewery, leading to inconsistent beer quality.
Off-Flavors: Residual cleaning agents or sanitizers on equipment can impart undesirable off-flavors to the beer.
Infection of Wooden Barrels: If barrels are not thoroughly cleaned and sanitized, they can harbor microbes that may infect subsequent batches of beer, leading to unpredictable flavors.
Poor Fermentation: Contaminants in fermentation vessels or inadequate cleaning of yeast-harvesting equipment can lead to poor fermentation, affecting the flavor, aroma, and alcohol content of the beer.
Equipment Corrosion: Improper cleaning and maintenance may lead to the buildup of mineral deposits or chemicals on brewery equipment, causing corrosion over time.
Inconsistent Carbonation: Residual debris in kegs or beer lines can lead to inconsistent carbonation levels, resulting in variations in mouthfeel and effervescence.
Quality-Control Issues: Inadequate cleaning can compromise the accuracy of quality-control tests and measurements, leading to unreliable data and potential product defects.
Health and Safety Concerns: Poor cleaning habits can create an environment conducive to the growth of harmful bacteria or mold, posing health risks for brewery staff and consumers.
Waste of Resources: Inefficient cleaning practices can lead to higher water and chemical usage, increasing operational costs, and environmental impact.
Extended Downtime: Incomplete or ineffective cleaning processes may require more frequent and extended downtime for equipment maintenance and sanitation, impacting overall production efficiency.
Regulatory Compliance Issues: Inconsistent or inadequate cleaning practices can lead to noncompliance with health and safety regulations, resulting in legal and regulatory issues for the brewery.

It's a bare-knuckle brawl with chaos if you don’t use the right cleaning chemical. Nobody gets a free pass here. Everybody, from the puny to the powerhouse, has danced with these troubles. You don't just slip your way through one; you slug it out with several.

In this ring of brewing anarchy, the key to survival isn’t wishful thinking. It’s knowing your cleaner like the back of your bruised hand. We’re not talking about crossing your fingers and hoping for the best. We’re talking about being in the know, armed with the knowledge of what works and why it works—because in this fight, ignorance is the first-round knockout.

Fighting Dirty

Modern detergents have evolved significantly from their early forms. Simple soaps rendered from fat may have done the trick in the abbey back in the 1600s, but modern solvents are rendering all kinds of enemies, old and new, irrelevant in big-league brewing today. The mid-20th century moved beyond the conventional bar of soap and saw the development of synthetic detergents with improved cleaning properties. These detergents offered better solubility, emulsification, and overall cleaning efficiency than the old soap-opera stars.

As technology progressed, enzyme-based detergents became prevalent, making stains seem like a figment of the imagination. Enzymes can break down complex organic materials, making them highly effective in removing proteinaceous residues common in brewing.

In the context of breweries, the evolution of detergents has played a crucial role in maintaining sanitation standards. Modern brewery cleaning involves using specialized detergents designed to eliminate beer spoilers, biofilms, and other contaminants.

Alkaline and acidic detergents are tailored for specific brewery equipment and surfaces. Moreover, the development of no-rinse sanitizers has streamlined the cleaning process, ensuring that residues from detergents do not impact beer flavor.

Alkalines Tagging In

These bad boys in the brewing brawl understand that carbon molecules are unruly troublemakers, leaving their mark like a graffiti tag on a brick wall. Alkaline agents revel in the filth left behind—proteins, fats, and their buddies. Armed with a sky-high pH that can square up to the most acidic troublemakers, the heavy hitters we encounter in the ring are:

Sodium carbonate: Reacting with fatty acids, sodium carbonate can break down fats into soap and glycerol in a process called saponification. Sodium carbonate acts as a surfactant, reducing the surface tension of water to allow greasy substances to be broken off into smaller droplets by a detergent, yet it is versatile on several surfaces in a brewery such as stainless and glass. It also has less of an environmental impact, making it ideal for eco-conscious cleaning practices.
Sodium metasilicate: This agent takes what sodium carbonate can do and amps it up with some dissolving of minerals.
Sodium lauryl sulfate: Helping water penetrate and wet surfaces more effectively as well as disrupting bonds that hold soil together, this compound is excellent for solubilizing substances, removing stains, and addressing microbial issues. Sodium lauryl sulfate is used in combination with other cleaning agents to boost effectiveness.
Sodium hydroxide: Hard-core hydroxide dissolves proteins and other organic matter. It can act as a catalyst in some reactions, enhancing the breakdown of contaminants on a variety of surfaces including metals, ceramics, and some plastics. However, it can be corrosive to some sensitive materials.
Potassium hydroxide: Strongly alkaline at a pH above 13, this cleaner is important in saponification, breaking down organic matter, dissolving assorted mineral residues (through hydrolysis), and sanitizing, but it is corrosive to some metals.

Acidic Avengers

Acidic cleaners are street fighters that address mineral deposits, scale, and beerstone head on. These are especially important for anything that participates in temperature control because this buildup impedes heat transfer. These cleaners are all about stripping away the grime so the real action can unfold.

Nitric acid: This strong acid dissolves metal oxides like rust and then induces passivation of metals like stainless steel. It is selective in which metals it interacts with to remove tarnish, stains, and other discolorations cause by oxidation.
Phosphoric acid: Also effective at removing rust although considered a weak acid, phosphoric acid also acts as a chelant, forming stable complexes with metal ions that prevent them from redepositing. It is also milder than nitric acid, making it ideal for more sensitive surfaces.

Chlorine’s Atomic Beatdown

Chlorinated cleaners contain chlorine compounds that are effective at eliminating bacteria and molds, making them a great sanitizing agent to throw down on a chemical level. Chlorine, the atom of highlight here, is released upon interaction with water to clean house.

Sodium dichloroisocyanurate dihydrate (NaDCC): Highly water soluble, this agent is quick and easy to use for addressing bacteria, viruses, and fungi in a variety of settings including water treatment, food service, and healthcare.
Trichloroisocyanuric acid (TCCA): This acid is excellent for slow-release applications. Because it is less soluble in water, it is commonly seen in water treatments. Biofilms and algae can both be addressed well with this acid.

Enzymatically Breaking Bad

Enzymatic cleaners contain, no surprise here, enzymes that are biochemical brawlers breaking down organic residues. These you use on more stubborn deposits; they have the added benefit of being eco-friendly fighters in their smackdown without leaving behind chemical residues.

Protease: These enzymes break down proteins into smaller bits such as the building blocks, amino acids.
Amylase: These enzymes should be familiar because of their role in the brewing process. They break down complex carbohydrates such as starches into simpler sugars.
Lipase: Ever brew a beer with nuts or meat? These are the enzymes that are necessary to break down fats into fatty acids and glycerol.
Cellulase: Cellulose is a common polysaccharide that is found in plant cell walls. It may accumulate as a result of using adjunct grains. Using this enzyme helps break down cellulose.
Pectinase: Another polysaccharide that is found in plant cell walls, pectins are especially present in places where fruit and plant materials are processed. Using this enzyme helps break them down.
Multiple enzymes: Some cleaners may use multiple enzymes, so they are applicable in a broad range of functions.

Surfactants in Their Sudsy Rebellion

Surfactant cleaners, better known as detergents, emulsify oils and lift away dirt. In this showdown, they reduce the surface tension of liquids and enhance wetting, spreading, and emulsifying properties. Some compounds that have surfactant qualities that we’ve already mentioned include sodium lauryl sulfate and some enzymes.

Benzene sulfonic acid: The sulfonic acid is polar while the benzene ring is nonpolar, allowing this acid to interact with multiple different molecules, making it an effective surfactant. However, it can leave residues, is quite toxic, and can be corrosive.
Ethoxylated alcohol: This carbon-rich alcohol is great at emulsifying residues and can penetrate oils and greases, loosening them from the surface.

Oxidizing Agents of Chaos

Oxidizing cleaners are oxygen-based compounds that can be brutal to stains, organic matter, and microbes. They readily throw punches with oxygen or other oxidizing agents that facilitate the breakdown of undesirable compounds, making them effective in sanitizing, tearing apart organic residues, removing scale and similar deposits, and passivating equipment. One agent we’ve mentioned already, nitric acid, is used more for cleaning than sanitizing and requires proper handling and rinsing.

Peracetic acid: A potent oxidizing and sanitizing agent, this acid works quickly and leaves low residue, so it is ideal for no-rinse applications.
Hydrogen peroxide: Proper dilution and rinsing are necessary with this oxidizing agent that is effective against a broad spectrum of contaminants.
Chlorine dioxide: Powerful at oxidizing and disinfecting, this is another one that requires proper dosage awareness and thorough rinsing.
Sodium hypochlorite: Better known as bleach, this agent is effective in the brewery, but its application is limited because of potential off-flavors and residues.

Caustic Bruisers

“Caustic” is not just used to describe someone’s wit! Caustics are also highly alkaline and commonly used for cleaning stainless-steel equipment. They are used for clean in place (CIP) procedures and far more because they break down organic residues.

Previously discussed chemicals that are heavy hitters are sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide.

Sanitization Destruction

Sanitizers can require rinsing or not, but they help sanitize surfaces, providing an extra layer of protection against contamination without compromise. Some we’ve already mentioned include sodium hypochlorite, hydrogen peroxide, chlorine dioxide, as well as our friends NaDCC and TCCA.

Iodine compounds: Often in the form of iodophors, these release iodine, a well-known sanitizer. They are versatile, easy to use, and have a low impact on beer flavor so they are common no-rinse sanitizers. They are convenient and efficient.
Quaternary ammonia compounds: “Quats” are effective against a range of microorganisms and are known for their residual sanitizing properties. They have longer-lasting effects and are therefore great for prolonged sanitation, but as a result, they do require rinsing.
Sulfur dioxide: Released from other compounds such as potassium metabisulfite upon interaction with water, this is a great sanitizer, antioxidant, and antimicrobial. However, it can impact flavor and aroma, so proper rinsing is necessary to remove residue.
Sodium chlorite: This is often used with an acid activator such as chlorine dioxide to be versatile and sanitize a variety of surfaces, but it also requires rinsing to avoid adverse effects on products.

It’s Sport Defoaming

Defoaming agents, also known as antifoaming or foam control, are essential to rein in that foaming fury during various stages of brewing. These are used to strike a balance because foam can be a friend or a foe in the brewing ring. Defoamers are applicable during boiling and fermentation because they reduce the surface tension and emulsify the bubbles, causing them to collapse. You need to carefully consider dosage in relation to the point in the process at which you’re using the agent. Excessive amounts can impact product quality.

Don’t Lye

Many cleaners can be corrosive to brewing equipment if they are improperly used, mixed, or diluted. Sodium metasilicate is a common anticorrosive that is used to passivate stainless steel. It is alkaline and can help maintain a basic environment, which is preferable for passivation, encouraging the formation of a stable and protective chromium oxide layer on the stainless-steel surface. It can also react and sequester cations such as iron because no one wants to be literally rusty when brewing.

Near-Life Experience

There is always a story floating around, whether through a friend or on social media, about a boil over, wrong chemicals being used, or existential doubt about stainless steel because of rust. Knowing how to handle these chemicals when it comes to equipment is important, but no one wants a chemical burn, either. The best janitors are equipped with nitrile or latex gloves, not the boxing kind. Eye protection (goggles or safety glasses) is important because tears only do so much for ocular safety. Depending on the size of the cleaning regimen, having body protection may be necessary.

Finding Your Power Cleaner

If guided meditation to find your power cleaner isn’t ideal, we hope this article has thrown you into the underground fight to figure out the best attack for cleaning the facility. Consider the nature of the contaminants, the type of brewing equipment, and the desired cleaning outcome (and the brewery definition of “clean”). Alkaline cleaners are excellent for organic residues; acidic ones are better for mineral deposits. Choosing what to use, and in what order, will successfully eliminate contaminants without leaving detrimental residues that could compromise beer quality.

Another day of cleaning can bite the dust with the right choices! To learn more, visit Five Star Chemicals.

The Rules of (Clean) Fight Club

  1. No secrets about cleaners. It’s important to know what you are using and how effective it is.
  2. One cleaning solution at a time. It may seem efficient to mix some chemicals together, but always follow manufacturer instructions to avoid explosive or deadly situations.
  3. Know your enemy. What is being cleaned, and what is the most effective way to clean it? Strategy is key.
  4. Respect the equipment. Using the appropriate chemicals on the right surfaces can make all the right or wrong differences.
  5. Fight dirty, clean fair. Training matters because it is all about fighting issues that impact the product, not coworkers.
  6. Alchemy, not magic. It is a scientific process to clean, so keep theories and anecdotes out of the SOPs.
  7. No harm to the brew. Cleaners should eliminate contaminants but not have a negative impact on the product.
  8. Glove and shield up! Personal protective equipment is non-negotiable when dealing with any chemicals.
  9. No rinse, no glory. It is great that there are no-rinse options, but others can leave residues and should be properly addressed before moving forward with the brewing process.
  10. Talk about (Clean) Fight Club! Knowledge is key and everyone shares similar struggles. Help them out so they can fight dirty!

Frances Tietje-Wang is founder and lead scientist at Fermly, a QA/QC platform for craft breweries.