The Beginner Brewer: Basic Brewing Techniques Part I: Keeping things clean

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Basic Brewing Techniques Part I: Keeping things clean

I think that every hobby has a few key things that you should do to enjoy it, and a few you shouldn't. In the next couple of posts, I'd like to share key principles I've picked up over the years that will save you a lot of disappointment in your own homebrewing adventures.So pull up a chair, crack a cold one, and listen closely..

Clean Brewery = Good Beer

Yeast: Beneficial Beasties
The thing about beer and its ingredients is this: microbial life loves it. That's partly a good thing of course, because if beer was not a good growth medium, yeast, a most helpful micro-organism, would not be able to ferment it for the brewer.

Unfortunately, there are other micro-nasties that will definitely kill your beer and make it undrinkable.

{A lot of novice brewers (and their families) worry that homebrew can make you ill if it's "off". Don't worry: if your beer is infected, you will not drink enough of it to make you ill! It will be that bad.}

Bacteria: They want to kill your beer
So how do you prevent spoiling all that hard work? Mostly, it pays to be just a little paranoid when it comes to cleaning (removing visible dirt) and sanitizing (removing invisible nasties). First, let's look at cleaning:

  • Make sure that all your equipment is clean (i.e. free from dirt, build-up, and visible gunk). What can't fit into the dishwasher should be cleaned thoroughly with a good cleaning agent. Although dish-soap is somewhat acceptable, I strongly recommend using a non-scented dish-washing powder and hot water (wear rubber gloves though). Dish-washing powder contains mostly Sodium Metasilicate, a powerful cleansing agent that is suitable for brewing equipment.
  • As a side-note, I'd steer clear of more powerful cleansers like caustic soda for now. Unless you have tons of stainless steel vessels to clean (i.e. you own a microbrewery or a lot of kegs), you really don't have to use these. They are very dangerous, and for a small homebrewing operation, overkill.
  •  Rinse everything thoroughly with hot water. Residual alkaline cleansers can neutralise acidic agents used in sanitisation before they take effect (not good). Now, let's take a look at sanitisation.

Santize, Sanitize, Sanitize

Once you've cleaned your gear, you will need to sanitize everything that will come into contact with the wort after it has cooled down. 

When wort reaches 60 degrees Celcius, it can support microbial life, so contamination becomes a real risk. If your beer is going to become spoiled, it will probably happen during this period. Another risky period is later, during bottling, but the risk is significantly less because the beer now contains a good sanitizing agent of its own: alcohol!

Pictured: The correct attitude for homebrewing
Ultimately, it's all about attitude. If you don't want spoiled beer, it's best to cultivate a surgeon-like attitude to sanitisation. Just like surgeons assume that everything below the operating table is unsanitary, you should assume that everything that is going to touch your cooled wort and yeast is teeming with nasty microbes.

I've never heard of beer being spoiled by over-sanitising, but I know of many beers that have been poured down the drain due to careless sanitation. Here are a few pointers on how to stay bug-free:

  • Use a good sanitiser. The cheap option is diluted bleach, but I prefer a more purpose-built agent such as Sodium Metabisulphite, or Peracetic Acid (both available from homebrew shops).

  • One of the best things I've ever done is to switch to a no-rinse sanitiser like Peracetic Acid (Perisan). No-rinse means that you don't have to rinse off equipment that was sanitised with Perisan. This saves a heck of a lot of time, not to mention water. Dilute Perisan 1ml per 1 litre, and make it on the day of the brew. Perisan has a short viability once mixed, so it needs to be used within a few hours of preparing it. I usually make enough to fill the fermenter a third of the way, plus another couple of litres to sanitise everything else (about 6-8 litres). Please be cautious when handling undiluted Perisan though--it's nasty stuff.

  • Speaking of water: remember that anything boiled in water for about 10-15 minutes can be considered sanitised.

  • Buy a spray bottle and fill it with your sanitiser of choice: it's very useful to keep this handy, because you can instantly sanitise anything you are worried about or which may have become potentially contaminated (due to touching unsantized objects, like your dog).In fact, most pieces of kit can be fully sanitised by spraying them thoroughly with sanitiser, making soaking unnecessary.

Here's a checklist of all the bits and pieces that will definitely need to be sanitised on brew day:

  1. The brew kettle lid (you'll be covering your wort once the boil is complete)
  2. Anything used to stir or agitate the cooled wort (i.e. spoon or whisk)
  3. Anything that is going to touch your yeast, like containers used to hydrate dry yeast, scissors used to snip open packets, etc.
  4. Any additional water you will add to the wort after cooling (use bottled or boil before use)
  5. The fermenter, its lid, the rubber grommet used to seat the airlock, and the airlock itself
  6. The water that you'll put inside the airlock (good alternative: vodka)
  7. The immersion wort chiller (if used)
  8. Any funnels or strainers used when transferring the wort into the fermenter
  9.  A couple of plates and containers to store already sanitised gear in
  10.  Any sampling devices used to sample cooled wort such as measuring jugs
  11. Thermometers used to check wort temperature after cooling.

One final note: A lot of cleaning and sanitising agents are very dangerous chemicals that must be treated with respect. Use rubber gloves when handling them, and use them in well ventilated areas. When working with acids like Perisan in their undiluted forms, it's a good idea to wear eye and respiratory protection.

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