Friday, October 3, 2014

Sanitation is godliness

Beer is a living thing. If it's not quite a living thing, it is made by living things. I am not talking about human beings either. Our beloved potent potable made from fermented grain would not exist were it not for fragile, single cell organisms called yeast. After the yeast is pitched into the beer they go into a frenzy of constant eating and procreation. Is that living the dream or what?

As the yeast digest the fermentable sugars and produce alcohol and CO2, it needs to be protected from other organisms that want to do the same thing. Sanitation is how we as brewers protect our friends, the yeast, from other organisms that threaten to crash the party that is fermentation.

Now you may have read the title and thought this was another example of me butchering the language or at least butchering a common expression. Well, you can make like a tree and get out of here! Cleanliness and sanitation are similar, but entirely different things. Both are essential to making good beer.

In How to Brew, John Palmer defines clean, sanitize, and sterilize as follows:

  • Clean - To be free from dirt, stain, or foreign matter.

  • Sanitize - To kill/reduce spoiling microorganisms to negligible levels.

  • Sterilize - To eliminate all forms of life, especially microorganisms, either by chemical or physical means.
There is nothing in brewing that requires sterilization. We are making beer, not conducting medical procedures, sanitization is all we are going for. Cleanliness is the first step. If your equipment is not clean, it is impossible for it to be sanitized. When cleaning be sure to use a fragrance-free cleaner or detergent that is not abrasive otherwise you risk scratching plastic equipment. I usually use dish soap or OxiClean to clean my equipment. After cleaning be sure to rinse thoroughly to remove any residue. 

My starter kit came with a copy of The Complete Joy of Homebrewing (second edition), and in it author Charlie Papazian suggested using a water and bleach solution to sanitize equipment. I used the bleach solution for a long time because it was cheap and easy. A bottle of bleach is a $1, you can buy it anywhere, and a large bottle would last forever. The downsides of using a bleach solution is that the surface needs 15 minutes of contact to sanitize, everything has to be rinsed, and bleach can cause pitting in stainless steel.

When I was using bleach I didn't mind any of the drawbacks. I would still be using bleach if my brewpartner/cousin Andy hadn't given me an extra bottle of Star San. Star San is an acid-based sanitizer that needs only seconds of contact to do the job. It also does not require any rinsing. That has shortened my bottling days tremendously. All I have to do is dunk the bottles in the Star San solution and they are ready to go. You can also keep the solution in a spray bottle and spray it on anything you need to sanitize; buckets, lids, airlocks, you name it. Andy walks around on brewday with his spray bottle at his side like a cowboy with a revolver his holster.

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Always within arm's reach. I wouldn't be shocked if Andy slept with it under his pillow.

Iodophor is similar to Star San except for the fact that it is iodine-based as opposed to acid based. I have never used Iodophor, but from doing a bit or research the pros to Iodophor are that it does not lose its effectiveness as its PH levels drop like Star San does as it loses its acidity. Iodophor is not nearly as foamy as StarSan. The foam usually isn't a problem, it does not hurt the beer in anyway. if anything it helps the solution get into every nook and cranny, but when sanitizing a glass carboy having it a quarter of the way full of foam after dumping out the solution can be annoying. Iodophor is also less expensive. The cons are that since it is iodine based it smells like iodine. It also stains plastic which requires further cleaning.

Whatever chemicals you use boil down to personal preference. The critical thing is that anyting that touches your wort or beer after the boil is completely be sanitary. I easily could have made sanitization my first post, that is how important it is. Considering what a hopeless slob I am, it is ironic I found a hobby where cleaning and sanitation are so imperative.


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