Monday, September 19, 2011

Sanitizing: A lot bigger deal than the Babylonians made it out to be

As my wife can attest, I hate washing dishes, or in general just cleaning up after myself.
What I love about brewing is creating an awesome recipe and taking a bag of grain and turning it into some great beer.What I hate is washing my shit.
In concordance with this, it took me a long, long time to really grasp how important sanitation was. I figured, "Hey, the Sumerians brewed beer 5,000 years before anyone knew anything about proper sanitation. How important can it be, really?"
The truth is there is nothing as important as proper cleaning and sanitation. It is a point which is  belabored in all the brewing literature but bears repeating. However, sometimes stuff just needs to be clean and sometimes you can blow all the sanitizing you have done with a simple screw up.
Brew days all start the same. The first thing I do is haul all of my brewing stuff out of the shed and wash it.
Something that should never leave your mind is the fact that beer is a food. Would you make a sandwich on a dirty plate that had been sitting in your sink for a week? No, that's gross. Would you leave your lunch in a car until 1 p.m. during August and then still eat it? No, it would spoil. You are asking even more from your beer. If property cared for the beer can last months or even years. That is pretty good for a food item, a lot better than the spaghetti in the back of the fridge.
All your brewing stuff needs to be clean enough to eat off of. You wouldn't leave a plate in the garage for a few months and then eat off it without washing it first. Don't do the same thing with your brew pot. You can use regular dishwashing soap, just try for the stuff without a strong smell and make sure it is rinsed off well.
Sort your equipment into two piles, the stuff touching your beer before the boil and after the boil. All the stuff that is pre-boil is clean enough, the stuff post-boil needs to be sanitized.
Now, before you start panicking and pricing an autoclave just relax, sanitizing is not as hard as it sounds. A solution of bleach water will work fine for most things, but is a little hard on some metals like stainless steel. By far the easiest way to sanitize is with StarSan, a base solution which will kill pretty much any bacteria. It is environmentally safe and will not impart any off flavors to your beer.

What you want to do is just put 2.5 gallons of water in a 5 gallon bucket with water and add 1/2 oz of StarSan. Everything that touches the cooled wort needs to be in StarSan 30 seconds to a minute. If something is wet with StarSan it is protected and you don't have to worry about the bubbles or anything. Because beer is a little acidic and StarSan is a base so it becomes inert and won't add any off flavors so dont rinse it. You don't want to add tap water back into the beer even in small amounts because it has bacteria in it. The DEQ monitors what they consider an acceptable amount of fecal mater in water. I would consider none an acceptable amount but your body has enough antibodies to fight a small amount of bacteria. However, your beer does not and until the yeast really gets going it is pretty susceptible.

What is great about StarSan is it will last a little while in a covered bucket. Once it starts to get kind of cloudy and funky colored, toss it and make a new batch. This is so much easier than screwing around with the bleach water or an iodine mixture. I just have the bucket sitting there and everything just gets dipped and it is ready to go. I even dip my hands before I touch anything.

This took me a long time before it really sunk in. I got lucky the first couple of batches I brewed and had some good beers without a lot of effort towards sanitation. I figured, they brewed in ancient Babylon without any sanitation, why should I care. You can have that attitude and you will get about the same results I was getting. I brewed about 10 batches a year and 2 would be awesome, 5 would be ok, and 3 would suck. If you are serious about sanitizing you may still get the occasional off beer but it will set them on a higher bar.

After a long day of brewing, probably with some drinking tossed in, the last thing you want to do is clean your stuff. However, the hop sludge on the edge of your brewpot is a hell of a lot easier to remove when it is wet. If you leave wort in your transfer hoses it will stain them and build up gunk. The wort also gets all sticky and kind of congeals, attracts wasps and ants and is generally gross. Life is just so much easier when you just clean everything up and put it away.

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