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While most new homebrewers and distillers get excited about putting their equipment and recipes to the test right away, they also tend to overlook one of the most important parts of the brewing process: cleaning and sanitizing.
Please realize that we’re not here to play the role of your mom (or significant other) telling you to clean up your room. Feel free to pile your stuff wherever you want (though it sure helps to cut down on the clutter when you have a handy brew-in-the-bag system).
Rather, we’re here to talk about the critical importance that squeaky clean – like eating-off-your-floor sanitary clean – equipment plays in brewing delicious beer and distilled spirits.
There’s A Difference Between Cleaning And Sanitizing
Let’s remember that making beer involves sticky, sweet substances that interact with yeast to create bubbly alcohol. Guess who else enjoys those same kinds of meals – other yeasts and bacteria that you didn’t invite to your party. And just like rowdy party-crashers, these bacteria with names like Lactobacillus or Acetobacter will create all kinds of ruckus in your beer that runs from cloudiness and skunky flavors, to possibly generating enough pressure to blow a bottle apart.
What throws off most new brewers is that you probably won’t suffer any infections when you’re using new equipment. It’s the second, third, and beyond batches of beer that will suffer if you don’t take this job deadly seriously – meaning, you need to kill all those bad bugs if you want delicious beer.
That’s why it’s crucial to understand that cleaning isn’t the same as sanitizing or even sterilizing. John Palmer defines the difference between these terms in his excellent book How To Brew as follows:
If you want to be brewing under optimum conditions, you should be both cleaning and at least sanitizing your equipment – all of it, including: the fermenter, airlock, funnel, strainer, mash paddle, and hoses.
You should also be employing a two-step process whereby you are first using PBW – along with a little elbow grease – to knock off all the obvious leftover debris from the brewing process, followed by a round of sanitizer whereby any of the invisible survivors are wiped out (check out our other posts for some detailed cleaning/sanitizing techniques and products).
It Pays To Kill All The Bad Bugs
The error so many rookies made is that they satisfy themselves with simply sanitizing their equipment – that sets them up for a rude awakening down the road in the form of bad beer. Imagine the disappointment when, after all the hard work of brewing, fermenting, and bottling your beer, you pop off a cap and taste something sour enough to peel your lips off. That’s what would happen if you failed to kill off any lingering Lactobacillus creatures lurking in your equipment or bottles. The sourness is created by all the lactic acid these bugs are producing. Worse, you might even see “rope-like” things growing in your beer. Hmmm – not! That’s caused by an Pediococcus infection and it’s ruined your beer.
Another common infection brewers suffer from is a beer that tastes like vinegar. This is the result of an Acetobacter infection, which happens when the acids created by the bacteria interact with oxygen. If your beer tastes like something that should be locked in with a jar of pickles, it’s because you didn’t properly sanitize your equipment and you exposed your worst to the air during the transfer to your fermenter.
Yet another infection to be aware of involves a variety of yeast Brettanomyces, often called “Bretta” or “Brett” for short, which can convey clove-like or even smoky flavors called phenols to your beer. There are several beer varieties like Belgian brews and Hefeweizens that intentionally use certain yeasts that generate phenol flavors. But, too much of anything can be bad – which is what happens if you allow Brett, which is technically a wild yeast, into your party. If you do, those phenol flavors will be overpowering, maybe even “plasticky” or medicinal. In other words, your beer will be ruined.
Our wild friend Brett can also be responsible for other unpleasant surprises like making it look like someone smoked a cigarette inside your beer by turning it murky or by turning your bottle of homebrew, when opened, into a gusher of sudsy foam more appropriate to a New Years Eve celebration. Brett happens to be a voracious eater, and like the worst guest at your party who chows down on all the food, so, too, does Brett. He’ll eat everything your invited yeasts left behind – and then eat their dead bodies as well! What happens next is that all this pressure builds up in your bottles from Brett’s handiwork – and Boom! – there goes your beer all over everywhere.
The point is not invite Brett to your brewing party, ever. Which means you have to spend as much time on cleaning and sanitizing your bottles as you do your brewing equipment.
Not All Bugs Are The Enemy
It’s worth noting that the some of the same bugs we’ve been advocating that you need to destroy can also create delicious beers, especially sour or “funky” beers like saisons that derive their distinct flavors from bugs like Brett and others. When you make these kinds of recipes, you’re actually trying to cultivate millions of these bugs to come work for you and your beer.
If you want to experiment making these kinds of beers, therefore, it probably pays to have a separate set of equipment to work with since no matter how fastidious you might be in your cleaning and sanitizing techniques, you might not be able to get all the bugs out of the system, so to speak.