First, lets start with what sanitisation is, and why it’s important in home brewing.
Sanitisation vs Sterilisation (vs Cleaning)
Physical cleanliness, where all visible dirt has been removed
Sanitisation is the process of reducing the chances of contamination of your beer by unwanted micro organisms. Cleaning is what you do first, maybe with soap and water and some elbow grease. Any remnants of dirt, dust, grime, trub, krauzen, etc is removed so that your equipment is clean to the naked eye. This is a very important step because sanitisation will be much less effective if you have dirty equipment.
But clean is not good enough for home brewing, because those potential contamination agents, such as bacteria, are far too small to be seen, which is where sanitisation comes in.
Sanitation, where, in addition to being clean, the equipment has been treated in such a manner as to remove most of the micro-organisms present on its surface.
Most. That’s important to remember for later. When you sanitise your equipment you reduce the chances of contamination to the absolute minimum possible for you, but it is not possible to be 100% effective 100% of the time.
All of the options above are effective, and I’m not going to say they’re not. But they are definitely all more expensive than my recommended alternative: bleach. They also may or may not require rinsing of the equipment after sanitisation and before use, which is a bit of a pain, because you either have to use boiled water to do so, or risk contaminating your equipment.
Sterilisation, where, in addition to being sanitised, the equipment has been treated in such a manner as to destroy all micro-organisms present on the equipment.
Quite frankly, for most home brewers, sterilisation is beyond the realms of acheivability. But it isn’t necessary anyway, if you clean and sanitise properly.
If you fail to sanitise your home brewing equipment properly, then you are much more likely to produce a beer that is rather disappointing and tastes like $#1+. It’s fairly well documented that there is nothing that can grow or develop in beer that can actually kill you, but there certainly are things that can make you sick, and not just a little bit, but for the most part, you’re just going to end up with bad beer. I firmly believe that this is the main reason new home brewers make one attempt, find the beer disappointing, and then cry off home brew forever, or why some people turn their nose up when you say you are a home brewer because their mate made a batch that was disgusting and they think all homebrew tastes like that.
Essentially you are going to clean all of your equipment with a soft cloth, water, and maybe some unscented soap or cleaning agent. It’s important to do this well, but be careful not to scratch surfaces (especially, for example, the inside of a plastic fermenter) because those little scratches can harbour all manner of bacteria and will be harder to clean and sanitise next time.
Then you will sanitise your equipment with your chosen product according to their instructions. Usually mixing the product with water, allowing specific minimum contact times, and then, often rinsing with water to remove the chemicals used to avoid them creating off flavours in your beer or just to avoid ingesting them.
Why bleach is the best no rinse sanitiser (in my opinion, anyway):
Firstly, a massive thanks has to go to James Spencer of Basic Brewing Radio for the inspiration for trying bleach as a no-rinse sanitiser. Basic Brewing has audio and video podcasts on iTunes and other podcast directories. I learned the joys of using bleach as a no-rinse sanitiser in the March 29, 2007 – Sanitizing with Bleach and Star San episode.
Bleach has a bad rap amongst home brewers, and maybe that’s because they’ve either had a bad experience, heard of someone having a bad experience, or just don’t want to try because they’d rather trust a named product.
WARNING: BE CAREFUL
Spoiler Alert. I’m going to be writing about mixing bleach water and vinegar. Do not mix bleach and vinegar directly. Put the bleach into the water, stir, then add the vinegar to the mixture. Further details are below.
On the podcast James Spencer interviews Charlie Talley who started in the chemical business in the late sixties. He runs Star San which started in 1971 but only as a brewing thing in 1991/2. Charlie himself started his career as a chemist manufacturing bleach.
Charlie Talley says that chlorine is the “granddaddy of them” all as far as sanitisers are concerned- chlorine bleach is the benchmark against which all other sanitisers are measured, but it really only works when the pH is around 8 (and you achieve this by adding vinegar), but too much vinegar makes gas (or mixing vinegar with bleach directly) and in the most extreme worst-case-scenario that could knock you out.
Good bleach should have a clear yellowish-green colour. If your bleach is cloudy, then it has gone, or is going bad. You want it to smell slightly of chlorine, if it doesn’t it’s gone bad, too.
A major advantage of bleach is that it is easy to get- it is readily available in supermarkets, and the cheaper the better for home brewing purposes- you want thin bleach- not thick toilet bleach with scents. It’s also an idea to buy the smallest bottle available too so it doesn’t go bad. You don’t need much anyway. For me this is perfect because I don’t have a local homebrew store.
The numbers Charlie Talley gives in the podcast are:
Standard bleach is 50000 parts per million of the active ingredient.
1 oz of bleach in 5 gallons of water = 80 parts per million of chlorine
80 ppm is all you need provided you match it with vinegar (equal measures). This should be white vinegar preferably.
So the ratio is 5 gallons water: 1oz bleach: 1oz vinegar. Never mix bleach and vinegar together before adding to the water because you will produce chlorine gas. This is why people are afraid to use bleach- people get scared, but if you mix the bleach into the water, and then add the vinegar, this is perfectly safe. Personally I think this is simpler than the brewing process itself.
If you clean properly and sanitise properly it will all be good.
And here’s the best bit:
Rinsing is not required at that level! If you rinse you have to make sure your water is sterile. Tap water has micro organisms in it. So to avoid contaminating your sanitised equipment no rinse is best. At this concentration, after sanitising and then draining you cannot smell or taste bleach.
And as for soaking it for a long time to sanitise- no way! The necessary contact time is 30 seconds if the pH is right.
You don’t need longer than that, which makes brewday or bottling day much quicker.
So clean and sanitise just before you start brewing, clean after brewing. Sanitise again before brewing the next time.
My method maintains the ratio but I use less of everything. So for 1 gallon of water I use 1 teaspoon of bleach and 1 teaspoon of distilled vinegar. I’ll use this to sanitise everything by wiping it with a cloth- fermentation vessels, lids, bottles for bottling, pressure barrels, hydrometers- it all gets cleaned and sanitised with bleach and then set to drain for a moment before use.
I’m not the most experienced brewer in the world, but I have brewed over 25 batches of beer, with at least 22 of them using this sanitisation method, and I have not experienced any infections or off flavours. And I do not rinse- I just clean, sanitise, drain and use.
It is the perfect solution for me. Others may prefer to use products like StarSan etc, and that’s ok, I’m just saying that bleach is a legitimate option.