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The Brewing Process: Cleaning Equipment

My wife and I were touring the Keweenaw Brewing Company’s brewery in upper Michigan a couple of years ago when the head brewer told us how his job was basically to be a glorified janitor. He did get to design and drink great beers, but most of his working day was spent cleaning and sanitizing the brewing system.

Cleaning and sanitizing home brewing equipment is probably the single most important step you can take to brewing great tasting beer. Dirty equipment can lead to infected beer, and infected beer can result in a total loss of the batch. It is not worth losing an entire batch of beer because you were trying a save a few minutes of prep time.

By “cleaning” I mean removing any dirt, dust,grime, or other visible matter from the equipment. When I refer to sanitizing I’m talking about killing as many of the present microorganisms possible. It is darn near impossible to kill all of the microorganisms, but fortunately we don’t have to. Negligible levels of bacteria on the equipment are normal, and they shouldn’t cause a problem.

Cleaning the Equipment

To clean the equipment I generally start with hot water and a soft towel to remove any loose material. We also want to avoid scratching plastic equipment, such as the inside of a fermentation bucket, because scratches can harbor bacteria that is tough to clean out and can infect a batch of beer. This is why I always use a very soft, non-abrasive towel.

I prefer not to use any detergent such as dish soap to clean the equipment. These  usually have some type of a scent that is very difficult to get off of the equipment and can carry over to the beer. It can be helpful to instead use a diluted bleach mixture to kill any organic matter left on the equipment. There are a few things to keep in mind when cleaning with bleach (credit to John Palmer’s book How to Brew for clearly laying out this information):

  • It can take at least 20 minutes to thoroughly kill bacteria
  • Equipment should not be left in a bleach mixture for more than an hour as corrosion can occur
  • Copper and brass should never be cleaned with bleach, as these metals will corrode very quickly
  • It is always best to rinse the equipment with boiled water after cleaning it with bleach

Keeping Equipment Clean

The biggest battle I face with keeping the equipment clean is my brewing environment. I brew in our kitchen, which is difficult to seal off from our dog and two cats. Once i clean my equipment I have to be aware of where I set it and whether it comes into contact with any animal fur. This is a problem to remain aware of when you are cleaning your equipment and in the time between cleaning and use.

In a future post we will dig deeper into the different options on the market for sanitizers. In the meantime let us know: what is your process for cleaning home brewing equipment and preparing it for sanitizing?

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