One of, if not THE most important aspect of your brewing practices, is sanitation. Sanitation is the overall cleanliness of your brewing process, including your equipment, ingredients, and yourself, as well as your brewing methods. The first thing to know (and I cannot say this enough!) is that sanitation is IMPORTANT. It doesn’t matter whether you use a $20 pot from WalMart or a $500 Blichmann Boilermaker; if your equipment or ingredients are contaminated or your process allows bacteria to get in your brew WILL go bad. So what can you do? There are 3 primary components to sanitation in brewing: Cleaning, sanitizing, and isolation.
Cleaning is fairly self-explanatory, or so I would hope. Whenever you’re going to brew, even if you cleaned your equipment incredibly well the last time you used it, clean it again. Soap and hot water, followed by a good and thorough rinsing, will get most dust and grime off of any brewing equipment. Take care not to scratch up plastic things, though. Use a gentle cloth or a plastic scrubby on them as opposed to steel wool, which can scratch the surface and leave crevices where bacteria can hide. For hoses and other hard-to-reach places, pump a mixture of hot water and soap through them, followed by a hot water rinse. An autosiphon works fabulously for this, and cleans your siphon, too! For truly caked-on grime–such as yeast residue after a batch of wine, or krausen stuck on the inside of a carboy–an overnight soak with some generic oxygen-based cleanser (OxyClean derivatives, B-Brite, One-Step, etc.) followed by a rinse, then soap and water as usual, should take care of most things.
Once your equipment is cleaned and rinse, the next step is to sanitize it. Despite all the gross (meaning major, not disgusting) dirt and grime being removed, there are still thousands of bacteria, mold spores, and other microscopic nasties present on the surfaces of your equipment. These must be eliminated (or as close to that as possible) before any fermentables contact them, otherwise there is a chance that some of them could out-compete the yeast and infect your brew! Sanitizing your equipment is done in much the same way as with cleaning, except a sanitizing solution is used instead of hot, soapy water. There are a large number of commercial sanitizers available, including Star-San, No-Rinse powder, bleach, and Iodophor. Be sure to read the labels carefully and follow all the manufacturers instructions, as some of these can be quite hazardous if handled improperly! Used correctly, they will help to ensure that your brew stays as bacteria-free as possible.
The third part of sanitation is isolation. Once your equipment has been sanitized it needs to stay that way. The best way to do this is by keeping it away from sources of contamination. Things like sealing carboys with sanitized airlocks before they’re used, keeping your fermentation buckets covered before you put in your must, and not using a spoon to stir a batch of beer once the batch is cooled unless the spoon is sanitized itself are all good practices to follow. Essentially, nothing that has not first been sanitized should ever come in contact with fermenting material, until such point as it is being consumed. This will ensure you don’t accidentally inoculate your batch with Brettanomyces or some other wild yeasts or bacteria, which can cause all sorts of different problems. And, while sanitizing your barware is not required, I would certainly hope you at least clean it first!
Failure in any of these areas can have a variety of effects. The best possible result? Nothing happens. Your yeast are able to live happily and out-compete any wild bacterial competition, ferment your beverages completely, they turn out tasty, and you age and drink them none the wiser. The worst possible result is a toss-up: having to watch as several gallons of extremely expensive beer ($15+ per gallon) go swirling down the drain smelling faintly of feet, or realizing that you’ve got multiple cases of bombs waiting to go off in your basement as wild bacteria consume every possible sugar molecule and generate enough gas to blow every single bottle into pieces if you so much as look at it the wrong way. I’ve had both of these scenarios happen to me and it’s never fun in either case.
So what should you do if you suddenly realize that you’ve just put an unsanitized wine thief into your 8-month-old demijohn of high quality Cabernet-Sauvignon? The first thing is DON’T PANIC. There are a few other things you can do depending on the situation. If you’re working with beer or wine that is still actively fermenting, don’t panic. Wait for fermentation to finish before taking any further action. With wine (except for sparkling wine) you are almost certainly going to kill off the yeast with some sort of sulfite compound anyways, which will kill everything else in the batch as well. This eliminates that particular problem, as long as you do so within the next 2-4 days after contamination occurs.
With beer or sparkling wine the problem is a bit tougher, but you still shouldn’t panic. Since these beverages are meant to be carbonated, and carbonation [normally] requires yeast, you [generally] have 2 options. The first is to just do nothing and hope for the best. This will sometimes work and sometimes fail spectacularly (see the previous paragraph). The second option is to kill the yeast with sulfites of some kind, wait 24-36 hours for all the sulfur dioxide gas to evaporate, and then re-pitch with the same type of yeast you initially used in the batch. When re-pitching it is highly advisable to make a starter using a sample of your partially fermented beer (I’ll post instructions for making a starter next week).
If, however, you’re one of those people who’s as crazy as I am and has started to sometimes put their homebrew into kegs, you have a third option: Force carbonation. Assuming your beer is far enough along in the fermentation process that you don’t really need the yeast for anything except carbonation, you can just kill off the yeast (and everything else), then keg it and force-carbonate it as you normally would. You can even bottle it off from the keg, assuming you can counter-pressure fill bottles (I’ll explain that at some point in the future as well).
Of course, all of that is never, EVER necessary…assuming you’re diligent and careful with your sanitation practices! Keeping things clean and germ-free is a critical part of making good beer and wine. Done correctly, you will prevent untold misery while watching an otherwise wonderful batch of delicious beer go swirling down the drain, tainted by a bacterial infection. You will have many, many batches of delicious homebrew which you can share with friends and family, all untainted by the funk of wild yeasts…unless you’re going for that, which is an entirely separate post…and something that I haven’t even delved into yet. But that’s a story for another time…
In the meantime, may the froth be with you, and happy brewing!