Kit Brewing 101: Brew Good Beer Your Friends Will Drink With You.
Tip #1 Keep Calm. And Maintain Cleanliness.
In the words of Suze Orman “cleanliness is a state of purity, clarity and precision.” While I’m sure that was said in a different context that sounds like good home brew to me.
At first, I was not going to give this topic a dedicated article. I was going to drop the tip in as a mention that we were taking as a given but when I canvased some of my friends who brew on what to include in the 101 brewing tip series, every one of them started with cleanliness. And I assure you I never expected to write 1,200+ words about cleaning and sanitising.
If you do a search online for ‘tips for brewing kit beer’ nine out of ten will list cleaning and sanitising your gear as the number tip or at least have it in their list. And for good reason. If you’re looking for an easy way to ruin a brew, letting your beer get infected is about as easy as it gets. Without clean and sanitary equipment, we risk the chance of bacteria creating off-flavours in our finished product.
So – the number one thing to master is cleaning and sanitising your brewing equipment – it’s the first thing that can make or break your brew.
Why is cleaning and sanitising so important?
Without effectively cleaning and sanitising your equipment, you greatly increase the chances of your brew getting infected.
Infections occur in your brews when beer (or cider) spoiling bacteria or wild yeast make it into the fermenter and start competing with cultured yeasts for sugars.
What will happen if my brew gets infected with bacteria?
An infection in your brew will almost certainly lead to off-flavour in your finished product.
The typical flavours to look out for are sour and or buttery tones. Other common flavours that can indicate infection are soy sauce, solvent, or vinegar.
This may lead to you dumping your brew. In the case of a severe infection, you may also elect to discard some or your equipment.
How can I tell if my brew is infected?
If you haven’t realised before you try a bottle of your beer the first giveaway would be the taste.
Be cautious about jumping to immediate conclusions of an infection as there are other aspects of the brewing process – like fermentation temperature which can also lead to off-flavours in your brew.
Visual signs of an infection in the fermenter would be an oily sheen on the top of your brew that may look like thin white ice is generally the first sign.
Prevention is the best medicine
My suggestion would be not to worry too much about what to do if your beer gets infected. Rather focus on what you can consistently do to minimise the chances of getting an infection. If you adopt this approach, it will be unlikely that you experience an infection.
Two key concepts here: ‘clean’ and ‘sanitised’.
Cleaning is the process of removing dirt, gunk, and grime. Sanitising is the process of removing the volume of bacteria to a safe level – not to be confused with sterilising, which is removing all bacteria.
This includes you. Like your mum taught you, don’t come to the table unless you’ve washed your hands first.
Think about where you are brewing. Clean the benches and sink you are about to use before you brew.
And this includes your brewing equipment. Every piece that will touch your brew. There are the obvious items like the fermenting vessel but remember things like the mixing spoon or any jug you might use to transfer water into the fermenting vessel. And less obvious things like your hop sock if you use one.
At the other end of the process remember your bottles, bottle caps and if you are racking off the syphon and the bottling bucket.
We mean EVERYTHING.
When we clean, we use the Mangrove Jack’s Cold-Water Detergent. First it can be used with cold water which is handy.
The main guidance here is not to use your household kitchen detergent. Kitchen detergents contain oils and fragrances that can affect your finished product.
Oils can negatively affect the head retention and foam of your beer and fragrances can affect aroma.
The Mangrove Jack’s cleaner is also specially designed for brewing and will help deodorise and remove discolouration from the inside of your fermenter that kitchen cleaners are not strong enough to do.
Make a habit of cleaning as soon as you are done. The longer you leave the mess, the drier and more firmly stuck to the gear it will get, making it harder to clean off. If you clean your gear as soon as you are finished all you will need is a soft sponge.
Your bottles are reusable. Although I prefer the crown top bottles this does include the plastic PET bottles. On the night you drink a tipple rinse them to get the beer sediment out. If you don’t it can dry in the bottle and be especially stubborn to clean out. I use a three-time (partial) fill, shake and rinse on every bottle. I also lean the bottle upside down to let the water drain out which prevents any mould starting to grow in the bottle.
Follow the same rule as your cleaning. When we say everything, we mean everything. The second thing we would say is that you want to sanitise directly before you are about to use your equipment. Don’t sanitise your gear and then leave it until the next day, or even a few hours to use. Sanitise right before you use the equipment in your brewing process.
To sanitise I use the Mangrove Jack’s No Rinse Sanitiser. Two main reasons. First it is a food grade sanitiser which means it is strong and reliable. Second it is a no rinse sanitiser which means you don’t have to worry about any drips that are left in or on your equipment – it won’t affect your fermentation or finished product. It’s also a non-foaming product which I like.
Whenever I brew, I keep a bowl of sanitiser to the side as you may need to sanitise items multiple times. As an example, I will often put my mixing spoon on the bench. Before I use it again, I will rinse and then sanitise it before it touches the brew.
As a side note the Mangrove Jack’s cleaner and Sanitiser are non-caustic so they are safe to use around your home benches and without gloves.
Don't take shortcuts.
Neither the cleaner nor the sanitiser are expensive. It will cost you more if you wind up having to discard a brew of beer and potentially a piece of equipment.
And don’t cut out the cleaning or the sanitising process. Sanitising doesn’t clean dirt. And cleaning doesn’t Sanitise your gear.
A couple of tips that help me (in addition to the other various suggestions throughout the brew tip):
1. Sterilise your fermenter first.
On brew day steralise your fermenter first you can retain the steralising solution that you tip out of your fermenter in a bowl or bucket. An alternative is to place some solution in a spray bottle for use in process.
2. Don’t put your hydrometer in the fermenting vessel.
A lot of videos will show you brewers placing the hydrometer directly in the fermentation vessel. This is one of the easiest ways to transfer bacteria into your brew. Always use the tap to draw a sample into a trial glass for your hydrometer. In fact, there’s no need to put anything in your brew while fermenting except additional ingredients like finings or hops.
3. Avoid opening your fermenting vessel.
Every time you open your fermentation vessel you are open to the risk of bacteria entering. It is necessary at some points depending on your process. But avoid opening the vessel up for a general looksie. If you really like seeing the state of your beer, which is interesting consider a transparent fermentation vessel.
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