If there is one trick in homebrewing, one thing you can do to make the difference between a good and bad batch of beer, it is maintaining proper sanitization standards. Let's face it – homebrewing is not hard, but it's also not hard to mess up if you are not careful. Using the right type of sanitizer and the right method is important to avoid skunked beer.
The point of sanitization, as you might guess, is to kill harmful bacteria and other beasties, thus ensuring a clean environment in which to brew your beer, and giving your beer a clean bill of health. With all the sugar in beer, it is an excellent growth medium for bacteria, so minimizing that is of utmost importance.
The basic technique is to sanitize everything your beer comes into contact with after it is cooked. That is, the kettle you boil it in does not need to be sanitized, nor does the immersion cooler, if you use one, because it will be in the boiling liquid for a while during the cooking. These instruments will get sufficiently hot for long enough that sanitizing them will not be an issue. You should wash and rinse them thoroughly, though, before using them.
After you take the beer off the flame, though, everything needs to be cleaned and sanitized before it touches the beer. My technique for sanitizing the fermentation bucket is to pour some sanitizer in the bottom, attach the lid, and shake it so the sanitizer touches all surfaces. Then I drain the liquid back into the container I keep it in. I will sanitize everything that might come in contact with the beer, including stoppers and airlocks. I repeat this process when I am ready to rack the beer into a secondary fermenter, ensuring the sanitizer touches all surfaces.
Sanitizing the racking cane and tubing is a little more tricky. I siphon the sanitizer into the cane and tube and let it flow through the entire system a couple times, and then follow up by rinsing the outside of these items. When I am ready to transfer the beer, I make sure that the only thing the sanitized items touch are the beer and other sanitized items. If I accidentally hit the racking cane on my kitchen counter (something very easy to do), I resanitize the outside of the cane. This can be tedious, but it is important. When you get ready to bottle your beer, you have to clean and sanitize each bottle and cap, as well as the racking cane, tubing, and anything else that might touch the beer.
Clean vs. Sanitized
Don't confuse cleanliness and sanitization. Cleaning is physical – literally washing away the dirt and bacteria. Sanitization is chemical and biological. Washing your bottles in the dishwasher is a great way to clean them, but you still need to sanitize them with some sort of chemical sanitizer before using them. A number of chemical cleaners are available and probably will do just fine, but to be thorough, follow up with a real sanitizer.
Which Sanitizer Should I Use?
I use something called Iodophor and my friend Jason uses Star-San. These are both great no-rinse sanitizers. There are others out there at your local homebrew shop and online. No-rinse means literally that – you use the sanitizer, drain it, and don't have to rinse your equipment afterward. This is good for two reasons. First, you save a step. Second, you avoid possible contamination from bacteria in the water infecting your equipment. Andy, on the other hand, uses a bleach solution to sanitize his equipment. It works perfectly well, but if he does not rinse it well, he can get a bleach taste in his beer. Andy is thorough, though, and I am as well, so that would not really be a problem, but it does take one extra step I don't want to do. Talk to the folks at your local homebrew store to find a sanitizer they recommend.
Keeping Your Equipment Sanitation-Friendly
Your equipment needs to stay in good condition so you can easily sanitize it. One good way to do this is to use plastic spoons for mixing in plastic buckets. It looks cool to have stainless steel spoons and such, but the hard metal can scar the plastic bucket, creating excellent spots for bacteria to hide. Run your hands along the inside of your bucket to see if you can feel any gouging. If so, it might be time to invest in a new bucket. Do a visual inspection of your equipment as well. I recently found a slight crack in a racking cane and beat feet out to Maryland Homebrew to get a replacement.
Get a Rhythm Going
Whatever you do, have a routine for your sanitization. Do the same thing every time in the same order. I have even used checklists because even though this is not hard to do, you have to be thorough to avoid infecting your beer. Develop a system and stick with it so it become routine.