Sanitation in the Home Brewery

The most frustrating aspect of home brewing is when a batch goes bad. The only way to improve your chances of avoiding this depressing situation is to maintain the highest degree of sanitation in your home brewery as is possible. There are also some other pitfalls of the modern age that require a closer look, and some basic tools that will give you the best chances of fighting bacterial infestations, vinegar cultures, and rogue yeasts in your home brew.

One factor often overlooked when cleaning and sanitizing home brew set-ups is that of the water used. Tap water in modern cities is sometimes good, sometimes terrible. It is wise to do some research and find out how your city water rates when analyzed for bacteria, harmful chemicals, and heavy metals. The quality of water used in making beer has a very strong connection with the quality of the finished product. But how to deal with it?

We caught up with Ken Grossman, Founder of the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, and got a little background on his early home brewing days and his take on the importance of sanitation in the home brewery.

Ken Grossman: Sanitation in the Home Brewery
Ken Grossman, Sierra Nevada

C. Lavender: In your five-gallon batch days, what would you say the single most important aspect of sanitation was for you?

K. Grossman: Since I wasn't taking micro samples and plating various stages and equipment during most of my home brewing days, my thoughts are going to be more empirical than absolute. I owned a homebrew shop for several years, so besides my own, I got to sample lots of not so perfect beers.

I would say one of the key areas of concern and common pitfall was at the start of fermentation. Lack of a healthy and robust start to fermentation allows bacteria to get a foothold; the fermentation needs to get off to a rapid start to ensure no bacteria can get a foothold. No matter how hard you try, and how clean your technique achieving absolute sterility in a home brewing, (or for that matter most commercial operations) environment is nearly impossible. But many bacteria cannot compete or survive in the beer with rapidly dropping pH, and alcohol formation. One compounding factor is often a lack of Wort aeration that limits yeast growth and a rapid start of fermentation. Although there are wide variables and several rules of thumb, (such as 1 million cells per degree Wort Plato) in pitching recommendations, for top fermenting yeast we find 6-8 million cell range for Ale strains or 12-15 million for lager coupled with 100% saturation with air (8 ppm O2) gets the beer started on the right track.

C. Lavender: Was water quality an important variable in your sanitation equation? If so, what sort of water quality did you look for?

K Grossman: Water quality, particularly in regard to microbiological contamination is important, but typically municipal sources which are chlorinated are not a huge source of beer spoilage bacteria. Fermentation equipment particularly plastic, which can be somewhat porous and easily scratched can harbor bacteria and be difficult to render sterile. Keeping idle equipment submerged in a sanitizer, or ensuring every surface has sufficient contact time with a sanitizing solution before use is critical.

C Lavender: What was your home brewing method and system of choice? (Extract, All-Grain, Gravity, RIMS, HERMS, etc...)

K Grossman: I started using extract in 1969 and soon switched to 100% grain mashing in 1970-71. I first started with a one temperature infusion mash in an insulated Igloo and then added heating and separate lauter vessel.

We also spoke with award winning brewers Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo, brewers and owners of the Russian River Brewing Company, to see how they approach sanitation in the home brewery.

Vinnie & Natalie Cilurzo, Russian River Brewing Company
Vinnie & Natalie Cilurzo, Russian River Brewing Company

C. Lavender: In your five-gallon batch days, what would you say the single most important aspect of sanitation was for you?

V. Cilurzo: I would say that especially for beginning home brewers, sanitation is everything! One cannot be too careful or overly cautious when just starting out. Aside from having good, healthy yeast, having not just good, but great sanitation practices might just be the difference if the home brewer decides to continue on. Good sanitation (and healthy yeast) will hopefully land the home brewer a good, drinkable beer that will encourage him/her to continue on.

Sanitation & Brewing with Kegs
A great way to insure uncontaminated beer is to use closed systems that reduce the amount of air exposure to your finished beer. There are many closed brewing/transfer systems that you can purchase on the market including the conical Fermentasaurus Fermenter that can transfer beer to different vessels under low pressure. There are many other conical fermenters on the market with similar features.

Using two homebrew kegs with the correct fittings will also achieve a similar result, allowing you to close transfer your beer from a closed primary to secondary with little air exposure.

Boiling water in your keg is a great way to sanitize the keg, but can put some wear and tear on your fittings and O-rings. Sanitizing with a solution that has a residue that evaporates is a good idea, then kegs can be purged of outside air with the use of CO2. In fact, by brewing with kegs, one can ensure that, even when racking, no outside air comes in contact with the beer.

In order to affect this situation, you will need two kegs. You will need to make two custom parts for your soda keg. One of which will be an airlock fitting that attaches to the gas-in port valve. The other will be a length of surgical tubing which attaches on either end to a liquid-out valve.

First, after your wort has chilled, pour it into a sanitized soda keg. Add your yeast and seal the keg, purging the outside air and replacing it with CO2. Then, place your one-way airlock onto the gas-in port valve. Let your beer ferment, and when it is ready for racking, take the airlock off of the gas-in port and attach your double ended racking tube to the two kegs liquid-out valve posts, and place the one-way airlock on the gas out valve post on the secondary fermentation vessel.

Now is the time to add hops to your secondary fermentation vessel if needed for dry hopping and then pump the CO2 into the primary fermenting vessel at a moderate rate until all the liquid has gone from the primary into the secondary fermentation vessel. If you time it right, you won't even need to add priming sugar to the secondary fermenter for carbonation, as you can capture the last fermenting action of the yeast to affect this.

This process works very well if you cut about 1/2 an inch off of the liquid-out dip tube in both kegs. This helps keep down on sediment in your final product.

The final word of advice is to keep you beer lines clean and well maintained, and scrub those pots until they shine before sanitizing them!

Related Articles:
Industrial Beer Kegging - A look at the industrial process of beer kegging.
Brewing Your First Batch - An overview of how to brew your first batch of beer and basic sanitation steps.

Browse our Sanitizers & Cleaners section.