Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Finding Balence in Cleanliness

"Cleanliness becomes important when Godliness is unlikely"
P.J. O' Rourke.
"[I] Made damn sure The Pilate
Washed his hands
To seal his fate"
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, "Sympathy for the Devil"

The physical aspect of brewing is much more about cleaning than most people realize. Our job as brewers is to create and foster an environment in which the proper organisms (ale or lager yeast mostly) are able to thrive and unwanted or naturally occurring microorganisms, such as bacteria or wild yeast are thwarted in their efforts to live and multiply in our beer. So, like the old BASF commercials, we brewers don't make the beer, we make beer possible. We are mere assistants to the genius life's work of the single celled fungi we call yeast. And to do that, we need to make sure everything is as clean as possible.

Cleaning and Sanitation is most of what we do, and so it seems likely that it is a main reason that we fail as brewers or quit the hobby altogether. If you don't develop an adequate regimen for cleaning your equipment, your brewing is heading for a disaster. If you don't like the work of cleaning, or at least tolerate doing it, you should probably just go buy your beer, instead. I don't begrudge people who decide brewing is not for them (for whatever reasons), but either way, it might be nice to understand the labors of brewing while enjoying a well made beer.

I separate cleaning and sanitation into two separate activities in my mind while in the brewing process even though sanitation occurs while cleaning, and cleaning happens when sanitizing. Either way, the process is circular and my brewing day starts with sanitation, and ends with cleaning. For me, sanitation is easier, because cleaning is more difficult when it is done well, and knowing I cleaned well last time makes sanitation go quickly next time.

I start my brew day either the night before or early in the morning. I start by cleaning my laundry room which is also the entry to my cats' bathroom and it becomes my brewery's clean room. Cat litter, lint, dust, and dirt are everywhere. I sweep, and get out the Pine Sol and clean the floor. If there is something I am apt to skip, it is the washing of the floors, but I sweep, because clumping cat litter and spilled wort is kind of gross.

Next, I get out the towels and lay them on the washer and dryer and they serve as my counter. I also get out my wort chiller as it serves as my hose to spray into my fermenters and mash tun/kettle. Then I get out the equipment and bleach. I use regular household bleach as my main cleaner and sanitizer, and probably too much of it. But it is cheap and I rinse really well. I don't know the downsides to using bleach, other than it corrodes stainless steel if left too long in contact with the equipment, and perhaps you have to use too much water to rinse. The benefit of using bleach is that it is cheap and available at the grocery store (and it has multiple uses as a general cleaner around the house). The brewing specific alternatives are Iodophor (iodine), and Star San. The benefits of Iodophor is that the solution can stay in contact with the equipment for extended periods and you don't have to rinse. But you do need to let it air dry before using. Star San's benefit is that after a quick soak, the equipment can be used wet. I have never used anything but bleach, so I can't speak to these product's utility. I think that if I ever get new stainless fermenters or new brew kettles (like I pine for every time I get a beer magazine, surf the net, or visit my local homebrew shop), I will try these other options.

Cleaning at the end of the day is the most difficult thing. I am tired from a long brewing day, and have usually had a few beers while watching water boil (a tedious activity without beer, for sure). I have a lot of bottle brushes and other cleaning equipment, but only use a rag, bleach, my bent carboy cleaner brush and my wort chiller as my sprayer....and a little elbow grease. I make sure my stuff is clean and dry before it goes back into the store room. This way, my next brewing session will go smoothly.

Cleaning Bottles

When I share beer with friends, or give them a six pack for the drive home (just kidding), I am very specific about their instructions about bottle cleanliness. They must rinse the bottles with hot water to remove the sediment in the bottles immediately after pouring, and must never use soap on my bottles. They must also return the bottles in a timely manner. I am strict on this. If I don't get bottles back, or those bottles have dried crap in them, they will never get beer again. I have a few friends who have been cut off as such. I also know of a few brewers that don't bother with this level of fastidiousness, and they do have funky batches, bad beers, and exploding bottle bombs (an interesting side effect to some wild bacteria and yeasts). Ironically, they don't even wonder about why.

Simply by rinsing after pouring the beer into a glass, my bottling day is simplified. I have rarely used my bottle brush to clean inside a bottle. I will throw a bottle into recycling if it has dried sediment that can't be cleaned after a soak and rinse. I have plenty of bottles, and don't need the aggravation. Not many bottles are wasted in this manner, however, as I have good friends (or ones that know that I am dead serious), and stick to my guns about rinsing. On bottling day, all of my bottles go into the dishwasher for a wash and dry cycle. This serves as my bottle autoclave. The hot water and steam kill all of any remaining nasties and wash off any accumulated dust.

Some people just must clean off labels, they can't leave it alone. I don't care about the outward appearance of my bottles, so I don't. I don't peel the label on my credit card that says "Remove before Use". I am that way. I have bottles from breweries that don't exist anymore, and haven't existed for a decade. Each time I use them, they get more faint, or sometimes completely wash off. I like marking the passage of time this way. Many of my friends also suggest that I make labels for my beer. I don't and have not plans to. Perhaps I am too lazy to add this finishing touch to my craft, or perhaps I will never be satisfied with the outcome if I try to do it myself. Lastly, this does not serve my philosophy that the beer is more important. I view the additional step of adding a label and then cleaning it off as a waste of energy.

Cleansing is a metaphor in many societies and religions for the absolvement of sins. I don't know if I exactly buy that, but in many cases clean is good. In brewing it is an absolute must. I owe my philosophy of keeping things clean during and after use being easier than cleaning them later to my wife. It was her that taught me that periodic light cleaning ends up being more preferable to using napalm once in a while to tidy things up. My wife has unwittingly made me a better brewer. Speaking of cleansing, I love a long, hot shower, and need to do just that sometime before lunch.


btw: I am always looking for new tricks, time savers, or useful equipment to make my brew day more enjoyable, quicker, or easier. If you have a method that works for you, I would love to hear about it.

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