The reason I brew is to have fun and make the highest quality beer possible. I believe that, in order to brew the best beer possible, you need to pay attention to each and every step in the process. The highest quality beer comes from an extreme attention to detail. Still, I am also aware that brewing can be very forgiving. (And also, I’ll admit that there are times I just throw a batch together, because I’m running low on beer.)
Fairly often, in response to articles I write, a brewer will respond with a faster or simpler method of a technique I’m describing. (“Why go through the hassle of injecting oxygen in your wort when you can just use a whisk to aerate”) In this series of articles, I am going to describe what happens when you cut corners in various stages of brewing. My intent is to argue that doing things “the right way” is your best option. However, I’m aware that some brewers — for reasons to do with time, space, or money — may use this as a guide to where to cut corners. That’s fine with me. I’m not trying to force everyone to brew exactly as I do. (And just so you know, I think there are many valid paths within the boundaries of “the right way” to brew. I’m also aware that some brewers may have time, space, money, or other constraints that limit their options when it comes to brewing.) I’m just hoping to point out the likely outcomes that may accompany rushing steps, skipping steps, or generally cutting corners.
For many things, I’ll use commercial practices as a guide to what “the right way” is, keeping in mind that scale does matter and they might not always apply to homebrewers. In future articles, I’ll discuss using old ingredients, cutting your mash time short, not mashing out, skipping recirculation (and the BIAB approach), cutting your boil short, alternate chilling methods (including cube chilling), not making a yeast starter, easy aeration methods, minimizing grain to glass time, and more. In some cases, you can rush, simplify, or skip, a step with little consequence (or consequences that may be acceptable to you). In other cases, cutting corners is a recipe for disaster. For today, let’s start with a biggie — cleaning and sanitation.
Cleaning and Sanitation
Recently, I was reading a thread in an online brewing forum in which a long-time homebrewer was advocating that beginning brewers not worry about cleaning and sanitation. (Seriously.) In commercial brewing, cleaning and sanitation are taken very seriously. Likewise, in every homebrewing reference I’ve ever read, the importance of cleaning and sanitation is stressed. Is this due to an overabundance of caution? Could a practical homebrewer take a more casual attitude towards cleaning and sanitation and get away with it?
To answer this question, let’s take the case of three imaginary homebrewers. Up to this point, each has been fastidious about cleaning and sanitation. Then, they decide to go online and gather some practical advice about cleaning and sanitation. The first brewer reads the recommendation, and decides that cleaning and sanitation is a pain he can do without. He’ll rinse off his equipment after brewing, and take a scrubby to dislodge visible deposits of soil, but generally leave his brewing equipment dirtier than most homebrewers consider acceptable. The second homebrewer reads the recommendation and decides he will continue to pay attention to cleaning, but performing a separate sanitation step is overkill. The third brewer reads the recommendation and decides to continue to take cleaning and sanitation very seriously. If they all brew a batch of beer, how will it turn out?
The brewer who continued to take cleaning and sanitation seriously would most likely produce a batch of beer with a level of contamination below that which is problematic. All beer — whether commercial or homebrewed — is contaminated. However, below a certain level contamination, the bacteria and wild yeasts do not lead to off flavors or aromas, and do not stop the beer from remaining biologically stable for months. In addition, a brewer who takes cleaning and sanitation seriously can brew batch after batch free from problematic levels of contamination. Commercial brewers do this. Most homebrewers do this. It works.
What about the brewer who is still meticulous about cleaning, but skips the sanitation stage? In all probability, his first batch of beer brewed without proper sanitation might not show obvious signs of contamination. (It could, but that’s not a guarantee.) However, the odds of producing contaminated beer would go up for each subsequent batch. Although cleaning does knock down the level of bacteria clinging to surfaces, it doesn’t do so as effectively as when cleaning is followed by sanitation. The brewer might turn out a few batches that were — as far as anyone could tell — fine. But the clock would be ticking. Eventually, the level of bacteria clinging to the sides of his fermenter or kegs would grow to the point that they would spoil his beer.
Many homebrewers — and admittedly myself included — will sometimes skip cleaning a keg if the previous beer tasted fine. Most times, you can get away with this . . . once. Beer has a level of alcohol that is toxic to all but a few species of bacteria, a fairly low pH, and is thus less susceptible to contamination than fresh wort. (I wrote an article about this recently.) However, if you try to simply refill the keg without proper cleaning and sanitation again, the odds of having a problem go up dramatically with each fill. Eventually, lactic acid bacteria or wild yeast — that can deal with the alcohol and low PH just fine — will reach unacceptably high levels.
And finally, what about the guy who just rinses and equipment and scrubs away the most obvious deposits? He runs a high risk of brewing a contaminated batch of beer — and if not, his second batch almost certainly will be.
In some cases, the effect of cutting a corner in one step can be lessened by modifying another step. For example, if you aerate your yeast starter extra well, you can get away with less effective aeration of your main batch of beer. In the case of cleaning and sanitation, there are really no mitigating factors. A larger than usual pitch of yeast can somewhat limit the growth of bacterial contaminants. However, pitching more yeast is not going to produce clean beer with even moderately contaminated brewing surfaces.
In short, cleaning and sanitation is vitally important in brewing. Although you can occasionally get away with small lapses, continued neglect in this area quickly leads to spoiled beer.