Around six months ago I made an experimental batch of home brew without using any sanitiser.
The time’s come to open it.
Homebrew sanitising is one of those things that new brewers are warned about: if you don’t sanitise you’ll ruin your beer!
Since I made the unsanitary batch I’ve actually had an unplanned infected bottle. The beer gushed out in a torrent of foam and it smelled and tasted awful.
Luckily it was just one bottle and the rest of the batch was fine. But I’m now more convinced than ever that sanitising is an essential part of home brewing.
So before I get to the results of my experiment, I’m going to run through my own sanitising methods.
What Is Sanitising?
It’s important to distinguish between sanitising and cleaning.
Sanitising is where you kill nearly all of the bacteria and wild yeast on a surface. It’s not sterilising, which would sort out 100% of them.
For sanitising to be effective, the surface must be clean. That means completely free of dirt, beer residue, yeast debris and anything else that’s stuck to it.
The best way to ensure this is to clean as you go. Wort, yeast and hops all dry hard and fast and are tricky to remove. The good news is that they’re easily rinsed off while wet.
It’s often said that cleaning is the important part, and sanitising is just to make sure. So scrub well.
As with most things home brew, when it comes to sanitising there are many options.
In the two years I’ve been brewing I’ve used two main methods:
Sanitising With Bleach
Probably the cheapest option, normal household bleach is an effective way to clean and sanitise everything.
It’s the method proposed by Randy Mosher in Radical Brewing, where he suggests rinsing three times with tap water after bleaching.
I always felt that if you’re going to bother with carefully cleaning and sanitising everything, rinsing in ordinary untreated water defeats the purpose.
In researching this post, I discovered that this is also the view of Murl Landman of National Chemicals. You can hear more here: Basic Brewing Radio 2007, scrolling down to March 22, 2007 (Sanitizing with Iodophor).
At about 31:20 he gives a good explanation of why rinsing with water is a bad idea.
Supposedly at home brewing concentrations rinsing isn’t necessary, but I found that there were always a few bottles with a background taste of chlorine.
To eliminate that I rinsed every item with boiling water. This was especially time consuming on bottling day, and became an annoying job that spoiled my fun.
I don’t use bleach any more but it’s a good low cost option if that’s what you’re looking for.
When I discovered Star San I was very happy. It’s the best homebrew sanitiser I’ve come across so far.
This magical product covers everything.
It’s a no rinse sanitiser that’s quick and easy to use. When you mix it with water it produces a liquid with a thick head of foam. Both parts have sanitising properties.
There’s another Basic Brewing Radio show (Basic Brewing Radio 2007), this time from March 29 2007, that gives a good run down.
Charlie Talley from Five Star Chemicals (makers of Star San) explains the benefits of the product and how to use it.
Incidentally, there’s also a lot of helpful information about using bleach in that show.
I also used alcohol for a couple of brews, but didn’t find it to be very convenient.
Just before getting to the unsanitised tasting, here’s how to use Star San.
Sanitising Brewing Equipment
You only need to sanitise things that touch the wort after the boil.
First make sure the fermenter is clean. That means completely free of dirt.
Measure out 1 oz of Star San by squeezing it into the dispenser at the top of the bottle.
Pour it into the fermenter and fill with cold water. I usually start the water first then tip in the sanitiser.
It forms a thick foam – that’s also an effective sanitiser.
Now throw in all the equipment you use after boiling.
This includes the thermometer, hydrometer, yeast starter jar, sieve, stirring spoon etc.
Press the lid onto the foam to sanitise that as well.
Leave for a couple of minutes before removing. You can rest the items in a sanitised container, or on top of the fermenter lid.
Before pouring the sanitiser away fill a spray bottle and two or three large plastic bottles with the liquid.
The bottles are set aside until bottling day, but the spray is immediately useful.
Although you’ve just sanitised everything, it’s useful to be able to quickly repeat the job on commonly used items.
Before you put anything into the wort give it a quick spray.
On bottling day you use the set aside sanitiser to prepare the bottles and the siphon.
The bottles are easy. Pour the Star San mixture into a few of them, leave for thirty seconds, then pour into the next ones. Do that until all the bottles are ready.
Of course, they must be completely clean before starting. Scrub with a bottling brush if necessary.
To sanitise the siphon you suck the Star San inside the tube. This guide to siphoning explains how it’s done.
Star San keeps in bottles for a while but when it turns cloudy it’s spent and it’s time to mix some more.
That’s it. It’s very straight forward, just remember to do it.
What Happens If You Don’t Sanitise
Now the bit you’ve been patiently waiting for. What happened to my no-sanitiser brew?
Here it is:
It looks and pours like a regular beer. It’s got a decent, although short-lived, head with very fine bubbles.
There is a strong sugary taste, which I think is the famous cider off-flavour that blighted homebrew in the past.
Sharp sweetness is the best way I can describe it. Not the balance of sweet and bitter that’s part of good beer, but an unpleasant one.
It’s a flavour I recognise from the off pints you’re sometimes served in pubs. Although not dramatically OFF, it’s bad enough to keep me using sanitiser.
What are your views on sanitising? Is it worth it?
If you use a different method, feel free to share it in the comments.