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Monday, December 16, 2013

Cleaning, Sanitizing Homebrew Equipment: A Primer

By Josh Swift

The time has come. You have taken your first steps into the world of homebrewing and are ready to boil up your first batch. But hold on just a second. Many off flavors and problems during and after fermentation are the result of improper sanitation. With many commercially available cleansers and sanitizers on the market, it can often be hard to know which is most effective or ideally suited to your brewing conditions. In this primer, we will explore the various compounds available, when and where to use them, and their advantages and disadvantages.


Proper sanitation in brewing requires the use of both a cleanser and a sanitizer. Each compound has a specific role in insuring that your beer is free from infections and contaminations. Cleansers are used to clean dirty brewing equipment by removing soil and organic compounds. Most of the cleansers carried in homebrew stores (specifically here at Siciliano's) are oxidizing agents. This list includes PBW, B-Brite, and Straight A.  These compounds contain hydrochloride and perborate, which release active oxygen while cleaning. Simply put, these cleansers are extremely effective in attacking proteins and organic soils on your equipment. Compounds such as B-Brite and PBW must be rinsed off thoroughly after use. By using cleansers, we can insure that our sanitizers, which we will discuss next, are able to do their jobs effectively.


Sanitizers are the second step in your sanitation process. Any piece of equipment that will come into contact with cool beer should be exposed to a sanitizer first. This will help prevent the introduction of foreign micro-organisms that can potentially ruin your homebrew. Here at Siciliano's, we usually recommend two types of sanitizers, but also carry a few more advanced formulas as well.

Acid Anionics

Acid anionics work by utilizing acid in a polymer to coat a surface. The solution will remain active as long as the surface is damp. Surfaces should be wet for at least 10 seconds to insure they have been sanitized. One notable benefit of this class of sanitizers is that many are a no-rinse solution. This means that there is no need to rinse equipment prior to it coming in contact with your beer and risking an infection. This is a result of the acid being diluted to such a point that it no longer acts as a sanitizer, and instead becomes a yeast nutrient. Nifty right? Our selection of acid anionics includes Star San and Saniclean. Both of these compounds also have a long period of effectiveness if they are not exposed excessive soil or contamination, remaining active for weeks after they are initially mixed.

These compounds do have some drawbacks, however. They are only effective in a narrow PH range (2-3 per manufacturers specifications). They are also relatively expensive compared to other sanitizers. One possible point of danger is that they can not be mixed with chloride solutions, as they will release toxic chlorine gas. Chlorine sanitizers are not ideal anyways as they require a thorough rinsing before equipment comes into contact with beer.


Iodine solutions have along history of use as sanitizing agents. Iodophor refers to a solution of iodine mixed with a surfactant to stabilize it in a solution of water. Iodophor works by way of haleogenization, disrupting the membranes of microbes and disrupting cellular processes. This means it is extremely effective against many different kinds of microbes, especially wild yeast and mold. In the correct concentration, Iodophor can also be used as a no-rinse sanitizer. Some brewers have also been kind enough to do their own research on Iodophor as well, and we have included their results at the end of this article.

However, like acid anionics, Iodophor does have limitations. If it is over-concentrated, it can stain equipment. It is also is fairly volatile at temperatures over 120F, resulting in reduced performance. Higher temperatures can also put brewers at risk of iodine gas inhalation if they are brewing in a small and poorly ventilated area. Unlike Star San, Iodophor loses effectiveness within a few days of being mixed with water.


Caustics are an extremely effective cleanser and sanitizer. However, they are also the most dangerous compound to use. Thus, new brewers would be best suited to using the chemicals we have discussed previously. Nevertheless, caustics are extremely effective in dissolving soil and destroying microbes.

As the name suggests, caustics are extremely corrosive and will cause chemical burns. They are also extremely toxic and should not be breathed in or swallowed. Caustics must also be extensively rinsed.

Chlorine (Bleach)

There was once a time when the only viable sanitizer for homebrewers was bleach. This was a result of the very niche nature of the hobby in the 1980s and 90s. Even some books for beginning brewers still list bleach as an option. However, with all the other available sanitizers on the market at this time there are quite a few reasons to finally retire bleach from service in brewing.

Bleach needs to be thoroughly rinsed from all equipment, as it is toxic, and will adversely affect yeast, and leave noticeable flavors in finished beverages. Bleach is also quite corrosive and will discolor and damage stainless steel and other metals. Brewers should also keep in mind that using bleach in conjunction with any acids will cause the liberation of chlorine gas, a potentially deadly toxin. As a staff, we would never condone the use of bleach or any chlorides as a sanitizer.


Hopefully this article has helped make the process of cleaning and sanitation less intimidating. The links at the bottom of the page lead to various resources on the specifics of some of the products and processes discussed earlier. Feel free to ask questions of the Siciliano's staff as well.

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