Do I really have to sanitise all my beer brewing equipment?

sanitization of beer brewing equipment

Yes you do bloody have to clean, sanitize and sterilize your beer brewing equipment, right down to the bottle caps and stirring spoon.

There are plenty of tricks and cheats you can do to product quality tasting beer but the one thing you can't escape from is the proper cleaning, sanitizing and sterilization of your beer gear.

There's a difference between sanitizing and sterilizing

Sanitizing is a technical term that means a certain allowable amount of microbes to survive on the surface of your equipment.

Sterilizing is like sanitizing, but it removes all the microorganisms (the bugs and germs that will ruin your beer).

 Do I have to sanitize my brewing equipment every time I make beer?Think of washing your hands with hot water and soap as sanitization as it kills a few bugs but not all and is an acceptable means of cleaning your hands.

If you want to kill all the bugs on your hand so the skin is sterile with no bugs on it anywhere, then I suggest you boil your hands in water...

For the most part, the typical home brewers doesn't need to sterilize, only sanitize. The chemicals commonly used for homebrew brewing are made to sanitize.

Now we've got those definitions clear, there are several methods that you can try to 'sterilize' your gear. We'll note a couple in detail:

You can drown everything in bleach

A cheap and cost effective way to get your gear free of bugs is to drown your gear in bleach.

But what is bleach?

Bleach is usually a solution of  chemicals such as sodium hypochlorite or hydrogen peroxide and they act as an oxidizing agent. They are great for all kinds of things such as removing bad smells, making your whites whiter and your brights brighter and for home brewing.

A popular American brand of bleach is Chlorox but there are hundreds of brands of bleach you could use.

As with all these sterilizing methods, you simply soak your equipment in the solution for a good length of time. A quick dip of ten minutes is the bare minimum.

We try and do several hours of soaking if possible.

The trick with bleach is to remember that you need to rinse everything off with clean water after. This is done to ensure that no yucky flavours left over from the bleach make it into your batch of beer. 

Use sodium percarbonate as a sanitizing agent

Using sodium percarbonate is our preferred method as it works well, no rinse is required and it's very easy to order in bulk online.

If you've ever tried to buy sodium percarbonate from a specialist beer brewery shop, you'll know that you can get a small bottle or container of it that will cost you a small fortune.

If you can buy it in bulk from an online supplier, you'll do well to nab some as using it will effectively bring down your cost per brew. 

To use sodium percarbonate you simply add it to water. I like to add hot or ever boiling water to the drum so as to get the action of the chemical happening pretty quickly. The boiling water also helps kill off any nasty bugs hiding about as well. 
using sodium percarbonate to steralise beer equipment
A home brand with sodium percabonate.

Here's another trick, this chemical is basically what you might know as Tide or Napisan or any product that's brand name tries to use the word 'oxy' as in oxygen cleaning or oxidization agent.

Chances are you already have some in your home laundry so feel free to use that. I have done so several times with no problems whatsoever.

Non scented house brands are awesome.

Other methods to sanitisation and sterilization
  • Applying heat - use your oven for a good dry heat.
  • Boiling in water
  • Use an autoclave or pressure cooker (this seems like a bit of over kill though)
  • An ordinary house dishwasher machine can be used for sanitation
They key goal here is to make sure that your equipment is nice and clean and that it has as few microbes on it is possible. You can use whatever means you like to achieve this but you have to do it and you must be consistent.

You cannot take a break from it. If you want good tasting beer that's not contaminated then you just have to take the plunge. 

Image credit Anna L Martin as per Creative Commons License

Why does my beer smell like rotten eggs?

Why does my beer smell like rotten eggs?

Who likes the smell of rotten eggs in their beer?

No one.

There was a time last year when I went to bottle my beer. I'd just sterilized the bottles within an inch of their lives and I was ready to get the precious amber fluid into them.

And with that first pour from the fermetner into the green glass bottle I got the most rank smell.




Rotten Eggs.

It was like I had cracked open a rotten egg and fanned it up my nose!

It was disgusting like some kind of vile hydrogen sulfide bomb had been let off.

My brew was contaminated and I was gutted

There could have been a couple of reasons why the rotten eggy smell was happening. That rotten egg smell can usually be identified as the gas hydrogen sulfide.

It's probably the most obvious symptom that your beer has gone bad.

It is the bi-product of the yeast strain or bacteria that have snuck into your brew (did we ever mention you've got to sanitize your equipment?).

The thing about lagers and rotten smells

All is not necessarily lost however.

You can fix this problem if the sulfide was produced by the yeast and not bad bacteria.

Lager yeast strains are quite prone to producing sulfide odors. This is normal. If you properly condition your bottled beer (the lagering process) by letting in stand for a few weeks, the smell should go away before it's time to drink.

This why we also recommend that new brewers try an ale or two first to avoid this problem and being disappointed with their foray into brewing. 

The news is not so good if you have a bacterial infection 

When is such news ever good?

In my case I think it was clear that the beer was infected. The smell was pungent and a wee taste test suggested worse things were on offer.

But even though I was pretty sour, I was a stubborn bugger and bottled anyway on the off chance a bit of time conditioning would let everything sort itself out.

How wrong was I.

The beer I tasted after two weeks was probably the worst thing I have ever put in my mouth and I once lost a beer drinking game involving a kitchen cloth....

I reckon this bad beer would have made me sick if I had of drank a whole glass.

The rest of the brews were opened and tipped out. What was very interesting was there was a massive amount of CO2 / bubbles foam released when each cap was removed. They were giant gushers!  I imagine this was due to the unwanted bacteria continuing to work its own fermenting magic on the malt.

Either way, the lesson here as always is to do your absolute best to ensure that you have clean equipment and that you've done your best to sanitize it, and kept it clean during the beer brewing process.

If you find your beer in this condition before bottling, I'm afraid all you can do is dump the batch.

And then clean the heck of your fermenter!

This was a brewing lesson I will never forget. I'll be lax in some areas but never making sure my equipment is clean and sanitized!

Skunked beer

While we're here talking about ruined beer, let's talk about skunked beer. This is when a chemical reaction happens in the bottled beer due to exposure to sunlight.

So named after the smell a skunk can release, lightstruck beer is caused by the UV radiation in light from the sun and retailer's lights. The so-alpha acids in the beer (which come from hops) are broken down and form a new compound in the beer by joining with any proteins floating around.

This compound stinks!

Brown glass is pretty handy at preventing this from occurring but not so much green bottles or clear glass. So, the trick to avoiding skunked beer is clearly to store your beer in the dark.

In summary:
  • If you are brewing a lager, the smell could be 'normal' and may disappear after the beer has been conditioned
  • It could well be your beer is contaminated by bacteria, in which case nothing will save it. Head to the pub for a self pitying pint.
  • Lightstruck or skunked beer can happen when bottled beer is left in sunlight too long.
  • Let your beer condition properly so that the yeast has time to work it's magic properly.