Homebrew Sanity and Sanitizing — Proper Sanitization Without Worrying!

To avoid bacterial contamination in your beer, it’s important for homebrewers to sanitize all their equipment — and that means everything that touches your beer after you finish boiling it.

But when I read about sanitizing in homebrewing books, magazines, blogs, newsgroups and so on, I often run across dire warnings — and something approaching religious hysteria — about sanitization.

“I can’t emphasize this enough!!!”

Yikes. Sometimes I get the impression that these people mop their house with sanitizer before they brew.

Doesn’t the homebrewer’s motto say “relax, don’t worry”? So how did we get from relaxing and not worrying to this Niecy Nash cleanliness thing?

(Niecy Nash is one of the stars on “Clean House,” which I’ve never seen. I’m assuming she got the job because she’s cute and a clean freak, but I really don’t know.)

I’ve been brewing for close to 20 years and I’ve never had a batch turn into vinnegar, or had any odd flavors that I attributed to bad sanitation. And — here’s the kicker — I’ve never been a nut about sanitization.

I even suck on the end of my siphon hose!

Okay, recently I did read that it’s a good idea to clean your mouth with a gargle of whiskey before you suck on the siphon, and I took to that like an Irishman to Guinness. It sounds like a great suggestion whether it helps keep the bacteria away or not!

And, honestly, I have thought about other ways to start the siphon to avoid sucking — like the autosiphon — but I rarely get past thinking about it because sucking on the siphon (1) is so doggone easy, (2) gives me an excuse to gargle whiskey, and (3) … I’ve never had a problem.

So either (1) I’m incredibly lucky, (2) I wouldn’t know a bacterial contamination if it bit me, or … (3) maybe a relaxed, “take it seriously but don’t be neurotic” emphasis on sanitization is good enough.

I’ll pick 3.

And you can read my non-neurotic, “works for me” method of sanitization and decide for yourself if it’s consistent with relaxing and not worrying.

Generally speaking I use bleach — about 1 tablespoon in a gallon of water. It’s cheap and easy.

I say “about” 1 tablespoon because I use bleach in two different scenarios. When I soak my bottles I’m not exactly certain how much water is in the basin. So I overcompensate. For other purposes I follow the 1 tablespoon per gallon rule.

If I’m going to bottle my beer, I blast my bottles with one of those inverted bottle washer things, check the insides for anything gross, soak them in a bleach solution for an hour or so, and then blast them again to rinse.

I wipe down the outside of my siphon with a rag soaked in proper solution (not the stuff from the bottle soaking!) and run the solution through the inside of the siphon as well, then rinse it and hang it to dry.

For the fermenter and bottling bucket, I pour some of the solution inside and wipe everything down with a clean rag and let it sit for a while. Then I run the bleach solution through the spigot on the bottom of the bucket and rinse everything.

I boil my bottle caps.

I don’t use bleach on my kegs. I use Easy Clean. You’re not supposed to use bleach on kegs because it can cause pitting, and it’s a real bummer to watch your beer trickle onto the floor out the side of your keg. (Yes, it’s happened.)

I don’t worry about sanitizing anything before the boil because the boil takes care of that, and I use the boiling wort to sanitize my wort chiller — I simply drop it in ten minutes before the end.

After brewing I wipe down my spoon with sanitizing solution before I stir in the yeast.

This routine works well for me, and I don’t feel all scared and … most important, worried.

I should note that some experienced brewers don’t think much of using bleach and prefer other options.

Okay. All I can say is that bleach has worked fine for me. (Except in kegs!)

Homebrew Recipe — Here Comes Summer Wheat Ale

After the Blizzard of 2010, which buried our neighborhood in more than three feet of snow and inspired Blizzard Bitter, I had a craving for warm summer days, wheat beer and citrus.

I love the winter, but enough is enough!

So I dreamed up Here Comes Summer Wheat Ale, which is made with half malt and half wheat, and is a very pleasant, easy to drink brew.

Here Comes Summer Wheat Ale is mildly hopped to make sure the other flavors — spruce, coriander and orange — get a chance to toy with your taste buds. None of these flavors are terribly assertive. There’s just enough for the discerning palate.

Except maybe the spruce.

I had a great experience with a spruce beer once, long ago, when I used cuttings from the Christmas tree for flavoring. My wife thought I was crazy, but the beer was excellent.

Then I had a horrible experience with spruce extract. I used too much and made a medicinal, nasty brew that I simply couldn’t drink.

This time I was very careful with the spruce. You might want to try this one as I have it, and then if you want to experiment, you might try doubling the spruce extract to see what happens.

Ingredients

1 pound Crystal 20 malt
1 3.3 pound can Briess Golden Light
1 3.3 pound can Briess Bavarian Wheat
1 ounce Amarillo hops
1 ounce Liberty hops
1/2 teaspoon spruce essence
1 tablespoon freshly ground coriander seed
the zest of one orange
1 teaspoon Irish Moss
Safale 05

Procedure

Put the Crystal malt in a grain bag and add to 2 gallons of cold water. Slowly bring the water to 150 F and let the grains soak for 10 minutes.

Remove the grains, add the malt and wheat extract and give it a good stir. (If you let the extract sit on the bottom of the pot, you’ll carmelize it.) Bring it to a boil.

Add the Amarillo hops and the spruce essence.

While it’s boiling you’ve got work to do. You can crush the whole coriander seeds in a mortal and pestle and grate the orange peel. (If you have one of those four-sided graters, use the fine side.)

Of course you should also have a homebrew at hand while you’re doing this, and you should be listening to your favorite tunes. Homebrewing is about enjoying life!

Add the coriander and Irish Moss at 50 minutes. Add the zest of the orange and the Liberty hops at the end of the boil (60 minutes).

Transfer to your sterilized fermentation bucket and add cold water to make 5 gallons. Cool the wort and pitch the yeast.

Brewing Tip

I should note that some homebrewers recommend a full wort boil. They would say that you should boil the whole 5 gallons (actually 6, and boil it down to 5) rather than boiling a portion and diluting later.

If you choose to do it this way, you’ll increase your hop utilization. That is, you’ll get more hop bitterness in a 5-gallon boil than you’ll get if you follow my procedure. I’ve never done a head to head comparison, so I can’t say how much difference there will be.

Another possible benefit of a full wort boil is lessening the danger of contamination when you add unboiled water. (Save us!) But I don’t think that’s a big problem. Municipal water in America is very safe. (You drink it every day, don’t you?)

Also, there’s an advantage to doing a partial boil and topping off. Your tap water has plenty of oxygen in it from the little aerator in the end of your spigot, and the yeast needs lots of oxygen to get started.

So if you choose to do a full wort boil, make sure you do something to get oxygen in the wort — like a vigorous stir!

Homebrew how to — Ben’s Mild Porter Recipe

My son Ben drinks enough of my beer. Okay, he drinks too much of my beer. In any event, it’s about time he pitches in and brews a little, too. Here’s one of his recent efforts.

Ben’s Mild Porter is a very nice homebrew extract porter we brewed a couple weeks ago. This post is a little how to guide so you can make it for yourself.

This is a very dark brown, very mildly carbonated porter. At room temperature (as I’m drinking it right now) it’s silky smooth with wonderful mouth feel and slight hints of the chocolate malt. The hops are unassertive.

This brew is deceptively easy to drink, so you’ll need to come up with some clever combination of relaxing and not worrying — which you must do while drinking homebrew beer — while still keeping a weather eye! We don’t want you to spill your beer!

Ingredients

1 pound chocolate malt
1 3.3# can Briess CBW Traditional Dark
1 3.3# can Briess CBW Pilsen Light
1 oz. Fuggles hops (4.0% alpha)
1 oz. Liberty hops (4.8% alpha)
Safale 04 dried yeast
2/3 cup priming sugar

Procedure

To 5 quarts of cold water add 1 pound of chocolate malt in a grain bag.

Slowly heat to a boil, and remove the grain bag before the boil.

Add both cans of malt extract and return the mixture to a boil.

Add the Fuggles hops.

After 50 minutes, add 1/2 of the Liberty hops.

After 8 more minutes, add the rest of the Liberty hops.

After 2 more minutes (bring you to a total boil of 60 minutes), remove from heat, top up to five gallons with tap water and cool. Pitch the Safale 04, ferment to completion and bottle.

We used 2/3 cup of priming sugar to make this a very lightly carbonated beer. If you prefer more carbonation, use 3/4 cup.

Entish Brown Ale — An Advanced Homebrew Beer Recipe

When the hobbits Merry and Pippin were being entertained by the ent Fangorn at one of his ent houses, the Shire boys had the rare privilege of drinking ent draughts — with odd consequences.

Fangorn had different styles of ent draughts — some on the light and refreshing side, and some more hearty and nutritious.

Entish Brown Ale is an attempt to recreate in beer the spirit of those heartier ent draughts. Its deep brown color, earthy flavors and aromas, and full, satisfying mouth feel do the job for me!

This is an ale for those who crave woodland adventures. Or at least enjoy a pint at the elbow while reading about them.

It may not curl the hair on your feet or cause you to grow a few extra inches, but it will embolden the heart and satisfy the craving for something real and substantial in your mug.

Ingredients

7 pounds English pale malt
2 pounds Brown malt
0.5 pounds Crystal 60 malt
1 T gypsum
2 oz. Northern Brewer pellet hops (60 minutes)
1 tsp. Irish Moss
2 oz. heather tips
Safale 05 yeast

Procedure

Put all the grains in your infusion mash tun. (I use the picnic cooler variety, although I have done a stove-top mash with this batch as well.) Bring 9 quarts of water to 168 F degrees and add it to the grains. Try to distribute the water evenly and be sure to stir it up to avoid pockets of dryness or excessive heat. The mash should settle at about 150 F degrees. Mash for one hour.

Take the first runnings and then sparge twice with 9 quarts of 170 degree water. You might need to add an additional quart of water to get six gallons for the boil.

Boil for one hour with the Northern Brewer hops. Add the Irish Moss during the last 10 minutes of the boil.

Cool the wort and “dry hop” with the heather. (It’s best to put heather in a grain bag to avoid a big mess later when you syphon to secondary fermentation.) Cool the wort as quickly as possible — in a snow drift, or with a wort chiller — and pitch the yeast when you’ve got the temperature well below 80 degrees. Transfer to secondary after five days.

I prefer to keg this ale and give it a lower dose of the old CO2. If you bottle, you might try slightly less priming sugar for this one — like 2/3 cup.

Book Review: The Homebrewer’s Recipe Guide

Homebrewer's Recipe Guide

Reading The Homebrewer’s Recipe Guide (by Patrick Higgins, Maura Kate Kilgore and Paul Hertlein) reminds me of why I got into home brewing. The book is all about beer, of course, which is a good recommendation for any book. But there’s more to it than that. There’s something especially enjoyable about a recipe book.

When God and I were lads, picking a 6-pack at the local liquor store was (at least I imagine) somewhat like picking a candy bar in Soviet Russia. There just weren’t that many choices.

The home brewing revolution has been a tremendous boon for the beer drinker. It’s diversified the beer world out of the “how many styles of American lager can you make” universe.

Now, liquor stores stock hundreds of styles, and even the local 7-11 will have three examples of styles of beer that I didn’t know existed when I was 18.

(Back then, we’d stare through the glass door for a few minutes and then just give up and grab the Budweiser.)

And that’s a big part of why I love recipe books. It’s simply amazing what kind of variety you can get out of hops, malt, water and yeast, and reading a beer recipe book brings all that to mind.

Don’t get me wrong. This book isn’t just recipes. It’s also peppered with fun beer quotes and useful tips on brewing, like how to repitch yeast or sour a beer.

But back to recipes. While reading a recipe book you begin to wonder how well you can taste the influence of the different styles of malts — chocolate or crystal or cara-pils — and it makes you want to experiment and try new things, which is what home brewing is all about.

An experienced brewer once told me that there are two kinds of homebrewers. Those who find one or two recipes and try to perfect them, and those who are always dabbling and trying something new.

I’m a dabbler. I’m not interested in creating the perfect industrial process that will ensure that the California Common I brewed in 2009 is just like the batch I brewed in 2008. If it’s a little different, that’s fine. That’s why it’s home brew!

If you’re the industrial sort of guy, you’re not going to think too highly of this book. It doesn’t give some important details on the recipes — like final gravity. And there’s no information on mashing techniques or any of that.

The recipes are simple. Beginning brewers will find plenty of good information. Intermediate brewers will find new things to try. Advanced brewers should be able to fill in the missing details themselves.

This is a book in the “relax, don’t worry” style — and that’s the way I like it.

Home brewing and worrying are like east and west. Sure, try your best. Use good techniques. But for God’s sake don’t get upset about it.

When you read a recipe book you get new ideas. Have you tried to brew a Belgian ale? Have you put the zest of an orange in a wheat beer? Are you wondering how much honey people add (when they do add honey)?

This isn’t a book to be studied. You’re not going to learn procedures or techniques or theory or what amylase enzyme does or how to build a wort chiller.

This is a book you thumb through while you’re sitting back in the evening with a frothy mug.

You’ll even pick up on some useful beer lore. Did you know there’s something called a “groaning ale” for expectant mothers? I didn’t — and I have five kids!

The bottom line is that this is a fun book, full of amusing beer quotes, stuffed with interesting info about various styles of beer, and it doesn’t leave you with the sense that the beer police are going to cite you for a violation.

No, officer, I didn’t scrub my entire kitchen with bleach. Sue me.

If you can relate to that, you’re my kind of home brewer, and you’re going to like this blog — and you’ll also like The Homebrewer’s Recipe Guide.