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Cleaning and Sanitation


Today I thought we might talk about “Cleaning and Sanitation”. One of the most frequent questions asked, here at Southern Hills Homebrew Supply, is about these two subjects. It was one of the things in brewing I had a hard time understanding. What makes a cleaner a cleaner, what makes a sanitizer a sanitizer. If you do try and look for an answer most forums or posts state, simply, a cleaner is not a sanitizer, and a sanitizer is not a cleaner. To which I would ask; “why?”. When I did voice the question, out loud, I always received the same answer (no matter who I asked); one cleans and one sanitizes.

     To further complicate things, for me, I was told that both items were an acid. I just couldn’t wrap my head around the premise that if both are acids why do we need 2 different products. No one could give me a satisfactory answer until finally, one day, I asked “Google” the right question. Turns out that both items are not acids, the brew cleaners I have been using are alkaline and sanitizers are acidic.

     It took over a year for me to trip over this little piece of trivia, and I finally have an answer that makes sense. Let’s start with the cleaners. Here, at Southern Hills Homebrew Supply, we carry PBW (it comes in liquid form now), Easy Clean, and One Step. What these 3 products share is; they are percarbonates.

     As percarbonate cleaners they will contain some form of the following:

Sodium Percarbonate- an oxidizer made up of sodium carbonate and hydrogen peroxide.

Sodium metasilicate- a highly alkaline cleaner

Sequestrant- used in detergents in order to reduce the level of ions in water. The properties of these ions are modified, and as a result, we obtain a higher efficiency of the cleaning processes.

Surfactant- surfactants stir up activity on the surface you are cleaning to help trap dirt and remove it from the surface.

     How do these constitute a cleaner? The Alkalinity works by saponifying fats. This just means it turns fats and oils into soap1. Surfactants aid in removing contaminants by lowering the surface tension of the solution, allowing the cleaner to get under the contaminant and displace it from the surface. Once the contaminant is in solution, the wetting agent creates an emulsion, preventing redeposition onto the part being cleaned. Surfactants have one end that is soluble in water (hydrophilic) and one end that is soluble in oil (hydrophobic). This allows the surfactant molecule to create an oil-water emulsion that is easily rinsed away2. So that is why these are cleaners, so let’s look at the sanitizers.

The most common sanitizer used in brewing is Star San which uses two acids (Dodecyl benzene sulfonic acid and phosphoric acid).  Bacteria, especially the types which affect homebrewing are negatively charged whereas the compounds in Star San are largely positively charged. That ensures that they are attracted to each other, with the bacteria losing out in the exchange3. That’s why it sanitizes but doesn’t clean. There are other sanitizers on the market like IO-Star, potassium metabisulfite, and sodium metabisulfite, but they come with added cautions so I just stick to Star San.

     How this all relates to your brew day is this; you need to remove the “dirt” particles to eliminate the places that bacteria have to harbor and grow. After you remove the soil the sanitizer can then attack the little critters before they can compete with your yeast and cause an infection of your beer, wine, Kombucha, or whatever you happen to be brewing. By competing I mean it’s essentially a race for domination. That is one of the reasons you pitch so much yeast at a time (Safale US-05 has about 70 billion cells a packet). You are ensuring the yeast has a chance to establish a viable colony before any bad critters can. This is why sanitation is so important to a brewer. Your purpose, as the one initiating the fermentation, is to do everything you can to help your yeast reach total domination of your wort or must.

     But let’s say you “OOOP-sed”, you had everything sanitized and missed a spoon, or your dog stuck her head in the fermenter to see what all the fuss was about. Maybe you sneezed, coughed or any of a million other things that could, potentially, infect your brew. As Charlie Papazian says; “Relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew”.

     What? You don’t know who Charlie is? Oh, my! And you call yourself a brewer.  Charlie wrote The Complete Joy of Homebrewing ( an excellent read for anyone), and started the American Homebrew Association both of which helped kick start homebrewing in America.

     Okay, back to the subject. Sanitation is the most important aspect of homebrewing but it is nothing to loose sleep over. All though that one little oops has the  potential to mess up your hard work the chances are small. Does it happen? Yes. The chances are so small it’s not worth worrying about. Keep in mind our ancestors were brewing long before they even understood what yeast were. Their hygiene, if any, is certainly questionable at best. So your spoon is small potatoes!

     As a final note; foam. Should you worry about the foam Star San leaves behind? Absolutely not! The foam is completely harmless and is actually working it’s way into any nooks and crannies to help sanitize the places you don’t see.

     Hope this cleared up some of the questions you may have had about cleaning and sanitation. If, by chance, you might have something you want an answer to; rattle my cage. I’ll do my best to find a satisfactory answer for you.


1-Gregg Sanko, Senior Chemist, Oakite Products, Inc. Alkaline Cleaning Guide November 1,1999


3-Phil Hawes- Does Star San Affect Taste? The Real Dangers Of Sanitizing.

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  • John Thompson
Comments 3
  • John

    Howdy Mike!

    I have always used the cleaner and sanitizer on brew days. My biggest gripe was I couldn’t get an answer to why we needed 2 products. Why does one only clean? Why does the other one only sanitize. At least now I can pass on an answer that makes more sense than; “one cleans, the other sanitizes”.

  • Mike Hunt
    Mike Hunt

    Informative clip that’s written in a fun easy to read manner. From previous conversations, does this change your mind about only using the sanitizer? Or Are you going to start cleaning and sanitizing now?

  • Cindy

    Very informative and well written!

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