The Difference between Cleaning and Sanitizing

The Difference between Cleaning and Sanitizing

In this blog post we'll be going over the differences between cleaning and sanitizing. Though they are common and very important practices even experienced brewers make mistakes. So lets get to it!

Whether you are a new homebrewer just starting out or a competition winning pro with hundreds of batches made, one rule applies to all: Clean and Sanitize; in that order. The old joke in brewing circles is those who make beer, wine, or anything fermented are really just glorified janitors. That may be a bit of an over exaggeration, but if you homebrew you spend a lot of time cleaning. Before you brew, you clean fermenters, kettles, kegs, siphons, hoses, the list goes on. After brewing? You clean many of the same things.


So, what’s the big difference?

It is very important to note that Clean and Sanitized are most definitely not the same thing. A rough definition of clean is that the surface or object in question is free of dirt or debris. However, fermentation requires that the yeast we want to do our work has no other competition to do so. This other competition can come in the form of other bacteria that may be on a surface or object. Therefore, a rough definition of sanitized is an object or surface that is both clean and free of most bacteria or other microorganisms.


The process of sanitizing will kill off most of the bacteria on a surface or object, meaning that when it comes in contact with our wort, must, etc, the amount of other bacteria won’t be enough to bother the yeast or bacteria we want to use. Now, sanitizing is not the same as sterilizing. Sterilizing will remove all of the microorganisms on a surface or object – sanitizing only removes most. Think about it like the difference between a surgeon’s scalpel and a chef’s knife. The surgeon’s scalpel needs to be 100% sterile to not give someone an infection. The chef’s knife will be in contact with things that will eventually be cooked, so while it should be sanitary; it doesn’t need to be sterile.


What do you use to Clean and Sanitize?

To clean, you should use some kind of chemical product and warm or hot water depending on what you’re cleaning. (Pro Tip: Glass carboys don’t like hot water – you should clean these with a caustic product and lukewarm water.) There are a number of products on the market like “One-Step” and “B-Brite” which will give you a decent clean. These products are cheaper, but may be less effective because they are lower quality (they are basically unscented OxiClean).


Most serious homebrewers use PBW (Powdered Brewery Wash) which is an alkaline detergent cleaner safe on skin and for glass, plastic, stainless steel and is also safe for skin. It is very effective in cleaning just about anything you need to, and even the most dried on krausen, or scorched kettle can be cleaned easily with a hot PBW soak overnight or over a 24 hour period. At PHO, we have our store brand, PHO-BW, made of the same stuff but at a lower cost. You use both of these products at a rate of about 1 ounce per gallon of water; 2 ounces/gallon if you think you really need it. If you’re interested in the technical information on PBW, you can view it here.


                                                                                                  PHO - BW


Sanitizing is a bit of a different game. When it comes to sanitizing, you don’t want to cut any corners, or your beer, wine, or fermented product could really suffer. The removal of competing bacteria is one of the most important things you need to do to provide a good fermentation environment. The top products for sanitizing are Star-San and IO-STAR, both by 5-star Chemicals. These products work in a similar manner, but there are a few differences it is important to know before choosing one or the other. These are mainly cost, staining, and effectiveness.


Star San is slightly more expensive, but is generally regarded as superior to IO-STAR because it will not stain plastic or vinyl. It works quickly and is widely used by most homebrewers as their only sanitizer. If you use Star-San with Reverse Osmosis (RO) water, you may be able to store and re-use it for a period of time. Star San, even when diluted, is a very powerful acid and will stain clothes but is generally skin-safe. IO-STAR, on the other hand, is slightly cheaper. Because it is Iodine based, it can and will stain clothes and other surfaces even when diluted. Its contact time to sanitize is somewhat longer and it does have a slight “medical” smell to it. Directions and reviews recommend allowing items sanitized with Iodine sanitizers to drip dry for a small length of time before use. Iodine sanitizers will also stain plastic buckets and vinyl tubing a brownish color, so be careful of that. Philly Homebrew Outlet currently offers our own brand of Iodine sanitizer – PHO-DOPHOR at a reduced price compared to IO-STAR.

  Star - San
                    Star - San


Overall, as long as you remember the order is “Clean, then Sanitize,” and as long as the proper time and concentration of chemicals are used, there should be no real issues with your beer, wine or fermented product. “Brewers make wort, yeast makes beer,” is the conventional wisdom and giving your yeast the prime environment to work their magic should be a large part of your brewing process.


As always, if you have any questions about cleaning, sanitizing, or anything DIY related, contact any of the Philly Homebrew Outlet Stores to receive help, tips, or advice.


Happy Brewing!


James Holland is a South Jersey homebrewer, craft beer nerd, and beer and brewing writer. Homebrewing since 2013, he boiled the yeast on his first batch but now enters Regional and National Competitions. He encourages anyone interested in homebrewing to experiment, make mistakes, read a lot and Relax, Don't Worry, Have A Homebrew. Oh, and join a club!




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