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Probably the most important aspect of home brewing is sanitation.  If you are not starting with a clean environment, you may find yourself brewing some fairly nasty concoctions.  One of the worst things a home brewer has to face is the prospect of pouring 5 gallons of undrinkable liquid down the drain.  So, as you prepare to mix your first batch, repeat these words over and over before ever even touching your ingredients:  Sanitize Everything!

Step 1:  Location

Location is often dictated by what space you have available to work in, usually the kitchen.  Needless to say, certain actions can be taken to avoid contamination.  Try not to have any open windows, particularly on windy days, and turn any fans off that are blowing in your direction.  Put away all vinegars as you run the risk of creating your own honey based vinegar.  Dust and mop the area leaving enough time for any floating dust to settle before starting.  If you have doors without a threshold that allow dirt, dust and wind to blow through, then it is a good idea to place a towel across the bottom of the door to keep things from blowing in while you make your Mead.  Banish your pets, and any other two or four legged friends from your Meadmaking area if they have not undergone the same cleaning regimen as you have (see Step 3 below).  Every little bit that seems insignificant helps to ensure that you are not introducing contamination into your Must. It’s also a good idea to make a note of the pollen count and type in your area. You can check that out on the internet here.

Step 2:  Timing

Start to sanitize your equipment about 15 minutes before you will use it.  Any earlier and you risk extra build up of unwanted spoilers.  Any later and, depending on the method being used, you may not have given yourself enough time to kill everything.

Step 3:  Yourself

You will be handling your equipment, so it does not hurt to start off clean yourself. Clean tight fitting shirts/clothing, hats to keep hair out of your Must, and clipped fingernails that have been scrubbed before starting are highly suggested.  Some Mazers even recommend showering after cleaning and before starting to make their Mead, to add that extra little bit of cleanliness to the process.  Wash your hands with some antibacterial soap or use hand sanitizer before touching anything. 

Step 4:  Surfaces

Clean the surfaces you will be working on.  You can never completely remove all of the bacteria and spores floating around you as you prepare your Must, but getting rid of as many as possible reduces the chances of contamination. 
Be aware that, just because you wiped the countertop with disinfectant, you cannot rest your equipment on it and think they will remain clean (nasty batch of Nut Brown Ale brought that lesson home a long time ago). 

Step 5:  Sanitation

The primary method of sanitizing your equipment is to make sure it is free of debris.  If there is gunk stuck to the walls or bottom, or if it smells stale, then it is not clean enough.  Bacteria, molds, yeast, etc. can hide in this gunk and will contaminate the Must as soon as it is added.  So step one is to grab a bottle brush and to scrub hard using liberal amounts of detergent/soap and hot water.  Keep rinsing and scrubbing until the inside of the carboy or bucket is clear of all junk and you can detect no smells.  The same goes for your bungs, air-locks, tubing, racking canes or anything else that will come into contact with the Must. 

A word of warning here: plastic scratches fairly easily.  Bacteria are small enough to lodge nicely in these scratches, and are extremely difficult to remove once there.  If you are using a plastic bucket for your primary fermenter, do not use highly abrasive brushes or you risk ruining it for future use.  Instead, use a soft bristled brush, sponge, or cloth, along with some elbow grease and plenty of hot water.

If you have some very resilient scum that is hard to reach or remove, fill the container up with hot water and let it soak overnight.

Step 6:  Sterilization

100% sterilization is not possible in the kind of environment most of us make our Mead in.  This is because there are always bacteria, spores, and wild yeasts floating around us, sitting on us, and doing their best to get in where they are not wanted.  We must therefore do our best to get rid of the great majority so as to give our brewing yeast a head start in the Must.  There are two ways of doing this; by using heat or chemicals.

First, heat.  This can be accomplished by either placing the equipment in boiling water for at least 1 minute, or by heating the water to pasteurizing temperatures and keeping it there for enough time to kill anything still lurking.  The following table provides the temperature vs. time required to achieve sterilization:

Table 1: Pasteuraization Temperatures:

Temperature (°F/°C)

Time (minutes)

123/51

470

130/55

170

135/57

60

140/60

22

145/63

7.5

150/66

2.8**

155/68

1.0**

** Extrapolated from logarithmic curve constructed from Townsend's data.

Of course, not all equipment can take this kind of heat, particularly plastics, so be careful when deciding what to immerse in the hot water.  I have personally boiled bungs, airlocks, and turkey basters (used for taking samples), but not siphon tubing, racking canes, or bottle fillers.

Second, chemicals.  There are a whole slew of chemicals out there that can be used to sanitize and sterilize, from regular household bleach to specialty brewery sanitizers.  Each one has its unique methods of use, such as needing to be rinsed after immersion, so it is important to read the instructions.  Below are the most common chemicals used by homebrewers (not in order of popularity):

Table 2: Sanitation Chemicals:

Product
Bleach
K-Metabisulfite
B Brite/C Brite
Iodophor
 Star San
 Saniclean
 Powdered Brewery Wash
 Straight A
 Beer/Wine Line Cleaner
 Easy Clean
 Na-Metabisulfite

Of all of them, bleach is probably the most used as it is cheap and extremely easy to find.  Make sure to use the straight unscented kind to avoid adding that lemony scent to your Mead.  It is most convenient to use the 5 gallon primary fermentation bucket to soak everything in as you will be sanitizing the bucket anyway.  A water tray used for hanging wallpaper is the ideal length for the longer pieces such as a racking cane. 

Opinions on concentration of bleach needed differ, but 1 Tbs. (or 0.5 fl. oz., 14.8 ml) per 1 gallon (3.72 litres) of water will do the trick (that’s 0.5 cups of bleach per 5 gallons of water).  Let the equipment sit for at least 15 minutes completely filled or immersed in the solution.  Rinse everything thoroughly with fresh tap water and continue rinsing until there is absolutely no residual smell of chlorine detectable.  Make sure to place each rinsed piece inside another sanitized container and avoid letting them touch anything else prior to use.

Following these instructions to the letter is not an absolute requirement to produce great Mead.  Many people avoid infection by just following the simple instruction of 'Sanitize anything that will come into contact with the Must'.  Although you cannot be 100% clean, following this method should result in an environment sufficiently free of microorganisms and opportunistic pathogens that could ruin your batch of Mead.

There are various sanitation chemicals that can be used, each with their own unique qualities.  The following chart lists a few of them, but there are others that are available from your local Homebrew Store.  Talk to the owner to get a better idea of what will work best for you.  If the only thing available to you is bleach, then make sure you rinse everything very well to eliminate all of the smell before using.
 
Note: It is important to follow the instructions on the container when using these chemicals, particularly if there may be some mixing.  The combination of different chemical compounds can result in the release of poisonous gases.  If you are in any doubt as to the results of mixing, play it safe and don’t do it.
 

Agent  Use  Mixture  Contact Time  Rinse/No Rinse  Environment Friendly?  Cost* 
 1 Step sanitize  1 tbs/gal   2 mins  No Rinse  friendly $2.50/lb 
OxyClean   clean  1-3 tbs/5 gal  as required  Extremely Well  friendly $2.50/lb 
 PBW  clean  1-3 tbs/5 gal  as required Extremely Well  friendly  $6.95/lb
 Straight-A  clean  1-3 tbs/5 gal  as required  Extremely Well  friendly  $3.75/lb
 Bleach  sanitize  1 tbs/gal  15 minutes  Extremely Well  unfriendly  $1.75/gal
 Diversol  sanitize  1 tbs/gal  15 minutes  yes  friendly  
 Iodophor  sanitize  read instr  60 seconds  no  unfriendly  $7/16 oz
 Star San  sanitize  read instr  60 seconds  no  friendly  $7/16 oz
 B-Brite  both  1 tbs/gal  15 seconds  Extremely Well  friendly  $2.50/lb
* These costs are an average based on availability over the internet or in stores.  Prices may vary on location.
Vicky Rowe
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Vicky Rowe

Vicky Rowe has been active as a promoter and supporter of the mead industry since the mid-90's with Gotmead.com, and is totally serious about seeing the mead industry take its rightful place as a popular craft beverage on the world recreational drinking stage.

She is also an experienced marketing coach and consultant who has recently decided to focus her marketing expertise exclusively on the craft beverage market to help meaderies, cideries, breweries and distilleries expand their business and get more customers while doing what they love.
Vicky Rowe
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