Winemaking is a glorious hobby, one that impresses your friends since you make wine and they do not. Winemaking gives us an identity: We are winemakers! When we get together with our friends to drink wine, we also love to talk about our favorite pastime. We talk about yeast strains, grape varieties, malolactic fermentation and other wine terms. But rarely do we talk about the most important part of winemaking, which is cleaning and sanitizing.
Why? That question is easy to answer: Cleaning and sanitizing is the boring, dull part of the process. Never mind that this is the most important part of winemaking. It is a lot like work, and this hobby is all about having fun!
First let’s define cleaning and sanitizing, since they are two different processes and should not be confused. Cleaning your equipment means removing all of the visible dirt and residue on your equipment, while sanitizing means you have treated your equipment with a chemical solution (or possibly heat) that will eliminate or prevent the growth of spoilage organisms (molds, wild yeasts, bacteria). You must clean your equipment before sanitizing it, since you cannot properly sanitize equipment with visible residue on it.
One last clarification: Sterilization and sanitization are two different things. Sterilization is a laboratory term for a complete lack of organisms, something that is nearly impossible in a home winemaking environment. In this article we are discussing sanitizing, and not sterilizing.
Let’s Clean Up!
So, it’s been a few months (or longer) since you made your last batch of wine. Your plastic primary fermenter, airlock and hoses all have some stains on them, and when you inspect closer, some dirt and residue from your last Zinfandel. Where do you start?
First you need to clean your fermenter, airlock, bungs, hoses, siphon and any other pieces of equipment that will come in contact with your wine. This can also include things like spoons and funnels that are easy to overlook. It is tempting to just hose them out and start making wine, but that will expose your wine to bacterial infections. You would hate to have a ruined batch after all the time and effort it takes to make it!
There are two methods of cleaning your equipment. Either you use a cleaning solution (consisting of water and one of the chemicals listed in this article) and scrub your fermenter — which takes less time but more elbow grease — or you use a cleaning solution and allow it to soak the fermenter clean.
Most household cleaners should be avoided, since either they are unsafe for human consumption (like bathroom and oven cleaners) or are too mild for use in your home winery (like Ivory liquid detergent).
When scrubbing your plastic equipment, I would suggest using a sponge or cloth towels to avoid scratching. For glass and stainless steel, scratches are not much of a problem, so more abrasive scrubbers are acceptable.
I normally use a combination of the two methods, since I am too impatient to wait for the chemical to work by itself, but too lazy to scrub everything. I soak my equipment for about 20 minutes with a cleaning solution, then scrub lightly to make sure I have gotten rid of all the residue and dirt. You want to fill carboys and fermenters to the very top with your solution, and you can immerse all of your small equipment in a sink or bucket.
For hoses, airlocks and siphons that you can’t scrub, a good cleaning chemical and patience is the best bet. These pieces of equipment are inexpensive, and eventually will need to be replaced when they don’t clean easily.
Here is an overview of the most common cleaning solutions: Percarbonates are a relatively new group of cleaning chemicals. Percarbonates are a combination of sodium carbonate and hydrogen peroxide (and other secret ingredients, which is what separates one from another) and they effectively remove dirt and deposits from all types of beer and winemaking equipment. Percarbonates work with active oxygen and a mild alkali to help lift the grime. The hydrogen peroxide does provide some degree of sanitization, but it is better to rely on them only as cleaners. One of the best properties of the percarbonate family is that they are environmentally sound and septic-system friendly.
PBW (Powder Brewery Wash): PBW is the highest-strength percarbonate listed. This is my favorite cleaner of all. It is very effective in dissolving stubborn stains in hard- to-reach places. It works well to clean hoses, airlocks, fermenters, all plastic and all metals with a 30-minute soak. PBW works well in hot, warm and cool water. For stubborn stains, an overnight soak is necessary. The solution can be used for more than one piece of equipment. A normal dosage is 1 tablespoon per gallon. Heavy duty cleaning can be up to 2 tablespoons per gallon. Rinse twice with warm water after using.
Straight-A, One-Step and B-Brite: These percarbonates are similar to PBW, but are not as strong as PBW, at about one-third the cost. While they clean about as well as PBW for most cleaning jobs, they don’t work as well for the really tough jobs. Straight-A and B- Brite are stronger than One-Step, which suggests that it can be used as a sanitizer. These cleaners also work well to remove labels from commercial wine bottles. Use at a rate of 1 tablespoon per gallon (4 liters) of warm water, rinse after cleaning.
Sparkle Brite (available in Canada, also called Diversol): Sparkle Brite is a cleaner that contains TSP (tri-sodium phosphate) and potassium bromide. This is a corrosive chemical that requires great care when using. While it works well, there are other chemicals that are easier to use, less dangerous and more environmentally friendly. Use at a rate of 1 teaspoon per liter (1 tablespoon per gallon) of water for cleaning.
Pro-Zyme (available in Canada): This is an enzyme-enhanced detergent that is effective in removing protein buildup from beer and winemaking equipment. Use at a rate of 7 grams per liter (1 ounce per gallon) of hot water. Pro-Zyme is a mild irritant, much like laundry detergent.
Chlorine: Chlorine bleach, such as Clorox, is a good cleaner for glass, but is of limited use for plastic, since it can be absorbed by the plastic, leading to off-flavors in your wine. It should never be used for stainless steel, since it can actually eat holes through it. For cleaning glass, use at a rate of about 2-1/2 tablespoons per 5 gallons (19 liters) of water, let the solution soak for about 30 minutes, then scrub to remove stubborn deposits. Rinse three or four times to remove the excess chlorine smell.
Now that your equipment is clean, you’re one step closer to the fun part of winemaking. It’s time to sanitize! All of the sanitizers listed below are dissolved in water, and then you use the solution to soak your equipment for 5 to 30 minutes. Bleach and Sparkle Brite must be rinsed from your equipment with water; with the others, you can turn the stuff upside down and let it drip dry for 5 minutes.
Campden tablets: Campden tablets have been used for ages in winemaking, but appear to be near the end of their product life. They are a pill form of sodium metabisulfite, held together with a “binder” to make them easy to measure. While they are easy to measure, that is about the only benefit. A sodium source of metabisulfite is not recommended because of possible flavor changes in wine. (They also come in potassium form, but these tablets can be hard to find.) Combined with the near impossibility of successfully dissolving the tablets (and getting the correct dosage), there is little reason to recommend this product. A much better choice would be potassium metabisulfite powder.
Sodium metabisulfite: Sodium metabisulfite powder is a source of sulfites that is not recommended because of possible flavor changes in wine. You should definitely not use sodium metabisulfite to sanitize your must. You could use it to sanitize your equipment, but I would recommend keeping life simple and using potassium metabisulfite for all of your winemaking needs.
Potassium metabisulfite: This product is excellent for sulfiting your must a day before adding yeast. Use at a rate of 1/2 teaspoon dry measure to 6 gallons (23 liters) of must. It works well to sanitize must and neutralize wild yeasts, mold and bacteria that are in the must prior to adding yeast. This product is easier to use if you dissolve it in about 1 cup of warm water before adding to your must.
In stronger doses, potassium metabisulfite works well to sanitize your equipment, with no negative consequences. Make a solution of 8 teaspoons dry measure of potassium metabisulfite added to 1 gallon (4 liters) of warm water. Rinse your equipment in this solution for about 5 minutes, and let drip dry.
Iodophor: Iodophor is a relatively new sanitizing solution to the home winemaking industry, being widely available for about 5 to 6 years. Iodophor is used by the food service industry and medical industry to sanitize equipment. Iodophor is an iodine detergent, germicide and sanitizer. I have used Iodophor for a number of years and love it, because it’s a no-rinse sanitizer and very easy to use. At 12.5 ppm (parts per million) this solution takes approximately 10 minutes to sanitize your equipment. I like to make a solution up at a rate of 1 tablespoon per 5 gallons (19 liters) and soak or spray my equipment, then allow it to drip dry for at least 10 minutes. No rinsing is necessary at this concentration. You can re-use the solution as long as the original orange-amber color is still apparent. The solution will hold its color for up to a week in a sealed container. The concentrated Iodophor solution will stain fabric, so you need to be a bit careful when pouring to make your solution.
Sparkle Brite: Sparkle Brite (or Diversol) is a sanitizing detergent, used in Canada primarily for beer- making. This is an effective sanitizer, but it must have a minimum of 20 minutes of contact time to properly sanitize. It is a corrosive chemical that requires great care when using. While it works well, there are several other chemicals that are much easier to use, less dangerous to use, and that are more environmentally friendly.
Chlorine: Chlorine bleach is a good glass equipment sanitizer, but is of limited usage for plastic, since it can be absorbed by the plastic, leading to off-flavors in your wine. For sanitizing, use at a rate of about 2-1/2 tablespoons per 5 gallons of water, then let the solution soak for about 5 minutes. You must rinse thoroughly to remove the excess chlorine, and if you happen to be rinsing with well water you could possibly be re-contaminating. If your tap water is heavily chlorinated, it will be impossible to totally remove the chlorine. Chlorine also kills yeast, so any breakdown in rinsing can possibly lead to fermentation problems.
If I had easy access to all of these cleaning and sanitizing chemicals and expense was no object, what would I do? My cleaner of choice is the percarbonate PBW. It’s strong, effective, requires minimum effort and is environmentally friendly. The cost is about $10 to $12 a pound, which should get you through about 8 to 10 five-gallon batches of wine. While significantly higher than the other cleaners, it’s worth the few extra dollars in time saved, and the peace of mind.
After I have cleaned my equipment, I use potassium bisulfite for sanitizing my must, bottles and corks. These items all have long- term contact with the wine, and a bit of potassium bisulfite is necessary in wine for long-term preservation. I use the Iodophor to sanitize my fermenter, airlocks, bungs and siphoning equipment. Whichever you use, remember none of the sanitizers work well if you have not cleaned your equipment first!