Simplifying Cleaning and Sanitizing for Home Winemakers

Wine making is a glorious hobby, one that impresses your friends since you make wine and they do not. Wine making gives us an identity, we are a winemaker! When we get together with our friends and drink wine, we also love to talk about wine making. We talk about yeast, specific grape varieties, malo-lactic, and other wine specific terms. But rarely (probably never) do we talk about the most important part of wine making, 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. Cleaning and Sanitizing is a lot like work, and this hobby is all about having fun!
In this article I will give you my thoughts on how to clean and sanitize your wine and winemaking equipment, minimizing the focus on the chemistry part of the process. I have condensed my findings to give you an overview of the most commonly found chemicals available to home winemakers today, how well they work, how much to use, advantages and disadvantages, which I like best, and you can make the decision what to use from the information present. I have listed the web sites at the end of the article from some of the manufacturers, for you to look into the chemicals in more depth if you wish.
Lets define cleaning and sanitizing, since they are two different processes, which should not be confused. Cleaning your equipment means that you have removed all of the visible dirt and residue on your equipment, sanitizing means you have treated your equipment with a chemical solution that will eliminate, or prevent the growth of spoilage organisms (molds, wild yeasts, bacteria). You MUST clean your equipment before sanitizing the equipment, since you cannot properly sanitize equipment with visible residue on it.
Lets 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? Well, first you need to clean your fermenter, airlock, bungs, hoses, siphon, and any other pieces of equipment that is going to come in contact with your wine. This can also include things like spoons, funnels, etc that are easy to overlook. It would be easy (and tempting) to just hose them out and start making wine, but you know deep down that that is exposing your wine to bacterial infections, and you would hate to have a ruined batch after all the time and effort that you go through to finally get that wine in your glass to drink.
There are two primary methods of cleaning your equipment. Either you use a cleaning solution and scrub your fermenter, which takes less time but more elbow grease, or you use a chemical and water and allow the chemical cleaner and time to soak the fermenter clean.
I normally use a combination of the two methods, since I often am too impatient to wait for the chemical to work by itself, and am 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. For hoses, airlocks, and siphons that you can’t scrub, a good cleaning chemical and patience is the best bet.
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 basically what separates them from each other) and they effectively remove dirt and deposits from all types of beer and wine making 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 and septic system friendly.
P.B.W. (Powder Brewery Wash) – PBW is a percarbonate that is the highest strength of the Percarbonates listed. This is my favorite cleaner of all, since 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. Rinse after using.
Straight A, One Step and B Brite – These percarbonates are similar to PBW, but are not as strong as PBW, at about 1/3 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 of warm water, rise 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 to use, and more environmentally friendly. Use at a rate of 1 teaspoon per liter of water for cleaning.
Pro-Zyme – (available in Canada) This is an enzyme-enhanced detergent, which is effective in removing protein buildup from beer and wine making equipment. Use at a rate of 7 grams per liter of hot water. Pro-Zyme is a mild irritant, much like laundry detergent.
Chlorine – Chlorine bleach is a good cleaner for glass, but of limited usage for plastic, since it can be absorbed by the plastic, leading to off flavors in your wine, and should never be used for stainless steel, since it can actual eat holes through the stainless steel. For cleaning glass, use at a rate of about 2 ½ tablespoons per 5 gallons of water, let the solution soak for about 30 minutes, then scrub to remove stubborn deposits. You MUST rinse heavily to remove the excess chlorine smell.
Lets Sanitize!!
Now that your equipment is clean, the hard part is over. It is now time to sanitize your equipment, so that you can get to the fun part of winemaking. All of the sanitizers listed below are added to water, and then you use the solution to soak your equipment for 5 to 30 minutes. bleach and Sparkle Brite must be rinsed with water, the others you can just drip dry.
Campden Tablets – Campden tablets have been used for ages in winemaking, and appear to be near the end of their product life. Campden tablets 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 all that there is to recommend their use. Sodium source of metabisulfite is not recommended because of possible flavor changes in wine. Combine this with the near impossibility of successfully dissolving the tablets (and getting the correct dosage), there is little to recommend this product. A much better choice would be potassium metabisulfite. Also, US government has banned the use of sodium metabisulfite in wines due to the concerns over sodium in wine.
Sodium Metabisulfite – Sodium metabisulfite is a source of sulfites that is not recommended because of possible flavor changes in wine. What this means is that you should definitely not use sodium metabisulfite to sanitize your must. You could use it to sterilize your equipment, but I recommend keeping life simple and using potassium bisulfite for all of your winemaking needs. You will need only one type of sulfite on hand, and it will thus be fresher than if you have both on hand.
Potassium Metabisulfite – This product is excellent for sulfiting your must prior to adding yeast. ½ teaspoon dry measure to 6 gallons (23 liters) of must work well to sanitize must and neutralize wild yeasts, mold, and bacteria that are in the must prior to adding yeast.
In stronger doses potassium bisulfite 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 water, and then rinse your equipment in this solution for about 5 minutes to sanitize, 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 in my wine making, and love it, because it is a no rinse sanitizer, and very easy to use. A 12.5 PPM (part per million) 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, and soak or spray my equipment, then allow 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 20-minute contact time to sanitize. 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 to use, and more environmentally friendly.
Chlorine – Chlorine bleach is a good glass equipment sanitizer, but 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 ½ tablespoons per 5 gallons of water, let the solution soak for about 5 minutes. You MUST rinse heavily to remove the excess chlorine (smell), and if you are rinsing with well water you are possibly re-contaminating. If your tap water is heavily chlorinated, it is impossible to totally remove the chlorine. Chlorine also kills yeast, so any breakdown in rinsing can lead to fermentation problems.
My Recommendations
If I had easy access to all of these cleaning and sanitizing chemicals, what would I do? My cleaner of choice is easily the percarbonate P.B.W. It is strong, works effectively, requires a minimum of effort, and is environmentally friendly. Cost is about $10 to $12 a pound, which should get you through about 8 to 10 five-gallon batches of wine. While this cost is slightly higher than the other cleaners, it is worth the few extra dollars in time saved, and the peace of mind of having cleaner equipment.
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 for sanitizing my fermenter, airlocks, bungs, and siphoning equipment. I believe that the iodophor will sanitize your equipment a bit better than the sodium bisulfite. Which ever you use, remember none of the sanitizers work well if you have not cleaned your equipment first!
Brewking Technical Reference Manual
By Tim Vandergrift,
Solving the Sulfite Puzzle, by Daniel Pembianchi
Winemaker Magazine, Winter 2000 issue
Straight A & One Step
5 Star Affiliates, Commerce City, Colorado
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