Cleaning bottles is undoubtedly the process that brewers like doing the least, but sadly unless you are working with kegs, there’s no way around it!
In this article, I will be going over the reasons for cleaning bottles, what products, equipment, sanitizers, and processes are used to achieve this, if cleaning, sanitizing, and sterilizing are actually the same thing, and I will also show you some tips to make your cleaning day more enjoyable.
So, without any further ado, let’s get started!
How to Clean and Sanitize Beer Bottles
Start by cleaning the outside of the bottle and removing the label using hot water and by scrubbing it, then clean the inside with hot water and an appropriate cleaning agent, such as neutral dishwasher soap. After this, sanitize the bottles with the sanitizer (StarSan, Oxyclean, etc.) and let them drain until completely dry.
That’s just the short version, so here’s the entire guide on how to actually clean and sanitize beer bottles properly!
How long does the Cleaning & Sanitizing process take overall?
This obviously depends on the number of bottles you need to clean and sanitize, but you could expect the whole process to take from one hour, for a small number of bottles, to about four, if you have a large number of bottles that need to be cleaned or if they are extremely dirty.
The bottle cleaning and sanitizing processes are not always the same and, as I just said, the number of bottles and equipment to be used are the ones that will determine the amount of time that it’s going to take.
It is not the same to sanitize 30 bottles as 300, just as it is not the same to have relatively clean or completely dirty bottles.
Difference between Sanitization and Sterilization
It’s important to know the difference between cleaning, sanitizing, and sterilizing since they do differ.
Cleaning a surface means removing all the dirt, gunk, or other particles, from the surface. You cannot sanitize a surface that is not clean, as bacteria could easily “hide” in those contaminated spots (a dirty but sanitized bottle, is still a dirty bottle).
Sanitizing, on the other hand, works by reducing the bacterial load to an acceptable minimum level.
Why do we say acceptable minimum level? Well, this is because to eliminate all microorganisms it would be necessary to sterilize, which requires there to be absolutely no oxygen, and, except when working with kegs, this is impossible for any home brewer.
Important: Steps to take to make the sanitizing day go smoother and faster!
Once you’re done this enough, and by that I mean brewing your own beer, you realize that it’s imperative to make a couple of preparations and to have everything ready to go for brew day, since any unforeseen event can cost us a lot of time.
Just like many brewers prefer to mill the malt the day before brewing, some prefer to wash the bottles prior to the sanitizing day since, this way, they don’t have to spend as much time doing everything at once.
It’s important to make sure that we have the equipment, as well as all the necessary cleaning agents we are going to use, ready to go.
As far as the detergent goes, it is recommended that it be neutral, although we have tried kitchen detergent and with a good rinse, it does its job well (but you really, REALLY need to rinse it well with boiled water since it leaves residues).
The brush must be able to reach all parts of the bottle and not damage it (one thing that happened to me was that the brush bent a little and I couldn’t get it out of the bottle, so I used a bit too much force and broke the bottle’s neck).
Finally, there are a large number of sanitizing products available, such as Oxiclean, StarSan (and PBW), hydrogen peroxide, etc.
The most commonly used are peracetic Acid (also known as peroxyacetic acid, or PAA) and alcohol concentrated at 70%. Often these are considered to be exclusive, and by that, I mean that you either use one or the other, but they can actually be combined.
It’s also advisable to make the sanitizing solution the day before so that you have everything ready to go on sanitizing day.
But more on how to use these products to sanitize bottles in a bit!
Now, one additional recommendation that will make your life a hell of a lot easier is to:
Rinse and clean the bottles right after using them
The best and easiest way to alleviate the amount of work that needs to be done when reusing bottles is to rinse them right after serving the beer.
This way we don’t allow for the formation of bacteria and fungi.
I would recommend rinsing the bottles many times with hot water and shaking them a bit so that no beer gets left behind, and then covering them with aluminum or plastic foil to prevent any dirt, dust, or bacteria from getting in.
If you’ve done this correctly, then the bottles should be clean enough, and stay that way, until it’s time to sanitize them (believe me, this saves a lot of time in the long run).
How to clean the bottles?
Let’s imagine the worst-case scenario: A friend brings over a couple of bottles that are completely covered in dust, they still have the labels on, and you can see some fungus inside. Where do you start?
Luckily, it’s quite a simple process:
Start by removing the labels
We will always start with the outside since this will help us see what’s actually going on on the inside.
Here’s how to do it:
- Fill a container large enough to fit the bottles with water and put them in there (also fill the bottles with water, otherwise, they will float).
- Leave it for at least 25 minutes and then the label should be easy to remove with just your hands. If the label is still firmly stuck, you could leave it for longer or use a wire sponge to remove it.
How to get rid of any fungi that may have formed inside of the bottles
Once all of the dust, dirt and labels have been removed, it is time to deal with the fungi. For this we have two options:
- Fill the bottles halfway with hot water and pour in a few milliliters of bleach. Let it sit for a couple of minutes and then shake the bottle every five minutes until you notice that all of the fungi start to come off the bottom.
- Rinse the bottles many times with hot water.
- Fill the bottle with water and, using the proper cleaning agent such as neutral dishwasher soap, regular detergent (remember that this one needs to be rinsed out with boiled water), etc., scrape the insides with the brush to manually remove the fungi.
By hand with a bottle brush
Larger Fungi are easily recognizable by sight, however, there are many tiny “infectious spots” that may go unnoticed. For this reason, it is advisable to make sure that our brush reaches all the inside of the bottle.
Once you thoroughly brushed the insides on the bottle with detergent, neutral dishwasher soap, or any other cleaning agent, look through it by looking against the light to check if there’s anything else left to clean.
Alternative: Use the dishwasher
Of course, there are more sophisticated ways to clean and even sanitize our bottles and a dishwasher is excellent for this:
A dishwasher lets you place the bottles upside down and clean them easily, plus it also sanitizes and dries them at really high temperatures.
If you’re working with a small-enough batch of bottles that can all fit inside of the dishwasher, then I’d recommend using this method since it’s fast and effortless.
Just make sure to use neutral dishwasher soap!
How to sanitize beer bottles
In this section, we are going to look both at how to sanitize bottles and with what products to do so, as there are several to choose from.
But first I think it is important to ask the question of whether it is really worth sanitizing the bottles, or if it is just a marketing tactic to make us spend on products we do not actually need:
Is it really necessary to sanitize the bottles?
Sanitizing the bottles is an extremely important part of beermaking since, if skipped, it could jeopardize all the effort we made so far since any leftover bacteria could ruin the beer itself, forcing us to throw it away and have to start from scratch.
Just remember that only once our bottles are clean, we can move on to the sanitization step since a dirty but sanitized bottle, is still a dirty bottle.
What products can be used to sanitize beer bottles?
Remember the two sanitizing agents I mentioned previously, alcohol and peracetic acid? Well, here’s where we’ll put them to good use (I mentioned before products like Oxiclean and StarSan, these are even easier to use but they are also a tiny bit more expensive):
- Low corrosion level
- High corrossion level
OxiClean & StarSan:
Easier to use (no rinsing required).
The cost per liter of these sanitizers (Alcohol and Paracetic) is similar. However, when we see that the dilutions of peracetic are between 0.25% and 0.50% while the alcohol concentrations are 70%, we can see that one ends up being way more expensive than the other.
But as we expressed, the cost is not the only thing to consider: The high corrosion levels of peracetic acid are harmful to our skin while alcohol, as we have experienced in these last years of confinement, is not. It’s important to understand that peracetic acid sanitizes because it is highly oxidizing and, while this makes it very effective against bacteria, it also makes it very dangerous for beer.
So, alcohol or peracetic acid? Well, both actually. The truth is that at different times one will be more useful than the other, but they are generally used together. OxiClean and StarSan are also two very good options as they are easy to use, do not require rinsing, and are not harmful to the skin.
Here are the steps to follow to sanitize bottles with peracetic Acid and alcohol:
- Using a simple water sprayer, make a dilution of about 0.25% and 0.50% of peracetic acid and water.
- Pour this into each of the previously cleaned bottles.
- Wait for a few minutes to let the peracetic sanitize the bottles.
- Let the bottles drain for a few hours.
- Boil water for a few minutes, turn off the heat, and then allow it to go down to 80 degrees Celsius, and with the help of a funnel pour the hot water into each of the bottles. This way we make sure that there is no trace of peracetic acid, but also do not re-contaminate the bottles.
- Everything that will come into contact with the bottles should be sprayed with 70% alcohol, including our hands.
Important note: Other brewers, once the bottles are clean and sanitized, cover their tops with aluminum foil and put them in the oven at around 110-degrees Celsius for 15 minutes, which kills most of the microorganisms in the bottles.
For sanitizing with OxiClean or StarSan, it is even simpler:
- Dilute the chemical in water, following the instructions.
- Fill the bottles with the sanitizing solution, or use a bottle cleaner.
- Let the bottles drain and dry completely.
Caution: When working with chemicals, we should always wear gloves and goggles. If by accident these chemicals come into contact with our skin, it is best to wash or shower immediately and, of course, do not eat or drink after working with peracetic acid without first cleaning your hands thoroughly, and always try to work in ventilated environments.
What do we need to clean?
It is not only important to clean and sanitize everything that will come into direct contact with our beer, but also the space where we carry out the process since it increases the risk of contamination.
So, make sure to thoroughly clean the kitchen counter and any other surface that might come into contact with the beer, your hands, or anything else that might carry bacteria over into the beer.
The idea that I would like to get to is that, at the end of the day, you should take your time and properly clean and sanitize everything to keep the beer from getting infected.
This may sound complicated, but it’s really not. Just take your time, don’t rush through it and you should always end up with great results.
Here are the steps you should follow to clean and sanitize your beer bottles:
- Rinse the bottles with hot water multiple times after first serving the beer.
- Soak the bottles in hot water and neutral dishwasher soap, clean the outside of the bottles, peel off the label, and scrub the inside using a bottle brush.
- Sanitize them with sanitizing solution (OxiClean, StarSan, Peracetic Acid, etc.) by either filling up the bottles with it or using a bottle cleaner.
- Drain the bottles upside down and let them dry completely.