Sunday, March 6, 2011
Sanitizing, washing, scrubbing, soaking, autoclaving if you can... it's ninety percent of winemaking. Or is that waiting? I can't stress enough how important cleanliness and sanitizing are. It is by far the most time consuming part of a good brew. The best rule of thumb is that anything that will touch your wine (indirectly or directly) should be sanitized. What do I mean by indirectly? If you sanitize your spoon that you use to stir your wine, then set it down on the counter, it's no longer sanitized. Unless your counter is sanitized too!
So why all the fuss? Bacteria are everywhere, and with all that sugar and all those nutrients in your wine, that's THE place that they want to be! Bacteria landing in your wine and reproducing exponentially can mean a number of things. The worst case scenario: they could make you or anyone that drinks your wine ill. While this is probably the least likely effect to occur, it's not worth the risk. Secondly, these bacteria might give off odd smells, gasses, or chemicals that make your wine taste or smell bad. No one wants that! Thirdly, they can throw off the acid balance of your wine, or spoil your wine, making it taste like vinegar or rot.
Well, that's not very encouraging. But this is: keeping bacteria out of your wine is easy. Sanitizing is easy. There are also a lot of options out there for sanitizing. The cheapest is definitely bleach, which mixed in a solution of three tablespoons of bleach per gallon of water is very effective. Soak/spray with this solution, let sit for 20 minutes, and you're good to go. This is also a very low concentration of chlorine (sodium hypochlorite) that won't kill your yeast, and won't hurt you in ingestion, even if you don't give a secondary rinse. I always give a quick water rinse to my bottles, containers, and utensils after a bleach soak, and would recommend that you do too.
Above: My melamine stirrer soaking in a 3Tbsp/gallon bleach solution.
Another popular, albeit slightly more expensive route, is to use food grade/food safe sanitizers like StarSan. StarSan is extremely popular and I would definitely recommend it, although it's not necessary.
Another interesting and important fact is that wine fermentation naturally has some built-in safeguards. These would be acidity and alcohol content. The low pH of wine is an environment that many microbes cannot survive in, and this lends to the stability and safety of your wine. If a wine's pH becomes too close to neutral, they become less stable, but this is generally of little to no concern with the home winemaker, as grapes and apples tend to keep themselves at a pH appropriate for pH, and the fruits that don't, that's when acid blend or oranges and lemons come into the recipe. (I prefer to use lemon or orange juice to increase acidity, that's why you'll often see them in my recipes.) Alcohol content is another great safeguard. Wines generally come out at an alcohol by volume content of 12% or greater. Wine yeasts can tolerate this concentration of alcohol, but most wild yeasts and microbes cannot. In fact, many wild yeasts and microbes have trouble at even four or six percent alcohol. This is just one more way in which your wine keeps itself naturally stable and safe, and explains why thousands of years ago, far before the invention of StarSan, wine was successfully fermented and stored.
No matter which method you use, the take home message is that good sanitizing habits and techniques are extremely important, and will give you a happy winemaking experience.