My One Step Addiction: Cleaning, Sanitizing(?), and Brewing

I’m addicted to a fine white powder.  I couldn’t imagine my life without it.  It’s expensive, but I just can’t stop buying it.  The dealers see me coming from a mile away, because they know that whatever other chemical concoctions they have, I’m not interested: just give me that pure, uncut, beautiful oxygen based cleaning product.

 BREWING IS CLEANING

Brewing is cleaning.  It isn’t glamorous, or fun, or easy, but it’s essential to making good beer.  I’ve heard it said that “of the top five things that can go wrong with your beer, six of them have to do with cleaning and sanitation.”  And here at Beer Simple there’s only one product that satisfies the “Keep it Simple” mentality: One Step No Rinse Cleaner, an oxygen-based cleaning product.    

While there are undoubtedly some of you that are already shaking your heads and raising objections, it’s been my experience that not only is this a superior product in many ways, but that most brewers I know are basing their cleaning/sanitizing decisions on just one thing: habit.  They’ve always used what they use.  Hell, in researching this post I ran across a discussion in a forum where someone asked, “what’s wrong with bleach?”  Well, nothing, I guess, but if you want to perpetually run the risk of making your beer taste horrible and/or kill yourself, then go for it.  Show me a brewer using bleach in their process, and I’ll show you someone who started homebrewing when Ronald Reagan was in the White House.

This is important, and it almost seems like an afterthought when I hear people talking to new brewers.  Sure, they mention cleaning/sanitizing, but it isn’t a sexy topic.  I can’t even believe I’m writing this – hell, I’m bored already.  But there’s nothing – NOTHING – more important in your process than this, and so, for that reason, and since I’m snowed in (no pun intended) anyway, I’m going to devote this week’s post to talking about something that is, arguably, the dullest part of brewing. 

I’M NOT DUMB – I’M JUST CONDITIONED

Most of you know, of course, that I’m making a major mistake already: I’m equating “cleaning” and “sanitizing,” which are two separate things.  This isn’t because I’m an idiot (well, in fairness, it isn’t ONLY because I’m an idiot, since it’s certainly possible that I am), it’s because I’ve never had to treat them as two different things.  Right from the start I was a One Step Addict.  I’m going to treat them as the same thing for a little while, so bear with me if you’re already screaming at the screen.

My very first trip to a homebrew shop was to Keystone Homebrew Supply, which at the time was located in a tiny house, packed to the rafters with brewing equipment – not the gargantuan, never-ending, Narnia-is-back-there-somewhere series of bays and warehouses that now houses KHS. [Seriously, though – go visit.  It’s like Disney World for homebrewers and home winemakers]    On that day, when I asked what kind of cleaner to get, someone handed me a five-pound tub of One Step, and the rest is history.  I asked how to use it – and I was told to mix it, 1 gallon to 1 tablespoon, in warm water. 

“Then what?,” says I.

“Nothing.  Just let it sit.”

“But don’t I have to scrub or something?”

“No.  Just let it sit.”

“But won’t I –“

“No.  Shut up.  Just use it.”

In retrospect, that guy was pretty surly.  But he was right. 

For those who’ve never used it, One Step is pretty remarkable.  When using it during the brewing process, it’s no different than any other cleaner: mix it, soak your cold-side stuff in it for a little while (two minutes or so is plenty), and then pull your stuff out and use it (that last clause got a little suggestive – I don’t know how, but I’m not going to change it now).

But use it on your crusty, gross, kreusened-up carboy, bucket, or Erlenmeyer flask, and you see the magic.  Soak those things in One Step and you’ll literally watch it clean itself.  And I’ve used this on some thick, disgusting stuff.  You'll see what looks like carbonation (though it's actually released oxygen) flaking away the gunk and bringing it to the top of the vessel.  It’s the last step in my bottling/kegging process: fill the fermenter with One Step and forget it’s there.  And it’s never let me down.

Maybe once in a VERY long while I need to break out the carboy brush and do a little spot cleaning, but I’m talking maybe one in twenty cases. 

Bottom line?  I think that those who don’t use it are a little crazy.

THE CASE AGAINST ONE STEP

I won’t pretend, though, that there aren’t arguments against it.

First, it really is quite expensive.  A five-pound tub costs about $28, and that will give you about 150 gallons of solution.  Assuming that you’re using five gallons on brew day and another five to clean up after packaging, that’s 15 brews’ worth, or about $1.87 per batch in cleaner.  For one comparison, PBW, a common alkali-based cleaner, does the same cleaning for about $1.17/batch (assuming the same 10 gallons of cleaner per batch). 

Second, it’s not really a sanitizer.  It’s a cleaner.  Even the product’s own company tells you that, so the “One Step” thing isn’t that it’s both a cleaner and a sanitizer, it’s just that it’s a no-rinse cleaner. 

Third, many have experienced some residue buildup on their equipment after extended use.

Fourth, it’s not as “survivable” as some other products, which can be mixed and stored basically forever.  The longer it sits, the less effective it is.

And last, though I have no data either way on it, I’ve had several brewers tell me that they’re concerned about using an oxygen-based cleaner that will come into contact with finished beer due to concerns about oxidation.

And in spite of all of this, I still think that you should, in the interest of keeping it simple, be using One Step.

THE CASE FOR ONE STEP

Why do I advocate the use of an expensive, scaling, short-lived, non-sanitizing product?  Because it works, and it works exceptionally well, and it does so without exposing us as brewers to persistent beer contamination at a lower cost than it seems.[1]

Let’s start with “not a sanitizer.”  Yes, that’s technically true.  But if you believe the company, it’s because to get certified as a sanitizer by the FDA takes a certain investment of cash, and they’re happy enough to not do it and continue selling this simply as a cleaner.  The reality, though, is that oxygen-based cleaners will kill the things we as brewers need them to.  I’ve used literally nothing else (consistently, though I've experimented with others) in my brewery, for almost nine years and hundreds of batches, and never had a single apparent contamination.  And lest you think I’m just cranking through my beer so fast that I don’t notice it, I would point out that I also store bottles for competition/evaluation and track the results, and that I have sufficient flavor stability (and lack of apparent contamination) to show that the beers score well for at least 12 months, and some even longer.  In fact, the three Best of Show beers I’ve ever produced were all at least eight months old when they won (and one was more than a year old).  In other words, either I happen to live in a wild yeast and bacteria-free home (I don’t – at the very least, there’s grain all over the place, and it’s crawling with lacto), or One Step works as an effective cleaner and sanitizer.

Next up is a less-than-obvious benefit: there’s no scrubbing.  I made the switch from glass carboys to Better Bottles about five years ago, and I (and my back) have been overjoyed with them.  But plastic scratches easily – even a rough hand can cause abrasions that bugs can live in, much less a stiff brush.  So the fact that I don’t need to regularly get in there and scrub out my equipment means that not only am I saving myself the effort, I’m also denying bugs a place to live by not building them convenient, modern, and tasteful housing development in the one place I definitely don’t want them.

And let’s address cost.  Yes, it’s expensive.  But it’s not as expensive as buying PBW and Star San.  Having to purchase a cleaner and sanitizer separately is adding to your costs, and probably more than just buying One Step.  Yes, you can always use a good cleaner like PBW and then sanitize with something crazy cheap like bleach or Iodophor, but they have their own issues (staining, rinsing, creation of off-flavors, etc.).  One Step is no-rinse and, well, just one step.  Even if it were marginally more expensive, I’d happily shave off three or four ounces of base grain to cover the difference in cost (or just buy in bulk and store it, right?).

And as for the rest – scale/residue, concerns about oxygen pickup, and persistence – all I can say is that they’ve never been a real issue for me.  Scaling on your tubing?  You should probably be replacing it anyway.  Oxidation?  Not that I’ve ever noticed, and in addition I enter every beer multiple times, so lots of feedback (and hell, it may even help in the yeast growth phase).  Can’t just store it?  True.  But there’s no reason you can’t buy a small bottle of Star San and mix it on up as an on-demand sanitizer in a spray bottle (though I prefer to use my filled-from-a-pastic-1.5L-jug spray bottle of Wolfscmidt Vodka).

I’ve never used anything else, and my results couldn’t be much better.  And where they can be, it has nothing to do with the cleanliness or sanitation in my brewery or of my equipment.

A FEW WORDS IN CLOSING

I’m not a scientist, and have never claimed to be (well, a political scientist, but that’s not really the same).  Maybe I’m missing something big here.  But I doubt it.  Experience is a great teacher, and I’ve been using this stuff for nearly a decade with wonderful results. 

I’m also not compensated in any way by the makers of One Step.  Hell, I don’t even know who makes One Step.  I just think it’s the simplest and easiest way to clean and (apparently) sanitize my brewing equipment. 

Don’t be a slave to convention or habit: think about it.  It’s probably a good idea to reevaluate your process, products, and brewing methods periodically anyway, so give it a ponder the next time you’re at the LHBS.  I think you’ll be happy you did.

Keep it simple.

JJW

 

 

[1] Before anyone asks, I don’t have much experience with the “kinda like” One Step products.  I’ve never used OxiClean as a brewing product, and for some reason I feel like I shouldn’t.  I did try the Easy Clean from LD Carlson, and it wasn’t anywhere NEAR as effective.  This is just about One Step for me – by all means, experiment with others, but I’m not making any promises!