There are a lot of home brewers out there that deserve their own episode of Hoarders. You crack the door on their "brewing equipment" closet and it looks like it's seen less upkeep than the Well of Souls. Their tubing is about as flexible as the arteries of a steak-pounding octogenarian with a whiskey problem. They own carboys and buckets that are growing things not seen on Earth since dinosaurs roamed Pangaea. They're using hop bags that, though once white, are now a beautiful shade of mahogany and allow so little liquid flow that they'd work just as well as water bottles.
If this is you and your brewery, don't panic. There's a simple solution: throw most of that shit out.
Trash Your Way to Better Beer
In any system there are durable goods and non-durable goods. Durable (or "hard") goods are designed to last for a while and only be replaced when they break or break down to such a degree that the cost of repairing them begins to outweigh the cost of replacing them. Non-durable (or "soft") goods have a much shorter lifespan and are intended (and usually priced) to be replaced with some regularity.
Your kettle, burner, stir plate, wort chiller, and most of the rest of the stuff that's made from metal fall into the "durable" pile. But a lot of your brewing equipment is not designed to be used until it falls apart, and should really be dumped at regular intervals. I routinely (see below for a schedule) throw away nearly anything in the brewery that is made of plastic and touches my beer, and I think that it's part of what explains why I've had some luck avoiding consistent contamination, off-flavors, and faults.
Why? Because you've probably noticed that with every use, most of your equipment shows some evidence of corrosion, erosion, accretion, staining, soiling, wear, tear, and more. And since we're talking about producing something that you're going to taste, then we have to acknowledge that there may well be a flavor impact the next time we brew from the stuff that gets left behind on our tools after the last time we brewed.
By simply replacing at regular intervals, you remove a big question mark from your beer. Tubing that has either water spots or some new kind of bacteria? Gone. Buckets that might have abrasions that are harboring persistent bacteria? Gone. Inconsistent hop utilization because of grubby hop bags? Gone. Late-process contamination from a bottling bucket, bottling wand, or racking cane? Gone. And this applies to draft lines and equipment, too.
Is it overkill? Maybe. But I'll gladly spend $15 on 100 feet of food-grade tubing that will last me the rest of my life in exchange for not having to question whether I contaminated five gallons of Flanders Red that I've been nursing for three months by using the only piece of bottling tubing I could dig out of the drawer.
Never Let Go, Jack [Yes, it's a Titanic reference and No, I'm not proud of it]
First things first - here's what I consider "durable" goods in my brewery, and simply clean them. I wouldn't consider tossing any of this stuff without first confirming that there were no options.
- Burner - I think this one goes without saying, but you never know. I keep it clean for aesthetics.
- Kettle - I'm not that opposed to replacing it, but I've never had the need. It cleans up well, getting a scrub after each brew and a once-per-year treatment with Barkeepers Friend.
- Kegs - Again, if it's metal, you're probably fine with just cleaning, but see below for an important caveat
- Plate Chiller - This gets a soak in OneStep before each use, and a blast-out with hot water (then cold) after every use.
- Ball valves, screens, metal fittings - If they're not showing corrosion, then they get to stay. If they start to pit, rust, or corrode, then get rid of them. But I haven't had to yet (8 years on the oldest one).
Some things, though, need to go.
- ALL flexible tubing, at least annually. Sometimes I see that a length hasn't dried promptly and has what are probably water spots...but again, why take the chance? I'll throw out tubing the way a pitcher demands a new baseball just because the one she/he just threw touched a single molecule of dirt. I've got lots.
- SOME rigid tubing, bi-annually. There's one exception: if you use a bottling wand, replace that thing often. It's getting INSIDE every single bottle. But racking canes, autosiphons, etc? I'll replace them if a visual inspection shows anything fishy, but they just don't get much opportunity to get too beat up. Every couple of years seems reasonable.
- Rubber/plastics in kegs, upon purchase and then bi-annually. In your kegs, as noted above, there's one thing you need to replace: get those old, Barqs-infused o-rings out of there. They're disgusting, and they absolutely impart flavors and aromas into your finished beer. Even if you buy a "refurbished" keg, I still think it's worth the $2 for the "o-ring replacement kit." If you buy in bulk you can get even that price down - I bought ten sets for $12 recently. You might also consider, if it has a plastic gas tube, swapping that thing out for a steel version. Just because.
- Bottling bucket, annually. If you're bottling, this thing is touching ALLLLLLL of your beer. Spend the money and swap it out. You can keep the valve, but change out the bucket - it's the one thing in my brewery that I'm consistently hitting with a drying towel, and as I also use it as a vessel to sanitize my bottling equipment, it's DEFINITELY picking up some scratches.
- Hop bags, semi-annually (if I still used them, but I don't). After a few uses, you'll start to notice that the fine mesh in these bags starts to get "clogged." Not with anything all that visible, but it's there. You'll notice they take a while to drain after you pull them, and that means you're probably not getting great flow through them, either. Swap them out now and again, when you think of it - this might also apply to the mesh bag you use in your hop spider.
The total cost here per year? Just about $30, assuming you have five kegs and three hop bags. That works out to about $1.20 per batch at 25 batches per year, or about 3% on my brewing costs. Worth it.
[EDIT! Thanks to a reader for pointing out something I absolutely intended to include: before you throw them out, you might take one set of your "plastics" and mark them for use on your sour beers only, so as to avoid any concerns about cross-contamination. THANK YOU to uberg33k over at reddit!]
Hold on Tightly, Let Go Lightly [Yes, it's a Croupier reference and Yes, I'm proud of it]
Some things, though, fall into the "judgment call" category, and are tougher to nail down. For example...
- Cooler mash tun - I've had one for eight years, and haven't noticed any issues, but...it still seems like I should be replacing it. The plastic interior walls are warped. It's a very odd shade of brown inside. There's grain hulls stuck in places I can't reach. But it smells SO good. I think if I ever had a persistent off-flavor it'd be the first victim in my brewery-wide eviction parade, but for now I'm hanging on. Call me sentimental: it's the only one I've ever had.
- Carboys - If they're glass, I say use them until they break. But if you're like me and use Better Bottles (or buckets), then maybe consider dating them and toss them after a while. I haven't had any issues yet and I rotate through a set of six, but I strongly suspect the day is coming when I'll get my first real contamination, and they'll probably be the source. I believe it's time to start a planned retirement system with those, depending on levels of use.
- Mash paddle - if yours is gross and growing things, either invest in a hard-core steam clean or get yourself a new one. Sure, it's going in "cold-side," but you might still be adding flavors.
- Draft Faucets and shanks - If your draft system is mostly high-grade stainless steel, then don't worry about it. But if you're using a lot of "chrome-covered" whatever, then keep on top of it. I'm told that more-acidic beers or meads can eat that chrome right off of those things.
- Disconnects, fittings, carboy caps, airlocks... - When it comes to the miscellany in your brewery, play it by ear. Some will undoubtedly be fine forever, but others may degrade more rapidly. Stay on top of your tools. Don't be afraid to scrap things that look/smell/taste off.
Don't Play the Blame Game
At the end of the day, the quality of your beer will probably have a lot more to do with how you treat it than what you made it with, but don't neglect the small stuff that might be harming your beer. I always tell people that you can get to 80% quality on your beer with very, very little effort. You can ramp up to 90% by being just a bit more rigorous and thoughtful in your process and recipes. But getting above 90% takes a disproportionately greater effort, and at that level even very small things matter, because all that's left are the marginal improvements. This is one of those things.
It may be a poor workman who blames his tools, but it's also a poor workman that neglects them in the first place. And if nothing else, this gives you a great reason to head on out to the LHBS and get some shiny new toys! So don't be afraid to throw things away: you might be tossing a lot of your brewing challenges along with them.
Keep it simple.