Fermentation Basics, Part 1
We often have customers ask about the basics. Here are a few to consider.
All sound winemaking begins with good sanitation practices. You cannot hope to make good wine unless you make the effort to have all equipment spotlessly clean and properly sanitized. An important distinction is the difference between sanitation and sterilization. Sanitation means that all visible dirt, residue, and stains have been cleaned away, therefore removing most bacteria and wild yeasts, and most of those that remain have been killed by some sanitizing agent. This is usually accomplished in two steps, first using a cleaning agent such as a detergent, or removing dirt with hot water, scrubbing, or pressure washing. The next step would be to use iodophor, One Step, heat, or some other bacteria-destroying process to kill the remaining invisible contaminants.
Sterilization, on the other hand, is the act of killing all living microscopic organisms that live inside on equipment, surfaces, utensils, and so on. Sterilization at the home-winemaking level is usually very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. The reason is that complete sterilization is accomplished only by steam under pressure, high temperatures, or toxic chemicals that would be impractical to use, and are often downright dangerous. Additionally, once sterilized, equipment and materials must be maintained sterile, and again, this is nearly impossible outside of a laboratory.
All this being said, sanitation is perhaps the most important step in the entire process we call winemaking. If we don’t get this right, chances are that what we make will be mediocre at best, and at worst will be something undrinkable.
To sanitize your equipment, begin by thoroughly washing and scrubbing everything that you think will come in contact with your wine. This includes pails, measuring spoons, carboys, hoses, funnels, measuring cups, and any other equipment that will be used to hold liquids or solids that will come in contact with the wine. Any good detergent, such as PBW, One Step, or B-Brite dissolved in hot water will do the trick. A stiff brush and elbow grease followed by a thorough clean-water rinse will get this part of the job done nicely. Never use harsh cleansers like Fantastik, Spic and Span, ammonia, or Pine Sol. Also, cleaners that contain chlorine, such as household bleach, can be deadly to wine quality, so avoid them. A second rinse with clean water just before using the equipment should complete the job. As a final check, put your nose to the equipment and give it a quick sniff. Everything should smell clean or neutral. If in doubt, rinse again and smell. Your nose knows. A final rinse with a no-rinse sanitizer, such as idophor or One Step, will eliminate any potential contaminants from your water. (Water that is safe to drink may contain wine-spoiling bacteria.) Finally, do not sanitize too far in advance…after a few hours dust, containing contaminants, will settle on your clean surfaces.
Maybe this seems too obvious, but for sure, having everything you need ready to go before you start will make your life as a winemaker easier, a lot more fun, and (for sure) less fraught with aggravation. Trying to find a set of measuring spoons or locate that long-handled stirring paddle while you are getting ready to pitch your wine yeast is no fun. You don’t need a ton of complicated equipment, but it really helps to have a short checklist for yourself. If you aren’t sure of exactly what you’ll need, the experienced staff at Keystone can help you prepare a list of essential equipment.
Allow Enough Time (Plus a Little Extra)
Too often we end up trying to stuff six pounds of life into a five-pound bag. Winemaking under these circumstances can be a rushed, irritating, and not very happy experience. Better to take a look at the calendar and set aside time to do your hobby when you haven’t promised to do three other things.
Measure and Weigh
Estimating amounts by watching a liquid or powder pour into your wine is a recipe for failure. Temperature can be tough to gauge, and surrounding air temperature and humidity can fool you. Don’t guess! When you guess you usually guess wrong, so take an extra moment to properly measure liquids, powders, and temperatures. For winemaking, most powders can be measured with measuring spoons if you don’t have access to a scale, but leave the “dash of this, and a pinch of that” to cooks. We’re making wine here.
Read the Instructions, and Keep Them Handy
Too often we get phone calls from people who have added the wrong thing, added too much of an ingredient, or added something in the wrong order. Correcting a mistake can be difficult or impossible, so we emphasize our adage, “read twice, add once.”
Space, Organization, and Notes
You don’t need a warehouse, but you should have a place where you can work undisturbed and where your hobby won’t be in everyone’s way. Access to hot and cold water, a sink and a work table are also desirable. Stable temperatures for fermentation are very important as well.
For most of us, it’s safe to say that you can’t possibly remember all that has happened in the last six months. You ask, “why is this important for my wine?” Well, for starters, if you make that award-winning batch, it will be very useful to know exactly what has been done to your wine since you started it. You don’t need to keep a huge volume, but we find that a three-ring binder with a few sheets of paper inside for simple, handwritten notes will usually do the trick. For sure, wineries keep detailed records of their winemaking for just this reason, and you should too if you want to make better wine. Additionally, in the unlikely event that something adverse happens, there will be no way you can begin to sort things out unless you have kept some sort of record. Finally, a three-ring binder can hold receipts and instruction sheets for useful reference.