The Do’s & Don’ts of Cleaning Barrels

machines cleaning alcoholic barrels

By: Cheryl Gray

Knowing precisely how to clean and sanitize a barrel means avoiding certain disasters, save time and protect the product.  Cutting corners means inviting contamination, a surefire way to destroy an otherwise saleable product. By contrast, proper cleaning and sanitizing ensure a pristine, bacteria-free barrel, which means the product inside is safe from unwanted microorganisms and undesirable flavors. At the same time, the barrel enjoys a longer life. Experts say that maintaining barrels through proper cleaning and sanitizing also contributes to avoiding leaks, another costly product loss.

  Since barrels are one of the most expensive beverage production costs, it pays to know companies that understand their unique cleaning and sanitizing requirements. Among them is California-based  STEAMERICAS, whose Optima Steamer™ was born out of a unique process of reimagining old technology. Company owner Yujin Anderson touts the multiple benefits of that innovation.

  “The Optima Steamer™ was born over 15 years ago when we saw the need for a machine that generated much less waste water runoff than a typical pressure washer. We saw the hot water pressure washer market audience who had trouble with wastewater runoff and identified that dry steam machines were mostly only available in the residential or professional size or performance level that can’t keep up with continuous all-day use.

  My father, who was a marine boiler engineer, basically altered a commercial/industrial-sized pressure washer and retrofitted it with a patented dry steam boiler to give customers who asked for hot water pressure washers that are compatible with winter usage. The Optima Steamer™ is a revolutionary machine that increases water temperature beyond the 212 degrees Fahrenheit boiling point to create saturated and super-heated steam with minimal preheating time. The result is a highly effective, sanitizing methodology that destroys harmful microorganisms and reduces water usage from an average of three to four gallons a minute to 0.08 gallons without introducing any chemicals.”

  Anderson explains that people oftentimes confuse cleaning a barrel with sanitizing it. However, there is, she says, a definite difference.

  “Sanitizing and cleaning are two different processes. While you can measure cleaning results with naked eyes, you can’t with sanitizing. Hence, you may easily skip the sanitizing process. This is a big mistake. Barrels, especially, have pores, and microorganisms unaddressed can spread beyond the surface level, which is very challenging to remove.

  For sanitizing, you can introduce a choice of chemicals (including chlorine, acid and ozone) that dissolve in water and have the liquid in contact with the barrel’s interior surface. However, the recent trend is to avoid chemical treatment to avoid altering the taste and quality of the product. 

  Dry steam is undoubtedly the most effective way to control microorganisms on most materials, especially barrel staves. Steam generators can reduce both water (steam uses only one to two gallons per barrel) and energy use, and they are helpful for general cleaning in addition to barrel cleaning. Dry steam is saturated steam, where over 97 percent of the water has been converted into a gas, rather than wet steam or boiling water like plant steam.”

  Anderson describes how dry steam goes beyond the surface interior of a barrel to destroy harmful bacteria that the naked eye can’t see.

  “Dry steam penetrates into the pores of barrels to kill pathogens, like Brettanomyces, Zygosaccharomyces and other microorganisms, even those that can survive water heated to 160 degrees. For example, most brewers use sanitization of some sort, but some brewers aren’t taking advantage of implementing a dry-steam method. Instead, many use plant steam, which is unsaturated wet steam or technically a liquid. Plant steam doesn’t reach lethal temperatures to kill bacteria inside barrels. Dry steam penetrates a quarter-inch deep into wood pores. It penetrates deeper than hot water or chemicals and with better efficiency at removing sediments deposited in the pores.”    

  Anderson adds that the dry steam method deployed by the Optima Steamer™ also saves time and money.

  “Barrels can be in dry storage or wet storage. Both involve sulfur dioxide in the form of gas (dry) or diluted in water (wet). After storage, barrels should be rinsed, rehydrated (swelled), checked for leaks and drained before use. Using water, the rehydration process takes 60 gallons of water and 48-plus hours. Dry steam can shorten this process down to under 30 minutes and one to two gallons of water. Best of all, rehydration and sanitizing happen at the same time with dry steam.”

  Being in California means that STEAMERICAS is near wine country, where the company found its initial clients. Breweries and soft drink companies followed. Anderson says that dry

steam offers distinct solutions for each client.

  “The biggest selling point of dry steam may be different for each clientele. For example, for distillers and craft brewers, the main reason for dry steam is to rehydrate barrels, vats and foeders as quickly and efficiently as possible. For winemakers, controlling unwanted microorganisms, such as Brettanomyces, is the biggest reason they may introduce dry steam to their facility. For larger facilities, typically saving time while the food safety standards are met is the most important.”

  Many companies that source barrels for clients also recommend dry steam as a preferred method of sanitizing their products. One of them is Northeast Barrel Company, located in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, northwest of Philadelphia. The barrel-sourcing company has a second showroom in Salt Lake City, Utah, serving its West Coast customers. Its product line includes previously used barrels and racks, bungs, foeders, tanks and even barrels used exclusively for decor.

  While most of its wine barrels are sourced from wineries throughout California, Northeast Barrel Company travels around the globe sourcing other craft beverage barrels previously containing whiskies, tequilas, bourbons, rums, mezcals and brandies from countries that include Mexico, Nicaragua, Spain, Portugal and Jamaica, to name a few. Since the barrels have been previously used and have housed all sorts of beverages, the importance of properly cleaning and sanitizing them is tantamount to the company’s existing and prospective clients. Co-owner Pat Tramontano says that dry steam is the way to go.

  “We have a dry steam generator that we use on our barrels. The generator pressurizes the barrels with steam. This not only kills any present bacteria but allows us to check for leaks. It is an excellent tool, and I recommend it to anyone in the beverage industry with a large-scale barrel program.”

  Black Swan Cooperage is a family-owned barrel-making enterprise located in Northern

Minnesota and founded in 2009. The company creates hand-crafted barrels for distilleries, breweries and wineries across the United States. Black Swan Cooperage makes its custom barrels in a variety of sizes, ranging from five gallons to 53 gallons, with multiple charging and toasting levels. The cooperage also promotes its barrels as having staves that are the largest patented surface area of any staves currently available.

  Co-founder and owner Heidi Korb learned the business of crafting barrels from her father, Russ Karusch, a master cooper. Among those lessons is how to properly clean and sanitize barrels.

  “Ideally, if you can plan for your barrels to not ever sit empty, you will have fewer problems. However, this is likely not realistic for all. If you properly clean your barrel between uses, this will dramatically increase the life of your barrel. If a barrel is well kept, it can be used indefinitely. It will eventually no longer add flavor but will still be good to hold and age spirits. If a barrel is not properly stored and kept clean, it can go sour and start to grow mold. Once this happens, usually no amount of cleaning and sanitizing can save it.”

  In short, those who create, source, clean and sanitize barrels agree that shortcuts do not lead to a long life for one of the most expensive costs in craft beverage production. Rather, those shortcuts can destroy not only the barrel but the entire contents inside. Experts say that a clean and sanitized barrel is best achieved with dry steam, a growing industry standard used to ensure that barrels are absent from the destructive microorganisms that can escape any other cleaning and sanitizing method.

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