I remember a fall season long ago in which the annual wine-making with my dad didn't go quite as planned. We were making plum wine and it was going to be wonderful. Except... I'm not sure how exactly it happened, but shortly after we bottled about 20 gallons of wine, it all went to vinegar. Rapidly. Not a total loss, that was some of the best wine vinegar I've ever used in cooking... but jeez louise, you don't need 20 gallons of the stuff!
What happened? In spite of our best efforts, some unhelpful bacteria got in the batch and turned it sour. How can you avoid this? It's not a guarantee... but the majority of the time, if you make sure you sanitize your equipment before fermenting, you'll do just fine.
Vinegar Isn't All Bad
Vinegar plays some important roles in cooking and preserving food. We wouldn't have pickles, for one thing, or a nice vinaigrette for salad without vinegar. To see how many different kinds of vinegar there are and see some of the ways they're used, check out this page from Food Network's encyclopedia.
When fermenting wine, cider, or beer, vinegar isn't your friend. In this article, I'll show you three easy ways to sanitize your equipment and keep bacteria at bay.
This may not be a good idea with plastics, not all of them are formulated to withstand high heat. If you don't have any sanitizing chemicals handy, boil your glassware. This will work for almost all of your equipment except the carboys. Simply put your bottles or other equipment in a large pot, with about an inch of water covering, and bring to a hard boil. Boil for 2 minutes, remove from the heat, and let cool. Rinse well. You're done.
If you have a dishwasher, run your glass or plastic ware through a short wash and dry cycle without detergent. This does a great job.
Plain, unscented bleach is a good chemical sanitizer you can use with both glassware or plastic. If it's bottles, submerge them in a large container of cold water with about 1 tablespoon (1 capful) of bleach per gallon of water. Set your timer for 15 minutes, then drain and rinse well. If you can put your nose to the bottle top and sniff without smelling bleach, it's rinsed well enough. Don't sanitize for more than 15 minutes, as bleach is caustic, it's not good to expose the glass or plastic to it for a long time even at low concentrations.
There are a number of good products that can help you. One well-known sanitizer is Star-San, available at Amazon.com and other retailers.
You can also use Campden (sodium metabisulfate) tablets for sanitizing purposes. Generally, 1 tablet per gallon will give you the needed concentration. Simply crush the tablets and put them in the water. My preference is to pulverize with a mortar and pestle instead of crushing because it reduces the tablet to powder that will dissolve into the water faster.
The Important Thing: Sanitize!
The bottom line is, however you choose to do it, sanitizing your fermentation equipment before you start will set you up for good results almost every time. Since making wine, beer, or cider does involve cost, it only makes sense that you do your best to not let anything go to waste.