Sanitation is always important in the processing of food and drink. Rest assured, people have been safely making beer and wine for millennia... long before humans knew anything about pathogenic microrganisms. Don't worry about making your friends and family sick from your beers and wines. The worst that can happen is you create a poor-tasting product. The fact that beers and wines have been safely made for 8,000 years, illustrates just how difficult it is to grow harmful pathogens in them. Pathogens simply can't survive in the higher alcohol environment. Indeed, many believe yeast evolved the ability to produce alcohol as a way of eliminating microbial competition.
Nevertheless, there are some harmless microorganisms that we want to keep away from our brewing and winemaking.
Yeast is a microorganism which creates beer and wine. Yeast consumes fermentable sugars, coverting them to ethyl alcohol and co2. Unfortunately, the environment that we maintain to benefit the yeast is also enjoyed by other natural microorganisms... which include certain strains of bacteria and many strains of wild yeast.
Some of these bacteria are common... like the fruit-fly borne acetobacter... which (in the presence of oxygen) can turn ethyl alcohol into acetic acid... making vinegar. Wild yeast abound, and they too will look for any opportunity to 'enjoy' your brew. This is why it is important to develop sanitary habits.
Sanitation is how we isolate the brewing/winemaking environment so that our specialized yeasts are allowed to do their job free from competition.
Anything that might come into contact with your product needs to be sanitized. Before each item is used (a hydrometer for example) it should first be cleaned of soils and residues and then soaked in sanitizing solution for at least 5 minutes. Cleaning is best done with a normal dish cleaning towel or sponge and plenty of hot water. Don't use scrubby pads! Then, when all of the items are clean, fill a bucket or washtub with lukewarm tap water and mix in the appropriate amount of sanitizer. There are many types of sanitizers... always follow the instructions for each. Complete immersion for 5 minutes is the best way to sanitize your equipment. Longer soaking periods are ok, within reason.
When you are ready to use an item, take it out of the sanitizing solution and let it drip dry on a sanitized surface. It's ok if it isn't completely dry... just make sure there's no standing solution anywhere on, or in, the item. Again, follow the manufacturer’s directions.
Sanitation must become a habit. It becomes a habit by doing it correctly over and over again. Successful brewers have one thing in common... they all have a sanitation routine. From the start you must develop your own routine, and stick to it. The slightest deviation from your routine can increase the chance of an unintended infection spoiling the taste of a perfectly good batch. We want your brewing to be the best it can be. We're open 7 days a week to answer any questions. We're here to help!