Why you should use your best water for brewing beer

Water is the main “ingredient” to make beer, about 90 to 95% of its composition, yet it is THE LEAST UNDERSTOOD component.

Water chemistry can be intimidating and science can blind the brewer. Yet, it CAN BE SIMPLE if explained the right way. You definitely don’t need to be a water specialist to craft good beer, and as the saying goes, if it’s good enough to drink, you can brew with it.

John Palmer, passionate author of “Water, a comprehensive guide for brewers”, is THE expert on this subject. He has a way of making complex science simple and practical while taking things to the next level: “it is the final frontier, the one that can take your beer from being good to being great… there’s some chemistry but it’s a big picture kind of thing. Once you understand the ballpark you can take it into account, your brewing and your beers will really improve.”

In this post, let’s look at the benefits of USING OUR BEST WATER FOR BREWING BEER. Today water quality management is approachable to anyone. Here are the basics about water treatment. There are three major kinds of water adjustment for brewing, knowing that the last two steps are for brewing all grain only.

Know your city water

Removing the bad flavors and contaminants from the source water.

Adjusting the PH of the mash water.

Adjusting the flavor profile of the mash water

Do you know what’s actually in your tap water?

The first reason why you should use your best water for brewing beer is pretty obvious: you want your family to drink clean, fresh, healthy and good tasting water

Know what’s in your drinking water. I’m giving you two resources to find out some general information:

1. The EWG (Environmental Worling Group) a national non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and environment provides a free tap water database that you can access here.

2. Contact your municipality public works department. They will probably give you access to the most recent water quality report online.

I don’t mean to sound alarmist or what, but personally I wouldn’t drink any unfiltered tap water anywhere nowadays. Industrial corporations and politicians would like you to believe when your local drinking water supplier is in compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act or state regulations, you’re getting the best water, the reality is … uh, that the EPA (Federal Environment Protection Agency) has not added a new contaminant to the list of regulated drinking water pollutants in more than 20 years! Hello? We all remember Flint, Michigan. By the way, that scandal is still going on as we speak in August 2019…

If you’re interested in studying more about what the US federal standards are versus what independent environmentalist groups such as the EWG recommend, you may download the full chart here. The discrepancies are huge.

The specific bad stuff you want to remove from water before you brew

Among the long list of water contaminants (microbial, industrial, pesticides/ herbicides, organic chemicals, radioactive …), chlorine or chloramine are responsible for a bad, medicinal taste in your finished beer.
The good news is that carbon filtration is a great, economical solution to get rid of those chlorine contaminants.
I personally have been using an under the sink drinking water carbon filter system for several years and have been very satisfied with it. I find that my drinking water from this system tastes soft, clean, fresh with a pleasant texture. It is an inexpensive solution. Carbon filters last a long time (obviously depending on your consumption).

Some suggest Campden Tablets, i.e. potassium metabisulfite – initially an anti-oxidant – to remove Chloramine used by certain cities instead of Chlorine to kill bacteria. Chloramine unlike Chlorine won’t blow off by boiling. Maybe it’s me, but I’m not sure I want to remove a chemical by adding another chemical. A good carbon filtration system removes 99% of odors and bad tastes, as well as dissolved solid substances. Many breweries use this method of water treatment.

Carbon Filter

Adjusting your PH is like fine-tuning your beer flavors

Of course, one of the main benefits of using your best for brewing beer, is taste, balance and complexity in your finished beer. Adjusting your PH is like getting the right level of Alkalinity to best express your flavor profile.

An ideal PH of 5.2 is needed to optimally convert starches into sugars DURING MASHING and obtain a healthy wort where the yeasts will ferment adequately. For some reason, most source water are slightly too alkaline, so when brewing all grain, PH adjustment is often required.

Post fermentation, an optimal PH will improve clarity and flavor definition.

As a reference, the levels of alkalinity are expressed by the following ranges:

Acidic 3.0 – 5.0

Neutral 6.0 – 7.0

Alkaline 8.0 – 10.0

How to measure your PH and how to correct it

You can use an electronic PH meter, or paper test strips.

PH meter
PH strips

There are different ways to correct your mash water PH. By including a portion of acidulated malt or using lactic acid seem to be the preferred solutions. Darker malts generally possess a higher acidity than pale malts, so keep that in mind. It’s always recommended to check your mash PH as source water composition varies periodically, and malt PH and contribution to the actual mash is really hard to predict.

Having fun with salts and minerals to really create the style you like

The beautiful thing with water is that it will perfectly integrate any additions of soluble salts and minerals you would like to use.

Everybody talks about the legendary SOFTNESS (purity) OF THE WATER of Pilsen, versus the HARD WATER (mineral rich) water of Burton-on-Trent. And it’s tempting to just trying to duplicate the profile of the town producing the classic beer you would like to replicate. However, brewers have adjusted their water for centuries, and taking the numbers in consideration, but is not certainly not the simple and systematic answer to making better beer.

Again, to quote John Palmer, our water chemist/ beer guru – he says (I paraphrase): “brewing beer is a science, but also an art”. So, translate: at the end of the day, you can measure and read numbers all you want, but the taste and profile of the finished beer is another thing.

If you are interested in finding what the water profiles of famous beer towns are, go to brewer’s friend. brewer’s friend They have two different calculators basic and advanced, that you can use online for free. Enter your source water profile and your target water profile to calculate what adjustments should be made, in function of the style of beer you are making.

Learning how the salts and minerals in water interact with the finished beer will allow you to make a very good beer into an exceptional beer.

Here are the five basic elements used to adjust mashing water, as well as suggested levels, beyond which your beer might be hard to drink or even become harmful to your health. So, less is more when using salts and minerals. Think of it like you’re cooking. Too much spice would ruin your dish.

CALCIUM – can help with clarity, but has a negative effect on fermentation.

Ideal between 50 – 200 ppm.

Add with calcium chloride, gypsum or sulfate

MAGNESIUM – Enough Magnesium will help healthy fermentation, too much will produce astringency. Ideally, 10 ppm is fine.

Add with Magnesium Sulfate or Epsom salts

CHLORIDE AND SULFATES – Both work together to promote flavors in beer.

Sulfate will bring out hops character and bitterness

Chloride will bring out the flavors of the malt

Exemple:

For a hoppy beer something like 300 ppm Sulfate/ 100 ppm Chloride would, and

For a malt forward beer 100 ppm Sulfate/ 150 ppm Chloride.

(100 ppm is a minimum adjustment to show any results)

SODIUM – creates a salty flavor if too much is used but at lower levels, it enhances mouthfeel. Not more than 100 ppm should be added at the most !

You may use regular cooking salt.

What it boils down to (no play on words here, lol) – managing water quality and profile

Controlling your water profile is the final touch that will make a difference between a good beer and an excellent beer. The three simple steps to consider:

What is the best water for brewing beer? Think of it like you’re cooking homemade tomato sauce.

Start with ripe, healthy tomatoes, taste them before you use them – that would be like brewing with clean water. Know the composition of your water. Taste it!

As you are cooking your tomatoes, if it tastes too acidic, you may add baking soda (I didn’t know that – the things you learn research on the internet, I have tried, it works by the way). Although you may have to correct the mash water PH the other way, it is the same approach. Get it as close to the 5.2 to 5.5 range as possible.

To finish and flavor your tomato sauce, use spices to give the style and tone you like. That’s what minerals and salts are used for in brewing. Remember, at this stage, less is more! You can always add more, you cannot remove any when you used too much.

I hope you enjoyed reading about what water is best for brewing. I would like to know if how you manage your water profile, please leave a comment below and I will be more than happy to get back to you.

Thanks for your interest, cheers and to our health!

Vincent

Understanding the beer fermentation process

Before you get started with the exciting experience of crafting your own brew, you wonder what the basics of the beer fermentation process are and perhaps you are curious to learn what happens during the different steps of the production. This post is meant to sum up the basic mechanics of the process, described as it may be conducted at home. Please contribute to this article by sharing your experiences, comments and/ or questions.

The beer fermentation process 101

beer fermentation 101 flow chart

What is beer?

In very simple terms, beer is an “alcoholic beverage made from malted grain, flavored with hops and brewed by slow fermentation”

It is produced from 3 basic, pure ingredients:

  • Malted grain
  • Hops
  • Yeast

… and of, course water.

The beer fermentation process includes 4 basic operations:

  1. MASHING
  2. BOILING
  3. FERMENTING
  4. CONDITIONING

An important note on SANITIZING: After the wort has been boiled, it is critical to make sure all the equipment and containers are properly sanitized all along the whole process to avoid contamination, which would impair the action of the yeast and/ or affect the finished beer with undesirable flavors and aromas.

Mashing – the preparation of the wort

Brewing Beer Process Mashing

To occur, a fermentation needs sugars, yeasts and air. In beer making, sugars (mainly Maltose, with some Glucose and other types of sugar) come from the MALT (germinated cereal that is dried or roasted to different degrees). The sweet fermentation ready liquid is called WORT. It is extracted by the MASHING process.

It is recommended to start your first couple of brewing attempts from ingredient kits. By providing you directly with malt extract – dry or liquid, you won’t have to go through all the steps of making WORT. When you are more experienced, you will hopefully want to create your own beer recipes, using the ingredients of your choice.

To make WORT from scratch – here are the steps you’ll have to follow:

First, your MALT has to be crushed through the process of MILLING – resulting in what we call GRIST.

Then comes the MASHING itself, which is done by mixing the GRIST with warm water, releasing the sugars from the MALT.

To complete the preparation of the WORT, LAUTERING is performed. This consists in separating the grain from the MASH using water, a process referred to as SPARGING – and filtering the liquid. In home brewing a bag made of cloth, similar to cheese cloth may be used when the GRIST is soaked or steeped in the warm water, in this case no filtration is required.

Boiling – adding hops

Initially, the brewer would boil his WORT in order to kill any undesirable bacteria.

BOILING will reduce the amount of liquid to the target volume to be fermented.

A controlled temperature is necessary for the whole duration of the BOIL to extract the qualities and characteristics of the hop. Adding hop is referred to as HOPPING. Hop may be added at an early stage of the BOIL, to give more bitterness, or toward during the BOIL to give more flavors, or toward the end to give more aromas. DRY HOPPING refers to adding hop to the cooled WORT. Other flavorings such as spices, or sugar may be added too during the BOIL.

This step is particularly crucial during the beer making and requires special attention, as the temperature is key – a regular rolling boil is what you want, as you add ingredients to the WORT in home brewing, this is when you run the risk to boil over. To prevent this from happening, stirring the kettle as you start will help reduce the foaming. It will also prevent the MALT extract to caramelize at the bottom of the kettle.

The boil usually lasts for 60 minutes.

Fermenting – wort turning into beer, the yeasts doing the work

Beer Fermentation Process Krausen

Generally speaking – not only about beer – there are two different types of fermentation. The PRIMARY FERMENTATION (or ALCOHOLIC FERMENTATION) occurring by the action of the yeast cells, and the lactic acid fermentation occurring by the action of bacteria. Scientists a century ago discovered that enzymes (proteins promoting chemical reactions in cells) were actually responsible for fermentation, a transformation happening inside the yeast cells.

The PRIMARY FERMENTATION is the process that really transforms your WORT into BEER, now containing alcohol. This fermentation takes place in two different stages. In the first stage the glucose will be converted through glycolysis into pyruvic acid – an intermediate compound in the metabolism of carbohydrates and proteins. In the second stage, in an environment with no oxygen, the pyruvic acid will be converted into ETHANOL (alcohol) and CO2.

To start its ALCOHOLIC FERMENTATION, the WORT needs to be chilled down to around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The yeast is then PITCHED (or added). The type of yeast will determine at what temperature the FERMENTATION should occur. Typically an Ale is fermented between 60 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit, and a Lager around 50 degrees.

The Alcoholic Fermentation may take between 4 days to sometimes up to 2 weeks, depending on the beer. A visual indicator of what stage of the fermentation you are at is the foamy, coarse head forming and bubbling on top of the beer, called KRAUSEN. It is caused by the growth of the yeast cells. At the end of fermentation the KRAUSEN falls.

A SECOND FERMENTATION is sometimes recommended to produce a clear beer, free of sediment, making a better beer, refining and polishing the taste.

The SECOND FERMENTATION is started when the PRIMARY is almost finished. It is important to make sure most of the yeast have been consumed but CO2 is still being, normally more slowly generated. Normally this is the case around day 4 or 5 of the beer alcoholic fermentation process. CO2 will protect your beer from oxidation and from obtaining off-flavors. At this point, the beer should be RACKED (transferred) into a container with smaller head space and stay there another week or two, before bottling. Lagers need more time to finish their fermentation, because it is performed at colder temperatures. Also beers with more sugar will take longer to ferment completely, because the remaining yeasts will struggle to eat all the sugar, being less active at a higher level of alcohol. The second fermentation may take 2 weeks or more. A Lager will need 6 to 8 weeks.

Conditioning – bottling or kegging

Beer Fermentation Process Bottling

This is the last step in beer making.

In home brewing, the most simple method is to BOTTLE your beer. At this point you have hopefully a clear, delicious beer. However, since most of the CO2 has escaped during the fermentation, it is quite flat. This is the reason why it should be CONDITIONED.

Right before BOTTLING, your beer will be primed with a mixture of sugar and water that will naturally re-ferment in the bottle. The CO2 produced will carbonate the beer and remain in the tightly capped bottle. It will take another 2 weeks at 70 to 75 degrees F. After that, the bottle can be chilled at 60 degrees F. or under to stabilize the beer.

A quicker alternative is to KEG your beer, a method in which you force the desired amount of CO2 into the keg filled with beer. For this you will need tap lines, a regulator (to control the carbonation), a CO2 cylinder, and a keg. Carbonation will typically take 2 to 3 days.

Both a craft and a natural process – further your understanding of fermentation

It’s easy to understand why brewing and fermenting is so exciting. The process combines the intervention of human work, tastes and skills – basically an art – with the work of natural elements interacting in a specific environment.

If you serious about drinking fresh, pure, healthy, and haven’t tried to brew your own yet, I strongly encourage you to start the journey.  This is so much FUN and SATISFYING.

A absolute must reading for beginners and more advanced brewers alike is the book by Charlie Papazian, Joy of Home Brewing.

Cheers, and to our health!

 

Vincent