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.
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.
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
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!