Beer Basics: Water

In its most basic form, beer is a much more simple beverage than many people make it out to be. By definition, beer is really made up of only 4 ingredients; malted barley, hops, yeast and water. A Bavarian beer purity law called the Reineitsgebot, which originated in 1487 even states clearly that, by law, beer can only contain barley, water and hops. Note, at the time yeast was not truly understood, or even recognized.

Today of course beer all across the planet is brewed with new and exciting ingredients. The Belgian’s have long used spices and herbs in their beer, and while many German breweries still hold true to the Reineitsgebot, there are breweries adding unique and exciting food items into their beers – particularly the Americans.

With all the exciting ingredients, different types of barley, varieties of hops, and strains of yeast that are available to us, we can often overlook the largest component in beer – water. Water does play a very powerful role in influencing the final product; much more than the public may perceive.

Since When Does Water Mater?

The first thing that you should realize about water, is that it is not flavorless. By the time the water used for brewing beer (which is actually called liquor) reaches the brewery it has most likely traveled a great distance. Through this journey is has passed over rock, soil, sand, plants, and other matter. And because water is a solvent, it is continuously picking up various minerals along the way. So depending on where your water comes from it will have a very specific chemical make up creating a unique blend of minerals and ultimately, flavors in the beer.

Beyond the flavor,these minerals also affect the way the brewing occurs; it literally can change the way sugar is extracted from the barley and how fermentation takes place. Not all beer styles can be best brewed under the same water conditions; specific styles will be best suited by specific water chemistry. Therefore, because individual brewing locations have a very specific mineral makeup in their water, they will also have specific beers that are best brewed in those conditions. Although it was not until the 1900’s when we actually discovered how to manipulate water chemistry, brewers instinctively began to understand that their location allowed them to brew some beers very well, and others poorly.

Location, Location, Location!

Whether or not they understood the science at the time, brewers did learn that they are best off brewing certain beer styles dependent on their location. This fundamental understanding of brewing science has created several ideal brewing locations which are celebrated for their now prized local beer styles.

Its the Acid in Munich and Dublin that Makes the Beer

Limestone, the most predominant form of rock on this planet, is mainly composed of calcium carbonate. As such, slightly acidic water that flows past it slowly erodes the limestone and picks up traces of calcium creating an slightly alkaline, hard water. Because of this water’s high pH levels, it it not ideal for brewing beer – it will affect the overall chemistry of the mash (where malted barley is soaked in heated water to extract its sugars), and also gives hops an astringent and unpleasant bitter sensation.

The solution to this predicament is brewing with the addition of dark malts, which will naturally reduce the pH of the mash to a more appropriate level for brewing. Two areas where this is common practice is Munich and Dublin where their Dunkels and Stouts respectively has wowed the world for hundreds of years.

The British Get Coppied

Another form of calcium that often dissolved into a city’s water supply is calcium sulphate. It is less common, but plays an important role in producing one of the worlds most historic and popular beer styles. Burton-on-Trent in England produces a pale ale which is distinctly dry, crisp and hoppy and now prized by pale ale brewers and made famous by Bass. Today, with modern technology, brewers all across the planet are able to mimic the water in Burton-On-Trent to produce astounding pale ales with the same unique characteristics as their originating ancestors.

The Czech’s Know that Nothing is Beter

The worlds most famous beer style, the Pilsner, was actually formed in Pilzen, Czechoslovakia – and not because of a dominant mineral, but rather because of a lack thereof. The water in Pilzen is naturally soft and free of all such minerals. This has helped tremendously to create the Pilsner, which is prized for its sharp crackle of bitterness followed by soft, clean, bread-like malt flavors. This is in part due to the water source, and once again, brewers of Pilsners today will modify their water source to replicate that of Pilzen’s.

Don’t Get Caught in the Marketing

“Our beer is brewed only with glacier fresh ice cold mountain water, from million year old ice, which was carved by the ancient civilizations, and will make you live forever”…. Please, don’t fall victim to the relentless slew of marketing campaigned that attempt to convince you of the purity of their water. Virtually all professional breweries, with the exeption of potentially the Abbeys in Belgium, carefully test and examine their water supplies to ensure that the conditions perfectly meet the beer which they are brewing. If they did not, you know who would not be able to sell you a beer that tastes identical when brewed in Milwaukee vs the same one brewed in Idaho.

Really it is to the brewery’s, and our advantage that they use brewing salts to achieve the perfect mash pH and water chemistry required for the specific beer that they are trying to produce. It will create a more precise, more accurate, and more delicious beer in the end. Most breweries will adjust their entire water supply to a level suitable for every beer that they brew. Some very special breweries though will actually tinker with the water in the very different styles so that they can create the best beer that they can. Well done guys, well done.


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