Casual drinkers and novice brewers may not understand the importance of water to the beer brewing process, but they should. Ninety percent of beer consists of water, making it a vital ingredient throughout the brewing process. The flavor and quality of brewing water directly contributes to the flavor and quality of the end product; therefore, brewers must not neglect this crucial component.
Regional water sources form the flavor base of beers produced in regions such as the Midlands, Burton, the Rocky Mountains, and Pilsen. Their distinctive tastes are no accident, resulting from careful selection of the best “blank slate” available to brewers.
The Many Roles of Water in Brewing
From start to finish, water plays multiple parts throughout the process of brewing, including:
• Germination. To create malted barley, brewers first germinate this ingredient by soaking it in water for several days before draining and letting it sit.
• Mash-lauter-tun. At this stage, the crushed grains (mash) enter an insulated vessel that uses a hydrator to saturate them with water heated to about 150 degrees Fahrenheit. This process removes any dry spots in the mash that would lead to wasted sugars.
• Lautering and sparging. After the water from the mash-lauter-tun drains and recirculates to the top, it filters itself through the grain husks (lautering). Then more heated water is poured over these grains (sparging) to remove any remaining sugars.
• Separating solids. After the existing water has been drained, only solids remain in the kettle. Brewers pump in chilled water to bring the solids to the right temperature before adding yeast.
• Bottling. High-pressure jets of water help push extra air out of bottles before capping.
Water Treatment Methods for Brewers
The phase of brewing in which water chemistry is most important is in the mash-lauter-tun, when it impacts the levels of starch conversion in the mash. Prior to this phase, several techniques can help brewers rid water of impurities, odors, and flavors. These methods include:
• Boiling. Brewers can remove chlorine in water by aerating, boiling, and allowing it to cool overnight.
• Filtering. Activated-charcoal filters neutralize chloramine, an antibacterial agent that gives beer a “medicinal” flavor. Charcoal filters, which attach directly to water faucets, can also remove a wide array of other substances and gases.
• Campden tablets. These tablets consist of potassium metabisulfite and act similarly to charcoal filters in removing chloramine.
• Water softening systems. Although not ideal for some forms of beer, salt-based water softeners remove copper, iron, manganese, magnesium, and calcium, which negatively impact the flavor and consistency of the end product.
Can Brewers Work with Water Chemistry to Produce Superior Beverages?
The most successful brewers understand that the flavor of the water they use directly contributes to the flavor of the end product. Those with ready access to clean water via tap or another source can use food-grade hoses to preserve its quality. However, bottled water provides an attractive alternative for those with mineral imbalances or too much chlorine in their tap water.
Some sources advise brewers to manipulate the pH levels or mineral content of water by adding salt prior to brewing. However, this process can prove complicated to the uninitiated and often requires devices such as titration equipment, pH meters, and gram scales. Establishing a baseline from which to modify these levels can also be difficult, as local water composition may vary widely depending on the time of year.
Based on prevailing wisdom, the best approach for brewers may be to begin with water in its natural form and consider modifying water chemistry if the product’s taste leaves something to be desired. With a proper understanding of the chemistry of water and how it impacts the flavor of a brew, novice to experienced brewers can create distinctive beverages for many others to enjoy.