A Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine reader recently asked us the following question:
I’ve been reading up on water profiles, but the topic is complex. Should I try to match my water to a particular city for a style of beer or use another method?
Water chemistry is, indeed, a complex subject. Many years ago, the recommendation was for brewers to try to “match” a particular city’s water to brew a style of beer. So, if you were brewing a Pilsner, you would try to match the water profile from Pilsen; if you were brewing an Irish stout, you would match the water profile from Dublin.
While this can still be an effective method for targeting a narrow style, many commercial brewers have moved away from this “water-matching” approach because our understanding of the underlying water chemistry has improved. Also, some of the traditional water profiles may not match the water actually used at the breweries in question. I encourage brewers to focus on a few basic water concepts, outlined below, rather than blindly “matching” a water profile.
First, I recommend you test your water to make sure it is in the “good” range for brewing. You can get it tested with a brewing-water kit or by sending it to a brewing lab. The water report should include the six key ions: calcium, magnesium, sodium, sulfate, chloride, and bicarbonate. The “good” brewing ranges for these are: calcium: 50–150 ppm, magnesium: 10–40 ppm, sodium: 0–150 ppm, sulfate: 50–250 ppm, chloride: 0–250 ppm, and bicarbonate: 0–250 ppm. If your water is below these ranges, you can add some salts to adjust it; if your water is above these ranges, you may need to dilute the water with distilled or reverse-osmosis (RO) water.
Second, if you are an all-grain brewer, you want to control your mash pH during the conversion step of the mash. Ideally, you want to maintain it in the 5.2–5.6 range during the mash. The pH is determined by your water profile and grain bill, and generally lighter beers run the risk of having too high a pH. Proper mash pH will enhance the flavor stability of the beer and provide a brighter finish to your beer. You can use either software to estimate your mash pH or a pH meter to measure and adjust it. To lower mash pH, most homebrewers use lactic acid because it’s readily available and won’t alter the flavor in the small quantities needed to adjust your pH.
Finally, understand the impact of the sulfate-to-chloride ratio on the beer you are brewing. This is simply a ratio of the sulfate ions (in parts per million) to the chloride ions from your water profile. A low ratio (more chloride than sulfate) will give the beer a malty finish, and a high ratio (more sulfate than chloride) will enhance the bitterness. You can adjust this ratio to match the style of beer you are brewing. Using these three concepts, you should be able to brew just about any style of beer with good results.
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