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Water: The Overlooked Essential

Alas, water is to most IPA drinkers as “Arrested Development’s” Ann Veal is to Michael Bluth (that is, the thing that’s always around yet you’re constantly forgetting about). And yet, water is essential to every IPA—every beer, in fact.

Dave Carpenter Mar 30, 2016 - 9 min read

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Water is the forgotten step-sibling in the family of brewing ingredients. When malt and hops make their grand entrance into the fairy-tale ballroom, the string quartet stops and heads turn. Yeast is content to sneak in through the side door, but it remains always capricious, lead-stealing one moment and coyly fading into the shadows the next.

But water spends its evenings shuttling the other three from one party to the next, the unseen driver of an invisible carriage. Never in the history of civilization has a single drop of beer passed a pair of lips and prompted the imbiber to exclaim, “My, what a lovely sulfate-to-chloride ratio!”

And yet, water is essential to IPA and every other beer you’ve ever tasted. Just because we don’t notice it doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. Brewers of Irish stout and Czech Pilsner have long understood that water can make or break a style. In the case of India pale ale, it was originally the water of Burton-upon-Trent that made possible the highly hopped brew of two centuries ago.

Today, American craft brewers churn out award-winning IPAs from sea to shining sea. But in a country as large and multifaceted as the United States, brewing IPA is hardly a homogeneous affair. From the mountains to the prairies to fermentors topped with foam, the diversity of regional variations can be attributed, at least in part, to the ways in which brewers approach water.

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Once upon a Time in Burton

Any discussion of water’s role in defining IPA must necessarily begin with Burton-upon-Trent. While India Pale Ale’s origin is shrouded in folklore as much as it is steeped in history, it is was in Burton that Samuel Allsopp & Sons and Bass & Company developed and marketed the inspiration for modern IPA.

Burton’s pale ales and IPAs owed much of their character to the high-sulfate waters that brewers tapped into from local wells. With high levels of dissolved minerals, Burton water proved to be the ideal foundation for hoppy pale ale. In fact, Burton-brewed beers were sometimes said to exhibit “Burton snatch,” a sulfuric aroma caused by copious concentrations of gypsum, or calcium sulfate.

You’re unlikely to find that legendary Burton snatch in any of today’s leading examples. But you’ll still find brewers whose stylistic approaches are as tied to the local water as they are to malt, hops, and yeast.

West Coast

When one speaks of “West Coast IPA” as a distinct style, it’s hard to not think of San Diego’s Green Flash Brewing Company. After all, they named their flagship beer just that, a chicken-or-egg move that either planted a great idea in everyone’s heads or succinctly captured what we were all thinking anyway, depending upon whom you ask.

“Our water is perfect for brewing very hoppy beers,” says Green Flash Brewmaster Erik Jensen. “I think that’s one reason you see so many great IPAs coming out of San Diego.”

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The local water, about two-thirds of which is sourced from the Colorado River, has a high mineral content that echoes what made Burton so successful. “We don’t really treat our water at all,” says Jensen. “It’s sort of in the tradition of the world’s great styles, where brewers worked with the water they had and brewed beer that complemented it.”

But Green Flash’s West Coast IPA, first brewed in 2004, is just one link in a chain of groundbreaking, ever hoppier ales that includes such stalwarts as Stone IPA, AleSmith IPA, Ballast Point Sculpin, and countless others. Why did so many of these over-the-hops ales rise up from the West Coast? It seems there was something in the water. And not just San Diego’s.

About 600 miles to the north, Bear Republic Brewing Company brews the highly decorated Racer 5 IPA, an archetype of the West Coast style. And the approach echoes that of Green Flash. “We’re fortunate to be part of the Russian River aquifer, so our water is high in mineral content,” says Brewmaster Richard Norgrove.

Like Jensen, Norgrove says he doesn’t have to change the water much to create hoppy styles. “There’s plenty of manganese,” he continues, “which contributes to a particular hops character that I think creates some of the regional differences between East and West Coast interpretations.”

Yes, like hip hop, swing dance, and oysters, IPA changes somewhat when you move three time zones to the right.

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East Coast

“I couldn’t build a West Coast IPA if I wanted to.” That’s how Dan Foley, co-owner and co-brewer of Foley Brothers Brewing in Brandon, Vermont, responded when I asked him how he approaches his acclaimed American IPAs.

“We’re lucky in Vermont,” says Dan. “Our water comes from two aquifers, it’s non-chlorinated, and it’s low in sulfate. Nothing needs to be removed, and additions for IPA are simple.”

Dan explains that when he and brother Patrick first opened their brewery, they experimented with using the straight, non-adjusted water and sent samples off to labs for analysis. The water of the Green Mountains, it turns out, is considerably softer than that found out West.

“All we need to do is add some gypsum, which lowers the pH of the mash and brings up the sulfate-chloride ratio,” he says. As in Burton, elevated sulfate enhances crispness and highlights hops bitterness in Foley Brothers’ lineup of hops-forward ales, which include Fair Maiden Imperial IPA, Citrennial IPA, Pieces of Eight Imperial IPA, and Native IPA.

Dan says that what makes East Coast interpretations of the style unique is less about water—virtually any brewer can brew with any water nowadays—than it is about the approach to the hops themselves.

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At Foley Brothers, the bittering charges are delivered almost exclusively with Magnum, a cultivar known for delivering a clean, smooth bitterness. Loads of late-kettle hops are further augmented with what Dan calls a “quasi hopback,” a sort of hop spider that lets him baste hops with recirculated wort right in the kettle.

Foley does adjust his water to brew hoppy styles, but one of the joys of soft water is that one can build up a desirable profile from scratch.

Working from a Blank Canvas

What are you to do, however, if you’re not as lucky as the good people at Foley Brothers, Bear Republic, or Green Flash? What if your water isn’t that great for drinking, much less brewing beer?

If your water leaves something to be desired, then starting with reverse-osmosis water may be the best approach. Similar in purity to distilled water, reverse-osmosis (RO) water has been forced through a semipermeable membrane, leaving dissolved minerals on one side and H2O, served neat, on the other. Starting with pure water, you then build the exact water profile you want through calculated mineral additions. (For more about adjusting your water profile, see “Brewing Water.”)

If you brew frequently and go through a lot of water, it may be worth installing an RO system. The convenience of having RO on demand can’t be beat, but such systems can easily run into the hundreds of dollars. And that’s before replacement filters, which can add up with time.

For a low-cost alternative to in-home systems, seek out your local grocery store’s bottled water aisle. Many have a machine right in the store from which you can fill your own containers for pennies per gallon. Of course, doing so requires a trip to the store, but it’s a small price to pay for better beer.

Something in the Water?

The days when the water from the tap limited the beer that you brewed are long gone. Today’s brewers are free to start with a blank canvas and build up custom profiles to accentuate whatever characteristics they desire. It’s thus comforting to hear brewers such as Foley, Jensen, and Norgrove use words like lucky, fortunate, and perfect to describe their water sources because despite regional differences, the two coasts (and all of us in the middle) are united in our love for modern American IPA.

Learn how to evaluate your water chemistry and make adjustments to brew the best beer possible with CB&B’s online course, Brewing Water: A Practical Approach. Register today!

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