Water: The Stuff of Life (and Beer)

Drew Beechum demystifies the chemistry, boiling water down to all you really need to know to make better beer.

Drew Beechum Jun 5, 2020 - 13 min read

Water: The Stuff of Life (and Beer) Primary Image

Water—it’s 90 to 95 percent of our beer. Or, maybe it’s only 80 percent if you’re a fermentation masochist. Regardless, it’s the vast majority of our favorite beverage, yet it’s the least talked about in the homebrewing world.

Much of homebrewing is the sort of stuff you can casually wave a hand at, like we can with malt, hops, and yeast. With those ingredients, you can usually predict what will happen with a few simple algebra equations. You can often get great results with ballpark guestimates and simple rules of thumb.

Not so with water. It’s understandable—it’s chemistry, and it doesn’t like to be ignored. The margins between great and awful can be measured in grams. Water chemistry is finicky. The sensory impacts are subtle and, based on a few factors, shift like a mirage.

Look, I’m a nerd. I graduated from an institution that literally has “Technology” in its name. I will gladly read half-understood science to try to suss out something useful. I’m also terrible at chemistry. I passed my one prerequisite chemistry class—Solid State Chemistry—by the skin of my hard-working teeth and a kindhearted teaching assistant.

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Water should scare me. I once read an article that promised a clear path to understanding water chemistry. I noped out when it started talking quantum mechanics.

But water stopped scaring me once I started looking at how brewers actually treat it. In short: Most of us trust what the experts tell us, and we also trust what we can taste if we follow their advice.

Oddly, I’m also horribly lazy about cleaning. How did I get into a hobby with so much cleaning and chemistry? Ohhh, right. Lots of beer!

A Few Water Rules

  • If you do nothing else, remove the chlorine and/or chloramine from your water.
  • Know thy water profile.
  • Do the least needed (you have three primary levers: pH, chloride, and sulfate).
  • Stop stressing.

If You Do Nothing Else…

For Rule One, let’s step back a moment. Water adjustments are, barring extremes, not a necessary part of brewing. For example, if you’re unfortunate enough to have iron-rich water, you’ll need to put in a ton of work, lest your beers taste bloody.

Barring that sort of extreme, our biggest brewing-water obstacle is our municipal water supplier. That doesn’t mean they’re providing us with awful water. It means that, thanks to the discovery that water is a primary means of disease communication, our modern water supply is rendered safe via chlorine compounds. This is a wonderful fact for normal human beings. For brewers, it’s terrible.

Unfortunately for our needs, chlorine (or the more stable and oft-used chloramine), reacts with elements in malt to form a nasty, clovey, plasticky, medicinal aroma—a class of chemicals called chlorophenols. You don’t want these in your beer.

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Sadly, of all the brewing faults I taste in homebrew, this—the easiest to deal with—is the most common. So many homebrews taste like a medicine cabinet. I’m convinced that new brewers either don’t recognize it as an off-flavor—“It’s supposed to taste like that”—or they have fond childhood memories of drinking from garden hoses. (Those vinyl compounds are reminiscent of chlorophenol.)

So, if you do nothing else with your water, remove the chlorine compounds.

Let’s assume your city is using chloramine, which is more practical and stable and therefore harder to remove. You have two real choices: Filter your water through an activated charcoal filter or chemically separate it with Campden tablets or potassium metabisulfite.

I use a small dose of Campden—a single tablet will neutralize 20 gallons pretty instantaneously. Filters, on the other hand, require maintenance and restraint. According to water chemist extraordinaire Martin Brungard (creator of Bru’n Water—more on that below), you need to run a standard carbon filter at about 0.1 gallon (0.38 l) per minute to ensure chloramine removal. That’s painfully slow, and none of us are doing it. Just throw in that small dose of Campden, stir, wait a minute, and you’re set. Trust me. (And if you don’t trust me, purchase chloramine test strips to confirm the magic of chemistry.) This one painless step will improve 85 percent of the world’s homebrew.

Know Thy Water Profile

While our municipal water providers annoy us with their disinfections, they save our bacon with annual water reports. There are certain compounds that the U.S. government requires water districts to track. The things brewers care most about aren’t mandated, but they’re often included anyway. Search your water provider’s website for their report; the reports are required to be publicly accessible.

Look for the following items: calcium, bicarbonate, carbonate, sulfate, chloride, magnesium, and sodium. Before you dig too deep, check the following:

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  • Do I have 50 ppm or more of calcium? (This helps mash enzyme activity.)
  • Which is higher, chloride or sulfate? (Sulfate increases the perception of dryness, promoting hop bitterness. Chloride decreases that perception, hiding hop bitterness.)
  • Is my bicarbonate level above 150 ppm? (Generally, the higher your bicarbonate level, the better for your darker beers.)

That is a supremely simple way of viewing things, but those are always my first questions.

Your water report is only an average picture of what happens over a year in your area, many miles’ worth of piping away from your tap. It’s generally good enough. If you want more accuracy, invest in either a water testing kit (LaMotte BrewLab is tailored for the homebrewer), or buy a water test from a reputable lab (Ward Laboratories has been a go-to for years).

In either case, this is where I throw in the towel and trust the experts. Get a water profile program and let it help you. While there are profilers included in most brewing software, I find the most accurate information from the aforementioned Bru’n Water. It’s an intimidating Excel spreadsheet with careful instructions. Martin offers a free version or a donation “pro” version on his website (sites.google .com/site/brunwater). Once you’re set up, it offers you a vast selection of water profiles and helps you find adjustments based on your water, your malt bill, and your desired flavor.

Over the years, I’ve found his software to be accurate enough that I rarely check my pH anymore.

Do the Least Needed

A critical aspect of water chemistry is maximizing enzyme efficiency, and that is largely a matter of calcium and pH. Make sure your total calcium is above 50 ppm and that your mash pH—at mash temperature—is in the 5.1–5.6 range. A safe rule of thumb is to add 1 ml of lactic acid (at its usual 88 percent concentration) per gallon (3.8 l), if you have normal municipal water.

Brewers most commonly use lactic acid to adjust pH, plus calcium sulfate (gypsum/CaSO4) and calcium chloride (CaCl), playing salt-and-pepper to adjust calcium levels and taste. Once you start playing, you’ll begin to see the interplay—CaCl adds calcium and chloride, gypsum adds more calcium as well as the sulfate.

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If you think of water adjustments as salt, sugar, and acid, you’ll understand why I heartily recommend a light hand with this stuff. It’s tempting to plug your numbers into Bru’n Water and run screaming headlong into all the additions. When we start playing with water calculators, we begin by trying to dial in our water profiles to precisely match our targets—2 grams of sulfate, 4 grams of Epsom salt, and a pinch of pickling lime! But as with an over-seasoned dish, there’s little you can do to fix a beer that’s been over-mineralized. It’s a waste of beer and salts to push these additions to the extremes, when in reality all you need or want is a little nudge to boost a flavor.

This most often happens when people find tables of classic brewing-city water profiles of unknown provenance. They want to push that Dublin, Munich, or Burton character to the max. Remember, you’re not the only brewer to mess with water chemistry—those brewers certainly did. So my recommendation is to always start with half the amounts recommended and see what that does for you. The mash and the boil aren’t the only place you can add water salts. If you start with a beer that’s under-seasoned, you can play kitchen scientist and add small portions of sulfate and chloride to a glass to adjust the taste.

Stop Stressing

Those previous two sections look like a lot of busy work and a path to maddening mind-numbness. Take a deep breath and realize that fairly quickly you’ll find patterns in your brewing.

In other words, you’ll figure out, “Oh, my water does this sort of thing without much adjustment” (e.g. saisons and me); or, “if I want to make a bitter beer that bounces out of the glass, I need X grams of gypsum to pop the hops.” And of course, every brewer figures out—barring extremes such as paler-than-pale or big, rich stouts—what the vast majority of their beers need in terms of acid additions (e.g., 1 ml of lactic acid per gallon to reach optimal pH levels).

This is what almost every water-aware brewer I’ve known does. Yes, there are a few obsessives out there who try to dial in every batch, but almost everyone has a few simple profiles, such as:

  • The Neutral: Acid adjustments and calcium levels. Maybe, depending on the brewery profile, a small gypsum addition to boost hop perception. Also really useful for lagers. This is what I do for saisons and almost all of my pale beers.
  • Malt-Forward: Acid for pH and favoring chloride over sulfate (2:1), to push malt perception (also favored by some, but not all, hazy IPA brewers to soften bitterness).
  • Hop-Forward: Acid again, but favoring sulfate/gypsum over chloride in that 2:1-ish ratio.
  • Dark as Midnight: To handle the greater acidity of darkly roasted grains, brewers traditionally recommend chalk (calcium carbonate), but that’s difficult to actually dissolve in water. Some brewers are shifting to pickling /slaked lime (calcium hydroxide). Judicious applications help keep the pH from shifting too acidic for mashing and round off the harsher notes. A bit of chloride helps as well to boost body perception.

You may notice that I’ve given you very few hard numbers here. When it comes to water, I hate to indulge the false security granted by a firm guideline. Everything depends on your base water and your target recipe.

What’s the easiest way to learn what to do with your water? Find a local brewery that’s making singing beers. Ask them. They know your water situation, and if they’re paying attention, they can give you a few quick pointers. Otherwise, you’d be well served to grab a local water report, a piece of software, and a moderate approach to spicing.

Next thing you’ll know, you’ll be doing the water dance.

Photo: Matt Graves/www.mgravesphoto.com

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