Water Chemistry for Beginner Brewers

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Learn About the Importance of Water for Brewing Beer

Homebrew School: Water Chemistry for Beginners

No doubt, you’ve heard ads that tout beer “from the land of sky-blue waters” or “brewed with pure, Rocky Mountain spring water.” Commercial breweries like to boast about the purity of the water that they use to brew their beer.

Truth be told, some of the classic world styles of beer actually became classics because of the water used to make the beer. The famed Pilsner beers of Bohemia, such as Pilsner Urquell, are considered premier examples. These crisp, hoppy lagers are made with extremely soft water that is pumped from the aquifers below the brewery. By contrast, the legendary British ales of Burton-on-Trent, such as Bass Ale, are made with particularly hard water. Considering these examples (among others), it’s obvious that water can play a big role in beer flavor.

Water is just one of the four primary ingredients in beer, but considering that water may constitute up to 95% of beer’s content, brewers are well aware of the importance of good brewing water. The various minerals and salts found in water used for brewing can accentuate beer flavors or contribute undesirable flavor components. In many cases, water chemistry is key in the flavor profile of a classic beer style.But any water, regardless of its source -be it a lake, a river or an artesian well, can be manipulated to match the profile of another source. For example, brewers wishing to emulate the beers from Burton-on-Trent simply add certain minerals called Burton salts to the brewing water in a process known as Burtonizing.

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For the majority of folks who brew their own beer at home, the issue is not nearly as critical because good beer can be made with average tap water. Thousands of homebrewers are proving it every day. A very general rule says: “If your water tastes good, so will your beer” (this general rule pertains solely to malt extract-based homebrews, not beer made from grain).

That being said, however, using “bad” brewing water will doubtlessly result in bad beer. The important thing is to know the difference between water that is good for brewing and that which is not. Consider these factors:

  • If your water is from a private underground well, it may be high in iron and other tasteable minerals.
  • If your water is softened by conventional methods, it’s probably high in sodium.

High iron and sodium content in your brewing water is not desirable. If these are present in your brewing water, you may want to consider buying bottled water for your brewing needs. Your average, inexpensive bottled water is good for brewing –as long as it’s not distilled (steam distillation takes out all the essential minerals in water that are good for yeast metabolism).

If your water is supplied by a municipal water department, it may have a high chlorine content. Chlorinated water used for brewing may create what is known as chlorophenols in your beer, which are unpleasant smelling and tasting compounds. Should you choose to forge ahead with your municipal water source, here are a couple of ways you can reduce its chlorine content:

  • Carbon filtration is very effective at removing chlorine. Simply attach a carbon filter to the faucet from which your brewing water is drawn.
  • Pre-boil all the water that you need for your beer. Boiling causes the chlorine to melt into a gas and float on up and out of the water; evaporating in the steam.

Be aware that not all water sources get the chlorine treatment. It’s a fact of life that some rural water supplies are contaminated with enterobacteria. Consider having a water analysis company find out if your water is contaminated with this beer spoiler. If there are enterobacteria in your water, keep your water heater set at 160° F or higher and, for sanitizing purposes, rinse your equipment with hot water only.

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