Brewing Liquor | From Water to Beer

Nov 20, 2015Fall 2015

When brewing beer, there are four basic ingredients that are essential: water, malt (or cereal grain), yeast and hops.

Modern conveniences have made obtaining these four ingredients wonderfully easy. All one has to do is go online and hundreds of types of malts and grains, hops, or yeast, can be purchased for small batches and large-scale brewing alike. How then, do brewers select the water that they will be using? Does it matter? Well, the average beer is conventionally understood to be composed of about 95 percent water. Such would include lighter styles, such as pale and amber lagers, German Kölsches, or the trendy session India pale ales (IPAs), which are notably low in alcohol by volume and body—the latter a catch-all term to informally refer to how a beverage feels in the mouth as it is being consumed. For a beer that may be considered light bodied, this 95 percent figure holds up well. Obviously, a beer that is 10 percent alcohol by volume cannot be more than 90 percent water, and more accurately would have to be a bit less than that in order to account for the substances within that make it, well, beer.

Hot water is run over the grain, in a process called sparging, to extract the sweet liquid, called wort, that will be fermented into beer.

Hot water is run over the grain, in a process called sparging, to extract the sweet liquid, called wort, that will be fermented into beer. Photographs by Jesse Burke

Fundamentally, water is the main ingredient in beer, yet it is the easiest ingredient to overlook for its significance, utility, and overall effect on the finished beverage. Your average beer enthusiast or critic, when reviewing a beer, will likely omit any description of the water, known as brewing liquor, while sometimes yammering endlessly about the aromas of its hops or the depths and complexity of its malts. Water is tacitly assumed to rarely directly affect the taste of a good beer, so why bother discussing it in a review? In truth, the composition of the water used during brewing has a substantial and underappreciated effect on the finished brew.

A novice brewer will tend to stick to the basics, brewing styles of beer that do not require the water to be of a specific chemical composition. Homebrew kits that can be purchased from a local brewing supply shop often contain malt extracts that simplify the brewing process and allow for a more diverse range of water compositions. The downside is that a very simple beer will be the result, with little defining personality of its own. Another method, certainly involving a degree of resignation, is to treat the available water sources for brewing as a vintner would terroir. After acquiring and assessing a water quality report for the locality, the brewer then only brews styles of beer that are agreeable to the composition of the water available. This is a self-limiting way to go about brewing. Unlike terroir, which even if possible to alter would result in immense community backlash, water can be adjusted to better suit the brewing process. Beyond this, a skilled brewer or chemist can adjust the composition of water to mimic the waters found in regions of the world famous for particular styles.

A.J. Delange Notes in Water:
A Comprehensive Guide for Brewers

If a brewer finds a particular malt to have too much protein, or a yeast strain to throw too much diacetyl (a slick, buttery compound, avoided in most beer styles) or a hop variety to be too low in geraniol (a compound that produces a rose-like floral flavor and aroma), there isn’t much he can do about it other than select different materials, or dilute or augment with materials that have more or less of the desired properties.

Water is quite different.

While the brewer cannot easily obtain water from a different source, what’s available can be modified. In fact, he must do exactly that if he wants to make excellent beers free from the limitations of the terroir school. (xix)

Brewing beer has come a long way in its over 5,000-year history. For a majority of that time, brewers were limited to the malts, hops, and water available in regions of relative proximity to where they brewed. Forget yeast—no one knew about that until Louis Pasteur discovered fermentation in 1857. Due to these geographic and economic restrictions, the water sources around a given brewery had a much more defining role on what qualities its beers would have, and which styles could be brewed. This has lead to some interesting historical styles, some of which require specific water compositions to brew, and even a few whose flavor is in part characterized by the type of water that is used.

It is important to emphasize that water that tastes good by itself is not necessarily appropriate for brewing beer. Throughout the brew, the water that is used will be undergoing chemical and mechanical changes. Water interacts and exchanges ions within the mash—the hot-water-saturated grain whose enzymes convert complex starches into more simple sugars, ideal for fermentation. Calcium, magnesium, and zinc are important nutrients for yeast, aiding its metabolism, and are important parts of a beer’s water profile. The final product is, in part, a result of these interactions, so water is selected or altered to suit the types of malts used and promote the health of the microorganisms (usually yeast, but several species of bacteria are also used in some styles of beer) that are metabolizing the sugars in the wort, which is the sugar-rich liquid derived from the mash that goes on to be fermented. Hops do not stand alone either; mineral composition in water will affect a number of their properties as well. Therefore, a beer of excellence will come about by catering the water to these needs, not to the ideal taste of water as consumed apart.

Aaren Simoncini of beer'd Brewing Company recognizes that the mineral content of his water source changes with the seasons.

Aaren Simoncini of Beer’d Brewing Company. Photographs by Jesse Burke

A wise first step to proper water usage during brewing is to acquire a water quality report from the municipality that is home to the brewery and its water source. These reports provide a rundown of the mineral content of the local water as it is being drawn from its source, and will indicate to the brewer what adjustments need to be made before the water can be utilized for the brew.

Water precipitates, and then spends time as surface water in lakes, reservoirs, and rivers before seeping below and becoming groundwater in wells and aquifers. Through this process the chemical composition is defined. As surface water drains down into deeper geological layers, different localities will impart lower or higher concentrations of minerals.

For example, the city of Pilsen, from which the pilsner beer style originates, is famous for its soft water, meaning that it is lower in mineral content. Also low is the water’s alkalinity, as well as its sulphate content. While the pH of the water itself is not directly relevant, it is very important in the mash for the conversion of starches into simple, easily fermentable sugars. Generally, most beers are benefited by a slightly acidic mash pH, while most municipal water sources have a pH that is ever so slightly alkaline. Using water with an inappropriate pH will affect fermentation, resulting in a beer that is at best not true to its style, and at worst tastes terrible. The low alkalinity of Pilsen water blends with traditional pilsner base malts (base malts are those with easily accessible sugars, contrasted with specialty malts) creating a soft mouthfeel and the bread-like maltiness characteristic of a delicious pilsner. Pilsen water’s lower sulphate content keeps the bitterness from the hops in check, balancing the famed lager without removing its noble hop aroma. Using water more acidic in its nature will result in a different product than a traditional pilsner-style beer.

In sharp contrast, Burton-on-Trent, which celebrated a thousand years of brewing history in 2002, is famous for its very rich and extremely hard water. This is owed to high levels of calcium and magnesium sulfates, which come from the gypsum-rich geology below. Hard water is often desired in brewing, so much so that the term “Burtonization” was coined to refer to adding calcium sulfate to improve water’s suitability for brewing. Calcium and magnesium sulfates are among the most desirable minerals in brewing, providing essential nutrients for yeast, increasing hop utilization rate, and assisting in the removal of unwanted proteins from the grain. Burtonization is a common process in the making of the now popular and ubiquitous pale ale and IPA styles, which are brewed around the world from water sources quite divergent from those of Burton-on-Trent. With plenty of sulphates in the water, both hop bitterness and aroma are made assertive and drying, exemplary of these styles of beer.

If our next stop on our brewing liquor tour was Dublin, we have the ideal contrast to Pilsen water. Famous for Guinness, the world’s most widely known dry Irish stout, Dublin’s water is known for its high bicarbonate levels. The malts of a stout are more acidic, and the high bicarbonate levels lower the mash pH by acting as a buffer, preventing the natural acidity of the dark malts from becoming overbearing. Assuming the water used has not been adjusted artificially by the brewer, Pilsen water makes an undesirable stout, and likewise Dublin water does not make an enjoyable pilsner.

In modern times, traditional styles of beer such as those mentioned are brewed around the world, owing to water treatment methods that allow the mineral content of water to be altered to suit the needs of the style. If a water source requires additional minerals, the necessary additives can be dissolved into the brew easily enough, though this convenience is not necessarily a brewer’s panacea. Often the addition of one mineral necessitates that another be removed, so technologies such as reverse osmosis, which strips almost all ions from water, are employed to create a blank canvas from which to develop a brewing composition from scratch.

At Beer’d Brewing Company, located in Stonington, Connecticut, Aaren Simoncini, brewmaster and co-owner, keeps tabs on seasonal fluctuations that occur from his water source, which is a reservoir in Mystic, Connecticut, maintained by Aquarion Water Company. “I’m in touch with them on a quarterly basis at this point, because I know that there’s a seasonal swing,” Simoncini says, IPA in hand. Some of the most common causes of these swings include spring rains and melting snow, which dilute mineral concentrations in the reservoir. Since reservoirs are a surface water source, such seasonal shifts occur more drastically than with underground sources such as aquifers and wells. If the mineral content is diluted, more will have to be added by the brewers to stay precise with a particular beer’s water profile. Water during dry summer months or drought is the opposite, resulting in less required adjustment of the brewing liquor.

In the autumn, leaves falling and finding their way into the water are also a concern. As Simoncini says, “dead leaves or debris in the reservoir will change the output.” The influx of decaying vegetation typically increases the acidity of the water in the Aquarion reservoir, and therefore during this period more minerals that act as pH buffers, such as bicarbonates, are required to prevent the mash pH from dropping too low. Utility companies like Aquarion mainly concern themselves with the public safety of the water they manage, including microbial contamination and toxic compounds, such as lead or nitrates. The treatments they make to their water generally cover these necessities only, meaning it’s up to the savvy brewer to keep tabs on such seasonal fluctuations to ensure a stable product.

IPAs and double IPAs are the forte of Beer’d, with a majority of their nearly 60 beer recipes being innovative variations and explorations of the style. For each beer that is brewed, the water build is catered specifically to that recipe. As Simoncini explains, “Sometimes I want to accentuate some maltiness, sometimes I want to accentuate a bright, bitter beer. Or with hops, I really need to build up the sulphates. When developing a recipe, you’re not finishing the paragraph if you don’t go ahead and build a water profile for that particular beer.”

Luckily both for Simoncini and talented home brewer Eric Heupel, the water provided by Aquarion is very soft, so brewers can simply add chemicals rather than undergoing the extra step of reverse osmosis. Brewing in Mystic, Heupel, a Ph.D. candidate in oceanography at University of Connecticut’s Avery Point campus, uses the same water source as Beer’d Brewing Company. Though the two brewers have never collaborated, their general ideas on brewing water for ipas are strikingly similar. “I add a lot of calcium chloride—I really like calcium chloride versus gypsum [calcium sulphate] to get that calcium content,” says Simoncini, “I add Epsom salt [magnesium sulphate] very lightly to get the sulphates up, but keep them less than 100 [parts per million] so the bitterness doesn’t become cloying or metallic.”

For Heupel, the balance of ions in his IPAs is of equal concern, as he notes that “chloride generally accentuates maltiness, and sulphates bitterness.” For an ipa that he wants to have more balance between the hop and malt flavors, he says he prefers “chlorides and sulphates in the 1:1 to 1:1.5 range.” However, Heupel also likes to make a “hop monster of a beer.” For this double IPA he has a different ratio for these ions in mind, changing the chloride-sulphate balance to 1:4. “This seriously accentuates hop bitterness and dries the beer out as well,” he says.

This look at the importance of water to the brewing of beer is truly only a taste. Many more minerals and ions can be found in water as it moves through the hydrologic cycle at various scales, from global processes to the specific localities known for unique water compositions. Many brewers today, especially those in the craft beer movement, are hybridizing existing beer styles, or creating unique brews whose styles are inchoate and yet to be officially defined. With such nuance brings water builds that are unique to the brewer instead of a particular region. Conceivable is the notion that in contemporary brewing, the water composition in a boundary-pushing ale or lager might not naturally exist anywhere on the planet. Furthermore, environmental changes, whether caused by human activity or otherwise, eventually alter the chemical composition of a water source over time. Such changes must be taken into account, or suddenly a subsequent batch of the same beer will not be consistent with prior times it was brewed.   

As chemically complex as brewing liquor can seem, it is far outweighed by the innumerable organic and inorganic compounds from which grains, hops, and yeast are respectively made. When it comes down to it, in terms of chemistry, water is the most malleable of beer’s four main ingredients. With the right research, keen application of the other three brewing elements, and a bit of math, the right water can be the difference between an acceptable beer and one of world class.

— Aaron McKee
     Photographs by Jesse Burke

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