Water works: Expert brewing pointers on craft beer's most important ingredient

A look into the role H20 plays in the brewing process. 

author_img George 'Fuga' Jacob Published :  02nd February 2018 11:55 AM   |   Published :   |  02nd February 2018 11:55 AM
The beer water equation

The beer water equation

Greetings beer lovers, it’s time to get a little technical about this week. And for good measure, we’re discussing water - thanks to requests by a few readers drawing my attention to aspects of water chemistry, in the midst of all the other discussions to do with conservation and purity tests being conducted around us.

So bear with me, as I get a bit geeky, but also give you the insight you need to be a good brewer, and also, to enjoy a drink with that much more knowledge about it. Who knows, you could make a pick-up line out of some of this!

Different waters of life

It’s fundamental that among the different ingredients in beer, water is the major part. But did you know that different types of water go into the making of different beers?

As brewers, we spend a lot of effort to recreate the water profiles from different parts of the world, only for the sake of creating authentic brews. For example, we recreate the water from Dublin when we’re preparing a Guinness clone, or the water from Pilsen (the town in the Czech Republic where Pilsner originated) when we brew a Pilsner, or the water from Burton (or Burton upon Trent, on River Trent in East Staffordshire, England) if we’re doing an IPA.

Interestingly, all breweries in India have dedicated RO plants installed to strip the water of all solids and minerals, which basically allows us to start from a clean slate. Typically, we take our water down to between 5 and 10 ppm of TDS (Total Dissolved Solids). 

To follow up, a detailed analysis provides information on concentrations of sodium, potassium, calcium, sulphate, chloride, zinc, iron, arsenic, and so on. We also need to note the pH of the water, which should be in the range of six to eight. There’s a fair bit of science in here - brewing is not all fun and games!

Salts of the earth

For a few more pointers on chemistry, the most important salts for a brewer to work with include calcium, chloride, sulphate and bicarbonate or hydrogen carbonate for alkalinity.

Calcium helps with the alkalinity of our brewing water by reducing the acidity. It’s very important for light-coloured, hoppy, bitter beers, and also for fermentation. Sulphates, on the other hand, enhance a beer’s bitterness, while chlorides enhance sweetness. The salt balance depends on the style of beer being brewed.     

Lighter beers need acidic brewing water, while darker beers need alkaline water. This is because darker beers use dark malts that are more acidic than the base malts. Some brewers also add magnesium, but they need to be very careful with measurements, as magnesium ions impart a harsh bitter metallic taste to the beer. Also, just so you know, magnesium ions are known to have laxative effects!

While there is a lot more to water chemistry, these few talking points should help you keep that mug held up high, even after a few rounds of heady discussion. Cheers folks, enjoy that drink responsibly! 

George Jacob is the Founder of The Beer Chronicles.