The Importance Of Water For Homebrew

The water that you use for your brew will make the world of difference.  Most homebrewers don’t give it too much thought, at least I didn’t.  It wasn’t until earlier this week that I was helping trouble shoot a beer and we realized that something was overlooked.  Actually the biggest ingredient was overlooked, water.

So how important is the water that you use for your brewing?  We will get to that in just a second but first I need to catch you up to speed.

How We Figured Out It Was The Water

The beer was given to me to trouble shoot, and the fact of the matter was I helped design the recipe so I was pretty familiar with the ingredients that went into it.  Also the brewer that had this issue is a more than capable brewer (knows how to follow instructions, sanitize, yadda yadda yadda) and then I tasted it – there was an off flavor to it.  It was an IPA that had this harsh flavor, a weird flavor to it actually.  I was stumped, so I started going through all of the possibilities and my only suggestion was to let it age in the bottles a bit longer and taste it in a few weeks.

It wasn’t until a week later, the customer came back and we were chatting about his weekend house and how he didn’t brew this recipe during the week but rather on the weekend.  With that comment we figured that the biggest difference between his brews made during the week (which have been consistently good) and the brews made on the weekend was the water profiles are polar opposite.  The water he uses at his weekend home is extremelysoft versus during the week it is much harder.

Now Why Does That Make A Difference?

I learned this from people who lived in Seattle.  Apparently in Seattle the water is extremely soft, it’s almost like rain water (from what I’m told – I’m not a water expert by any means) and they would tell me that it was a pain to make APA’s and IPA’s.  They would have to add water salts to the water to make it harder.  So why does this make any difference at all?  Well the reason is that certain water profiles will lend better to different styles of beer better than others.

The chemistry of the water determines the effect that each type of grain addition will have on the beer as well as the hops have with that beer.   It’s the reason why really good light lagers come from Czech and really good stouts come from Ireland/Great Britain.

Need More?

Maybe it’s best to show with some examples and charts (I love charts).  This information can be found on howtobrew.com.  I tried to cut it down and make it a bit more comprehensive though.

First We Need An Example Of  Brewing Water Table

Water Profiles From Brewing Cities

City Calcium
(Ca+2)
Magnesium
(Mg+2)
Bicarbonate
(HCO3-1)
SO4-2 Na+1 Cl-1 Beer Style
Pilsen 10 3 3 4 3 4 Pilsen
Dortmund 225 40 220 120 60 60 Export Lager
Vienna 163 68 243 216 8 39 Vienna Lager
Munich 109 21 171 79 2 36 Oktoberfest
London 52 32 104 32 86 34 British Bitter
Edinburgh 100 18 160 105 20 45 Scottish Ale
Burton 352 24 320 820 44 16 India Pale Ale
Dublin 118 4 319 54 12 19 Dry Stout

It doesn’t take too long to realize they all have different water profiles.  These different water profiles are just what’s in the region – they aren’t building them up.

So What This Actually Means

Different water styles mean different things for beer.  Certain minerals will accent on different malts as well as hop flavors depending on the concentration of them.  That’s why in general if you go to a homebrew shop they will tell you, “When making beer, don’t use distilled water – you need those minerals in them when making ales”.

To further drive this point home, here is an elaboration on the information above.

Pilsen

The low hardness as well as the low alkalinity really help with getting the proper pH to be reached with only base malts – they don’t use many or any specialty grains.  The lacks of sulphate helps with a light hoppyness.

Dortmund

This city has pale lagers.  It has more malt flavor to it because of the higher levels of minerals.

Vienna

Similar to Dortmund lagers but lacks the amount of calcium, sodium and chloride.  The only way that they got the acid levels to be correct was to add Toasted Malt, hense the amber color for Vienna’s.

Munich

It has a fairly balanced water profile, they do however have to use darker  malts to help balance the carbonates and acidify the mash.  It has low sulfates so it really accents on the maltyness rather than the hops.  This is why they have malty beers with light hoppyness.

London

With high levels of carbonate it makes the use of dark malts more promising in the mash.  The high level of carbonate makes it more favorable to use dark malts to balance the mash, but the high chloride and high sodium allow the beer to be smoothed out.  Think porters and browns.

Edinburgh

This is very similar to the London styles of beer, but it has more bicarbonate and sulfate making the beer a bit more malty and using less hops to achieve balance in the brew.

Burton-on-Trent

Again it’s pretty close to London water.  The hardness of the water is pretty high.  The high level of sodium in the water helps produce a clean hop bitterness.

Dublin

Has a high level of bicarbonate, because of that this style of beer really embraces the maltiest and darkest malts beer. Because of the low-level of sodium and chloride it has a mellow amount of hops.

One Step Closer To Going Water Crazy

Now that you know this, how do you know what your water profile is.

  • As a last resort you can send your water to get tested .  Once you do that you should get back a table letting you know what your water is.
  • Maybe someone already did the work for you is another option.  A lot of homebrewers are pretty nice people and sometimes you can find on a forum or a blog someone’s report on the water profile for your city, town, or county.  So I would take a look on the internet before you rush out and spend money on getting your water tested.
  • Also your county, town, or city may have public information on your water contents – may be worth checking.
  • If you use bottled water, you can call up the manufacture and they should be able to tell you as well.

Yep We’re Water Crazy

We’re here, we are officially making a really big deal about something that only homebrewers would find interesting. Here is another chart that will help you, “correct” your water to the style that you are brewing.   Again this can be found on John Palmers site.

Salts for Water Adjustment

Brewing Saltand Common Name Concentration at 1 gram/gallon Grams per level teaspoon Effects Comments
Calcium Carbonate
(CaCO3)
a.k.a. Chalk
105 ppm
Ca+2
158 ppm CO3-2
1.8 Raises pH Because of its limited solubility it is only effective when added directly to the mash. Use for making dark beers in areas of soft water. 
Calcium Sulfate
(CaSO4*2 H2O)
a.k.a. Gypsum
61.5 ppm
Ca+2
147.4 ppm
SO4-2
4.0 Lowers pH Useful for adding calcium if the water is low in sulfate. Can be used to add sulfate “crispness” to the hop bitterness.
Calcium Chloride
(CaCl2*2H2O)
72 ppm
Ca+2
127 ppm
Cl-1
3.4 Lowers pH Useful for adding Calcium if the water is low in chlorides.
Magnesium Sulfate
(MgSO4*7H2O)
a.k.a. Epsom Salt
26 ppm
Mg+2
103 ppm
SO4-2
4.5 Lowers pH by a small amount. Can be used to add sulfate “crispness” to the hop bitterness.
Sodium Bicarbonate
(NaHCO3)
a.k.a. Baking Soda
75 ppm
Na+1
191 ppm
HCO3
4.4 Raises pH by adding alkalinity. If your pH is too low and/or has low residual alkalinity, then you can add alkalinity. See procedure for calcium carbonate.

I Have To Bring You Back To Reality

It’s really easy to get lost in this, very easy.  So time to bring you back to reality and full circle this thing.  I’m not advocating that you need to be obsessed with your water profile by any means, that’s unless you want to.  I guess my point can be summed up like this, be conscious of what the water profile from where you brew.  It may be better for certain styles over other styles.

Finding out that your water doesn’t work for your favorite style of beer could be unfortunate, and if that is the case maybe you should consider playing with it a little bit or go the easy way, buy bottled water from a region that is near your favorite style and brew with that.  But for the most part, I would just recommend brewing around it. Just at thought.

Well hope you enjoyed, and leave your comments and questions in the space provide below!

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5 Comments on “The Importance Of Water For Homebrew”

  1. snailman22030 Says:

    Thanks for all the help! I think we’ve finally got it figured out! I’m going to do my lagers at the weekend place and brew my ales, porters and stouts in Northern Virginia. GREAT STUFF ! THANKS!!!

    Reply

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