The Elements of Brewing: Water
Life’s most basic necessity. Humans are about 60% water and the earth is covered in about 71% of the clear mostly tasteless liquid. Beer itself ranges from being 85-95% water depending on the ABV of the style. For much of the western world water is taken for granted, it runs through through our taps, in the states you can find it for free in most places. But for brewers the chemical breakdown of water is critical to the brewing process and ultimately the flavors of a beer.
Water’s importance to beer starts with everyones’ favorite high school course. Yes its Chemistry.
Differences in waters
You might notice slight differences when you try water from different places, for example tap water versus bottled, city versus well, or distilled water. They all have slight variations in their mineral composition, which alters the pH, and can have drastic effects on the brewing process. Water absorbs minerals and ions from it’s environment, like bed rock or run-off. There is a wide range minerals and ions in water; for example sodium, calcium, chlorine, sulfur, carbonate or bi-carbonate. Varying concentrations of these substances effect how water tastes, feels and interacts with other ingredients in the brewing process. For example the drastic difference between Czech Pilsner and Porter stem directly from their water sources.
The Czech Pilsner was originally brewed in Plzen, Bohemia- now the Czech Republic (Czechia for short). It is the original crisp, light, refreshing lager. The German Pilsner was designed a few years later to compete with the Czech variety, but differs greatly in flavor. The Czech Pilsner is light, crisp and spicy resulting from the clarity of the Saaz hops. However the German Pilsner is far more bitter. What causes the German Pilsner to lack the subtlety of the Czech version? Water. Czechia has an interesting water characteristic: clean and soft water. The lack of mineral deposits in Czech water allows the Czech Pilsner to intensify the flavor and aroma of Saaz hops and showcase the hop’s clean bouquet. This creates a very clean, slightly sweet, and hoppy beer without the bitterness of the German Pils.
The exact opposite of the waters of Czechia, Northern England and Ireland’s water is perfect for brewing Porters. A result of Calcium Carbonate deposits which make the water taste alkaline and increases the pH of water. The addition of dark malts, used in Porters and Stouts, adds acidity which lowers the pH and balances the alkaline taste. This emphasizes the roasted, chocolatey flavors. Historically adding roasted malts was the only way to lower the pH and provide a drinkable beer. If a Czech Pilsner would have been brewed using Ireland’s hard water it would have tasted soapy and somewhat metallic; because the lighter malts would not have provided the acidity to balance the flavors from the water. In reverse brewing a Porter with the waters of Plzen would have created an extremely acidic and overly roasted beer, the acidic malts require basic (high pH) water to balance the acidity.
Why does it matter?
There are dozens of other examples of how water has impacted beer- such as gypsum in Pale Ales, and sulfur in the Dortmunder Export. Water is heavily underrated as a an ingredient in beer, when reality it was water that determined what styles of beer could be developed. Today brewers have the ability to brew beers anywhere because water can be treated to mimic the unique profiles of Ireland or Plzen. As beer drinkers we all benefit. One trip to a local taproom and we can try beers historically only available in select regions of the world.