From homebrewing hobbyists to craft brewers in every town, beer isn’t just for the big brands anymore. Lovers of a good brew can now enjoy many different styles of beer and even experiment with their own ideas.
Beer is made with a few simple ingredients: hops, malts, yeast, and water. All of these can impact the taste of your beer.
You may assume water is just water, but the quality of water used in brewing beer will make a big difference in the final product. Plus, different types of beer require different kinds of water.
The Science Behind Brewing Water
As John Palmer explained in an article for Beer & Brewing Magazine, the water you start with needs to be closely considered.
“Brewing water affects the beer in three ways: It affects the pH of the beer, which affects how the beer flavors are expressed to your palate; it provides ‘seasoning’ from the sulfate-to-chloride ratio; and it can cause off-flavors from chlorine or contaminants.”
There is a good deal of chemistry involved in brewing beer. It’s not just about whether you should use hard water or soft water. It’s about accounting for the entire chemical makeup of the water you’re using.
Here’s how the ions in water can impact what you brew...
Calcium: One of the main minerals affecting the hardness of water. Calcium can lower pH during mashing. It also promotes the clarity and stability of the final beer. In general, a range of 50 mg/L to 150 mg/L is preferred.
Magnesium: The other main mineral affecting hardness. It does not affect the pH as much as calcium. Both calcium and magnesium are important yeast nutrients. Magnesium levels between 10 and 30 mg/L are needed to aid the yeast, but too much may cause a bitter taste
Carbonate & Bicarbonate (CO3 and HCO3): Impacts the alkalinity of the brewing water and the acidity of the mash. When levels are too low, the mash will be too acidic, too high and the mash will be inefficient. Desired levels of carbonate depend on the type of beer you’re brewing.
According to BeerSmith.com, levels should be 25 to 50 mg/L for pale beers and 100 to 300 mg/L for darker malts with higher acidity.
Sodium: In small amounts, sodium will have minimal effects on the flavor of beer. It does contribute to the body and mouthfeel. However, too much sodium can cause a metallic taste, which is why softened water should not be used for brewing beer. Sodium levels in the 10-70 mg/L range are acceptable.
Chloride: Like sodium, it impacts the mouthfeel and complexity of the beer. It can make beer taste fuller or sweeter.
Chlorine, on the other hand, is not a desirable chemical for your brewing water. It is used to treat city water or sanitize brewing equipment, and it can have a negative impact on flavor in the finished beer.
Sulfates: Help to bring out a hoppy flavor with the secondary role of lowering pH. It has the opposite effect of chloride.
To learn more about the contents of the water in your area, contact your municipality to request a water quality report. This should provide you with the total hardness and total alkalinity in your region’s public water supply.
Why the Best Brewers Start with Reverse Osmosis Water
If you consider brewing beer to be an art, then you’d probably prefer to start with a blank canvas. This is the reason why many brewers choose to begin the process with reverse osmosis (R.O.) water.
Scott Janish from Bertus Brewery in Arizona says using R.O. water has become part of his regular routine.
“Aside from temperature controlled fermentations, starting with reverse osmosis water and building back minerals has made the biggest difference in the quality and consistency of my brews.”
Reverse osmosis systems filter out most contaminants and minerals leaving you with what Janish calls a “baseline.” Then you can build the kind of water you need to brew the kind of beer you want, adjusting the hardness and pH level as desired with certain additives. You can learn more about water chemistry and brewing from Janish at BrewtusBrewery.com.
If you’re a homebrewing enthusiast, you can get reverse osmosis water from a residential unit, such as our, Clear Flo®.