Beer is 95% water, so I think a big part of making beer good has to do with the right water. Sure, getting sugar out of the grain, and letting the yeast actually make the beer under the right conditions is important. The yeast may be the most important of all. However, some thought and preparation of the water is very important and often overlooked. Water chemistry is a voluminous subject. I certainly am not an authority on the subject. However, there are a few things that you can learn that will help you and I get by. I am going to describe my water preparation for brewing.
I usually try to plan when I am going to brew, and I have some things I try to prepare ahead of brew day. The main two items I try to prepare ahead are: the yeast and the water. The chloride-sweet, sulfate-bitter ratio is beyond what I am trying to discuss here. For this posting, I simply want to discuss a couple of steps I take to prepare my water. These steps seem to have improved my beers taste quite a bit, and I think they may help you. If you really want to explore the complexities of water chemistry and chloride:sulphate ratio, I would suggest starting with Palmer’s How To Brew.To me it just makes sense that the reason certain beers taste the way they do (and have for hundreds of years) is because the water in that location lent itself to producing that flavor. Therefore, without getting heavy into the chemistry of the water… I usually simply try to match the water from a particular location which is known for that style beer.I begin preparing the water the day before I am going to brew. First of all, I live in Austin, Texas where the tap water is guarenteed to be three things 1) warmer than desireable 2) extremely alkaline and 3) pretty high levels of chlorine / chloramine. The pH is generally in the 9-9.5 range. To try and remove the chlorine and chloramine, the first thing I do is crush a Campden tablet, add it to my HLT and boil the water for about 20 minutes. One tablet is supposed to be able to treat roughly 20 gallons of water, and I generally start off with around 18-19 gallons of water in the HLT.
The next thing I do after boiling the water is try to match the water of a region / place that my be known for a particular beer style. If I am doing an English brown ale or ESB, I may try to match London or Burton upon Trent water. If I am doing a dunkel or German lager, I may try to match Munich. You get the picture. I happen to have a water distiller for my house that has a 10 gallon holding tank, so sometimes I cut the tap water with distilled, sometimes I start with distilled instead of tap water. In general, darker beers can start with harder water with slightly more alkalinity. Lighter beers need less hardness and alkalinity. Other than the pH and chlorine levels, Austin has decent levels of chloride, sulfate, & hardness.
Often, you can go online and get a water quality / chemistry evaluation from your utility company. If you have well water, I guess you’d have to get it analyzed. After you have the chemistry of your water supply, you can use various spread sheets, software applications, web-site brewing tools, etc. to determine what is necessary to try and get close to your target water. I happen to use BeerSmith software to calculate my water profile additions, etc. Some of the adjuncts used to adjust the water chemistry are:
- Gypsum (Calcium Sulfate)
- Calcium Chloride
- Baking Soda (Sodium Bicarbonate)
- Epsom’s salt (Magnesium Sulfate)
- Chalk (Calcium Carbonate)
These are easy to get / find items. Generally speaking, these items are used in small amounts and will go a long ways.
The last thing I do at times is adjust the pH. In general, to aid in the enzymatic processes in the mash, the pH needs to be less than 6, and many famous brewing authors state that the pH needs to be in the 5.2-5.4 range. I find that darker beers can reach this zone easily if the pH is around 7 to begin. Lighter beers may need a slightly more acidic starting point – somewhere closer to 6. Usually I will add a small amount of food grade phosphoric acid (from LHBS) to lower the pH.
So, it takes a little time to prepare the water the day/night before a brew day. There are a couple of advantages of this process other than the obvious – making the beer better. One advantage is that after boiling 18 gallons for 20 minutes, the mass/volume of water will retain quite a bit of heat overnight. The next day when I am going to brew, I can heat the strike water very quickly as the HLT is still quite warm. Another advantage is that while the water is boiling, I can run it through my plate chiller, tubing, etc. I typically flush the whole system with hot cleaner right after brewing, so this hits it again the night before brewing.
That’s it in a nutshell.