Before you use water straight from the tap for homebrewing, it’s important to understand exactly what you’re putting into your precious brew. After all, water makes up more than 90% of beer by weight. Water chemistry can get a bit technical, but don’t worry — you don’t need a degree in chemistry to make good beer. In the famous words of Charlie Papazian, “Relax, don’t worry, have a home brew.” In fact, if you’re brewing with extract, you don’t need to worry much about water treatment at all. However, if you are brewing all-grain, water treatment for brewing beer becomes a much more important subject.
Why is Water Treatment so Important in All-Grain Brewing?
Water contains much more than pure H2O. There is usually an assortment of minerals, salts, and chemicals in there as well. Some minerals and chemicals are beneficial to your brew. Some help yeast grow so that they can ferment your beer, while others help to extract fermentable sugars from barley malt. It’s important to be aware of sterilizers, such as chlorine, which may affect the flavor of your beer. Finally, if you’re trying to make a style of beer traditionally brewed in a certain part of the world, you may want to recreate the brewing water profile used to make that beer.
For the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on water chemistry and treatment for mash conversion and for water profiles of traditional and regional beers. But first, which minerals and chemicals should homebrewers to consider?
- Chlorine/Chloramine – Chlorine & chloramine are often used by municipal water facility to sterilize the water supply. You can remove these chemicals from your water by boiling it for 30 minutes, letting it sit overnight, or by adding Campden tablets to your brewing water.
- Calcium – Lowers pH and helps with mash conversion.
- Magnesium – Lowers pH and aids yeast growth (up to 20 parts per million)
- Sodium – Low levels of sodium can help give beer a full flavor; too much might make beer salty.
- Carbonate/Bicarbonate – Can impede the mashing process and extract harsh hops flavors.
- Sulfate – When combined with sodium, may introduce harsh, dry flavors.
- Chloride – Can make beer taste sweet.
Tip: If you want to use your city or municipal water, you may want to get a water analysis before you start brewing. Call your municipal water department for a report. Alternatively, you could brew with distilled or reverse osmosis water, which has had most of the mineral content removed, then add your desired minerals back into the water.
Water Treatment for Mash Conversion
If you’re a partial-mash or all-grain brewer, it is important to manage your water chemistry so that you can extract fermentable sugars from your malted grains. For an effective mash, a pH level (acidity or alkalinity) of 5.0-5.5 is recommended.
Homebrewers can check pH with either pH control papers or a digital pH meter and correct pH levels using one or more of the following:
- Calcium carbonate – Calcium carbonate, or chalk, raises mash pH.
- Calcium sulfate – Also known as gypsum, calcium sulfate lowers mash pH.
- Magnesium sulfate – Magnesium sulfate lowers mash pH.
Keep in mind that adding malted barley to your water will lower its pH, so you may want to start with brewing water with a pH above 5.5.
Brewing Water Profiles for Traditional and Regional Beers
Certain beer styles originated in parts of the world where the local water hardness had a significant effect on that style. You may wish to recreate the water profile of a particular region by altering your water’s mineral content:
- Burton – Famous for its use in English Pale Ales, water from Burton-on-Trent is high in sulfate (800 ppm), calcium (294 ppm), and carbonate (200 ppm).
- Munich – Water from Munich, used in the famous Munich Helles and Oktoberfest lagers, is high in carbonate (180 ppm) with some chloride (60 ppm) and very little sodium (2 ppm).
- London – English Bitters made in London use water that is high in sodium (100 ppm), and fairly high in carbonate (160 ppm) and chloride (60 ppm).
- Plzen – Plzen, home of the famous Bohemian Pilsner, has very soft water (low mineral content). It has some carbonate (15 ppm), but very little of the other brewing minerals.
What kind of water treatment do you use for brewing beer? What kind of brewing water adjustments do you make?
Ed Kraus is a 3rd generation home brewer/winemaker and has been an owner of E. C. Kraus since 1999. He has been helping individuals make better wine and beer for over 25 years.