Man Beer School: Water, Beer’s Under-Appreciated Sound Guy

Man Beer School: Water, Beer’s Under-Appreciated Sound Guy


Over three posts, I have declared these statements to be true:

-If we compare a batch of beer to a rock band, it’s easy to see the importance each ingredient plays.

-Malted barley, with all its sweetness, is the backbone to any batch of beer. Thus, it plays the rhythm section.

-Hops, with its screaming bitterness and wild flavors is the lead guitarist.

-Yeast, for its forwardness and its ego–the element that makes beer a lively, boozy beverage–the band’s front man.

But I must admit, dear readers, we have left out something as seriously important as any of the aforementioned ingredients–water.  Like any band that can’t turn on its amps and PA, beer ingredients without water just create a loud pile of shit.  Water, which makes up more than 90% of the actual beverage, is the equivalent to a silent sound guy that makes sure the music sounds its best.

You may say, “H., you are fucked in the head.  Water is water.”  And, while the first half of that statement is inarguably true, the latter half is equally false.  While attention to water chemistry rarely makes a beer undrinkable, a well-focussed  hydrochemist in the brewhouse can make every element of the final product sing its best.  It tunes the instruments and balances them in the mix.  Consider this:  Most musicians can turn on their own amps and plug in their own instruments, but a shitty sound system run by a shitty sound guy can make any talented band sound like a suburban middle school punk band.  Trust me, I was in a suburban middle school punk band and we were terrible.

I’ve heard it said that the beers that win awards are those in which the brewer controls his or her water chemistry.  I can’t tell you it’s always true, but I can tell you it makes sense to me.

Contrary to what you might think, water is not just two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen (okay, yes “pure” water is, but it’s completely unsuitable for brewing).  The water that comes out of our faucets has minerals in it.  The list includes everything from arsenic to zinc.  Our water can contain nitrate, mercury, lead (though I hope not), iron, silver, magnesium, potassium, sodium and much much more.  Oh, and not to mention the importance of water pH (note: as this is a blog and not a science textbook, this topic will not be covered in this post).

So, why is water so important in brewing, especially when people have been brewing for thousands of years with whatever water was available?  That is exactly why water is important in brewing!  Throughout the ages, regional styles of beer have evolved.  Brewing a pale ale with the water of Munich would seem to be missing something, just as brewing a pilsner with the water of Burton (UK) would seem to have too much going on.  The reason?  Burton (famous for its pale ales and IPAs) has hard water.  Pilsen (Czech Republic, home of pilsner) has extremely soft water.  Note: “Hard Water” is that which has a high content of ions such as calcium, sulfate, bicarbonate, sodium, potassium, phosphate, magnesium etc. “Soft Water” is that which has a fairly low content of these ions.

Your next question might be “Why not just use reverse osmosis filtration and not have to worry about ANY of these fucking ions?”

As it turns out, these ions are crucial to the enzymatic activity in our mash, which creates the necessary food for yeast, which makes beer.  I really don’t have the time (or education) to tell you what every single mineral does or contributes to finished beer, but I will tell you they are all relevant.  For instance, calcium contributes to the formation of precipitates that release hydrogen ions and lower the mash pH (extremely important for enzymatic activity later in the brewing process).  Another example– zinc is only of minor importance during the mashing stage, but plays an important role in fermentation (helps with yeast growth and protein synthesis).

Okay, enough with the chemistry.  I’m not a chemist and I can feel my head about to explode.  You’ve been out to rock shows before (I hope).  You’ve seen a sound guy (I hope).  You know those sliding bars where they control the blend of sounds coming from the speakers?  Yes?  Well, to a brewer, those bars are the different minerals in brewing water.  The balance of these minerals absolutely contributes to the rest of the brewing process and, eventually, the final flavors in the finished glass of beer.

A brewer should understand the mineral content of his/her water.  Depending on the style, many brewers will start with mineral-free water (reverse osmosis) and add in the desired level of different minerals with “brewing salts” which are readily available at most home brewing stores.

Of the four main ingredients in beer, water is the one that receives the least amount of discussion.  Many of us fear the sound guy, for he is silent and powerful.  But no matter how you feel, it is important to respect your water.  And, it is true that with some luck, you can make a great beer without paying attention to water; however, your beer will be at its best with attention to the details.

And, I repeat:  I’ve heard it said that the beers that win awards are those in which the brewer controls his or her water chemistry.  I can’t tell you it’s always true, but I can tell you it makes sense to me.

– H. Vulgare

Man Beer School is a regular column exploring everything you wanted to know about beer. Questions, comments, and offers of cold hard cash (why not?) should be directed to  email write.h.vulgare [@]