O’ water; giver of life, provider of beer. Now, you probably clicked on this article thinking “I know what water is, why has this person written a whole article explaining water?” Don’t panic, this isn’t GCSE chemistry (although there is a bit of chemistry involved), because we’re discussing how water is used in beer – historically and today. Take it from an English graduate who has nightmares about retaking science exams, we’ll keep this simple.
Water, by nature, isn’t the most inherently exciting topic. Without it, beer would be dead in the water, and you’d be left with raw malt, leafy hops and yeast all piled up and dry – delicious. While water constitutes roughly 90-95% of the final beer, it rarely gets the love and attention of, say, hops or yeast strains – even malt. Brewers could use the freshest hand-picked hops from Yakima Valley, the most exciting house yeast strain, and carefully selected barley from local producers but, unless they pay attention to their water and treat it accordingly, the final beer will probably still taste off. Water is full of regional differences and quirks that help to accentuate certain elements of the beer; an IPA made with a water profile similar to Burton water will probably taste hoppier than one made with a London water profile.
When exploring water in beer, it’s important to stress the environmental side of wastewater in brewing and how brewers are working to reduce their impact. It’s estimated that every litre of beer produced is made up of 60-180 litres of water – from grain production all the way to brewing. In our climate crisis and all-too-common drought throughout the world, it’s vital now, more than ever, to stress the importance of minimising waste. Treat this article as your guide to all things brewing water; how it’s manipulated, its regional differences, whether it’s hard or soft, and what impact it has on the can you’re drinking now. If you’re lost already, touch up on the brewing process on our Beer 101 page here.
What is water?
Hopefully, it’s something you’re drinking plenty of every day. Water, put simply, is two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, H2O – a chemical substance/liquid that is transparent, mostly tasteless, odourless, and is vital for survival of all known forms of life. We should all know this right? Cool, let’s move on.
Water and brewing…
While water can be boiled down to H2O, that doesn’t actually begin to explain how many trace minerals end up in the water we drink or use to brew with. We’re about to get a wee bit science-y here, but there are some fundamentals you need to wrap your head around if we’re going to start talking about regional water differences and brewing. If you’ve ever wondered why a certain popular Irish Stout tastes better in Ireland, or why a Pilsner might taste better in the Czech Republic, you might want to stick around.
If you pour a glass of tap water from the sink, chances are there are traces of hundreds of different microbes, minerals and other compounds floating around in your glass. This may sound disgusting, but it isn’t necessarily a bad thing as these minerals are usually added to make your water safe. In London, the tap water contains a higher level of calcium bicarbonate and other minerals than water in Pilsen, Czech Republic, for example, which is rich in calcium chloride – hard water vs soft water, high alkalinity vs low alkalinity. Water that’s high in mineral content is considered hard water, whereas water low in mineral content is considered soft water.
Most brewers, through a process of reverse osmosis or distillation, will start with pure water and then add minerals or salts to achieve a certain water profile. There are loads of different potential minerals in water, but the key ones we need to understand for brewing are calcium, sulphates, magnesium, sodium, bicarbonate and chloride.
For brewing, calcium is often considered the most important chemical to manipulate. Calcium is vital for yeast flocculation – put simply, calcium rich water ensures that the yeast drops to the bottom of the fermenter when it’s done bubbling away, as opposed to remaining in the final beer.
Sodium is a simple one as it’s just a scientific name for salt. Salt doesn’t add much in terms of affecting how the beer is brewed, but it will make a difference to the taste and mouthfeel. At the end of the day,
salt is a flavour enhancer in food and drink, but you’re most likely to find higher levels of it in Gose style beers; a traditional sour style that’s brewed with salt and coriander.
Some magnesium is found naturally in malt, but brewers often top it up to achieve a desired flavour profile. At low levels, it can add a touch of bitterness – desirable in something like a West Coast IPA – but high levels can result in unwanted astringency. There’s also evidence to suggest it helps yeast metabolise (eat up) sugars during fermentation.
One of the most important minerals brewers manipulate for beer is bicarbonate content. Bicarbonate has a big impact on the pH level of the final beer – whether it’s more alkaline or acidic. In brewing, it’s used to counterbalance beer that’s becoming too acidic as bicarbonate is inherently alkaline and raises the pH level. Generally speaking, bicarbonate is either avoided or taken out of paler beers but added to dark beers to counteract acidity.
Chloride boosts softness and fullness in the mouthfeel, meaning it’s become very prevalent in modern brewing with the rise of hazy IPAs. Traditionally, it was used heavily for malt forward beers, but most brewers now associate it with NEIPAs. Sulphates are almost exclusively known for accentuating hop flavour and hop bitterness - too much sulphate, however, will result in unpleasant harshness.
Regional water profiles and how it affects beer
No matter where you are in the world, the water you drink, and the water used in beer, will be different to somewhere else. This is down to a few factors such as the actual source, the water treatment, and how the water has interacted with its environment over time. Differences in water profiles have led to the development of certain styles of beer that are uniquely tied to a particular region; however, when designing a recipe, brewers will still alter their water to more closely resemble the water profiles of these regions. Here’s a breakdown of popular water profiles that brewers often try to match or go off of when brewing…
Burton water is probably the most famous water profile in brewing as it’s closely tied to the invention of Bitters, Pale Ales and IPAs. The water in Burton-upon-Trent is famous around the brewing world; its high sulphate content is great for amplifying hop flavour and bitterness, and its calcium content is known for producing a clean tasting final beer. West Coast American water is also very similar in sulphate and calcium content to Burton, giving brewers in the 1970s the tools they needed to showcase US grown hops and kickstart the craft beer movement.
Sticking to the UK, London water is also historic in the making of porters and stouts. London’s alkaline rich water is full of calcium and bicarbonate, making it ideal for extracting colour out of darker malts and balancing the mash pH, resulting in delectable dark beers. Our neighbours in Dublin also have a very similar water profile to London but with less sulphate content, meaning their dark beers generally have less hop bitterness. Dublin stouts are known for being smooth, and I imagine everyone can think of the famous example of this.
Edinburgh has a similar water profile to London too, but with a higher alkalinity, meaning sweet malty beers were a mainstay of beer culture in Scotland – think Wee Heavy’s. Brown Ales and Mild became popular in the West Midlands due to the slightly softer water than the rest of the UK; high in calcium chloride, the water around here provided a softer mouthfeel and accentuated smooth malt characteristics.
Speaking of soft water, Czech water is perfect for brewing the Pilsner-style Lagers that eventually took over the world. Czech water is low in alkalinity and minerals, meaning it’s incredibly soft and perfect for showcasing bready, pale malts and a mellow hop bitterness. The only noticeable mineral is calcium chloride which, again, leads to a softer profile. The water in Dortmund, Germany is remarkably similar, but with a higher chloride content which promotes the sweetness of the malt and provides fullness. Vienna-style Lager originally tried to replicate the stuff from Dortmund, but their water was lower in calcium, chloride and sodium. When breweries in the city decided to add some toasted malt, it was a match made in heaven. The toasty notes of a Vienna Lager are complimented by its water – the lower chloride levels making for a crisper final beer.
The last famous historic water profile includes Munich water. Munich water has very low sulphate levels and higher alkalinity, meaning it’s perfect for big, malt forward Lagers, often with darker malts – think Dopplebocks, Dunkels and Märzens. Even the Munich Helles, benefits from this water as the higher chloride levels boost the softness of the malt and downplays the hop harshness.
It’s not historic, but we’ll give it a mention as they’re so popular; New England IPAs have a very distinct water profile that brewers manipulate every time they make one. NEIPAs are known for their soft body and low bitterness levels, and this is amplified by the water as brewers will add lots of calcium chloride to the water.
These regional differences are tied up in the history of beer and the development of certain styles. Today, brewers still use these historic water profiles as a base for creating a recipe, and often purify and treat their water to reach desired profile – especially important for cuckoo or gypsy brewers who move around from place to place. Water doesn’t do everything in determining the flavour or body of the beer, but it’s vital to understand some of its differences as good water treatment will turn a good brewer into a great one.
Brewing water and sustainability
The beer world has a sustainability problem. Between using countless litres of water for every batch of beer, flying fresh hops over from America, the electricity fermenters use to keep running, importing out-of-season fruit from different countries, or even putting malt in bags that aren’t recyclable, the beer industry’s carbon and waste output is hard to ignore. Luckily, there are some brewers leading change in the industry – especially when it comes to wastewater in brewing.
Not only are Jon and Jen Kimmich from The Alchemist brewery in Vermont credited for inventing the New England IPA, but they’re leading the industry again in reducing wastewater in brewing. Their wastewater is sent to a local college which has a system by which their power is generated from the wastewater. The Alchemist places a lot of thought into their environmental impact, and they’re encouraging more and more breweries to take a more sustainable approach.
Closer to home, Good Things Brewing Co. in Sussex is absolutely smashing it out of the park; they’re the UK’s first closed loop sustainable brewery. From boring their own water out of an underground well, to filtering their wastewater through reed beds (over time going back into the same well they got the water from!), to being fully solar-powered, transporting their beer in a solar powered van, and drying their grain and converting it into flour for local bakeries and pizza restaurants. Good Things are doing good things for planet Earth and have clearly put a lot of effort into their process – they also make damn fine beer, too. Freedom Brewery is another brewery that uses water from a natural well source and filters it through reeds back into the wild – on top of having beehives at their remote, countryside brewery.
These are just a few examples of craft breweries doing their bit to become more sustainable, and we’re going to continue shouting about sustainable breweries in our newsletter. Reducing wastewater is a significant way breweries can reduce their ecological impact as, while our planet is mostly water, only a small percentage of it is actually drinkable. As consumers, we can help do our bit; buy local, buy independent, and buy sustainable. While we can have many pints of beer, we only have the one planet.
Start your beer journey and check out our range of IPAs all brewed by indie breweries here