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Water: Beer’s (Not So) Basic Ingredient

Posted by on in November 2014 Editions
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There aren’t a lot of ingredients that go into making beer, but the type and amount of those ingredients determine the style and taste of the brew.  Add more malt and you get a higher alcohol content; add different hop varieties at different times in the brewing process and you have a completely different beer. Malt from the Midwest gives a beer a different complexity than malted barley from Europe.  But what about beer’s main ingredient – water?

Comprising over 90% (give or take a few percentage points) of a beer’s ingredients, does it really matter where this main ingredient comes from?  Wine enthusiasts often speak of “terrior” which refers to the soil and climate of the area where the grapes are grown.  But when it comes to the water in beer, does “terrior” apply?  If a beer, for example, comes from a famous brewing location such as Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, Trent on Burton in the UK, or Munich, Germany, then yes, local soil and substrata conditions may provide the water source with unique aroma and flavor characteristics. But in the Unites States, and many other locations throughout the world, the water most breweries use comes from the local municipal water source.

This means the water available to the majority of commercial brewers does not come from pure artisan wells located deep beneath the earth’s surface or from pristine natural springs.  In most instances, it is the same potable water we get at home when we open the kitchen faucet.  And because that is the case, the question then is whether or not we should be overly concerned about the water used in brewing? The simple answer is that water used in making beer needs only be within a certain range of hardness, be free of most chemicals and have no noxious odors.  But as with so many rules of thumb, there are important exceptions.

To Treat or Not to Treat

Authors John Palmer and Colin Kaminski, in their recent book, Water - A Comprehensive Guide for Brewers, state clearly that brewers have three choices regarding the water they use:

  • They can leave it alone and use it as is.
  • They can add or remove certain chemical properties. 
  • Or, they can start with the water that is available, and build its composition from scratch to match the style of beer being brewed.

A home brewer, or for that matter, a commercial brewer who uses “extracts” to make his beer, may need only to filter the water to remove impurities, and by simply boiling the water prior to brewing, many odors and chemicals such as chlorine are removed.  On the other hand, brewers who make all grain beers will probably have to condition their brewing water to get the desired levels of ph and alkaline.  Carbon filtration, reverse osmosis to filter out unwanted pollutants, and ultraviolet light to break organic solids are all methods used to purify brewing water.

 In recent years brewers have shown an increased interest in understanding the complexity of water.  Prior to the current interest in ales, the vast majority of beers brewed in the United States were lager beers.  A certain “pilsner effect” existed that meant not much had to be done to the source water as the longer maturing period, integral to the lagering process, helped resolve residual water problems.  But with consumers currently showing an increased interest in the many popular types of ales, water with more exacting specifications is required by brewers to match the profile taste of a particular beer style.

A Brewery Has Many Uses For Water

Water is not just used in the final product. Large amounts of water are used throughout the entire brewing sequence from start to finish.  The use of water begins with irrigating the grain to be used in making the beer, all the way through to the process of cleaning the brewing vessels after use.  Walk into any brew house, and a usual first impression is that everything is wet.  For brewers, washing and cleaning the brew house borders on obsession.  The walls, floor and equipment are always wet from the frequent washing, which is an effort to maintain high standards of cleanliness to prevent the growth and spread of beer spoilers (germs) that can easily contaminate and ruin a batch of beer.  

A second major activity for brewmasters is chewing and tasting.  When not actively making beer, they are sampling the raw materials.  They actively taste all brewing ingredients from grain, to hops, adjuncts, to the water being used.  In fact, tasting and testing the water takes place in most breweries every day and sometimes several times during the day.  Tasting water between brews is particularly important when different styles of beer are being made in succession.  

Besides brewing and cleaning, water is used throughout the brewery for many other purposes including making steam for use in the actual brewing process, washing the brew equipment after each use, to washing empty bottles and kegs prior to packaging.  Also, spent cooked grains undergo “sparging” or rinsing with water to capture the sugary wort (unfermented beer). 

 It wasn’t until recent years that brewers began to realize not all the water used in the brewery needed to be of “brewing quality”.  Water for heating or washing certainly doesn’t have to have the same level of purity as water sometimes used in the final step of the process. 

It is in the final step of the brewing process that the greatest care of water needs to be taken. Brewers sometimes add pure dilution water to the finished beer prior to packaging; it is the last and easiest way to control the final alcohol content of the beer.  Beer is frequently brewed with a high level of alcohol (high gravity brewing), the alcohol level may need to be adjusted downward by adding water to arrive at its desired strength.  Although tremendous amounts of water are used in the brewing process, dilution water, which is the smallest amount of water used, is the most important water in the overall operation of a brewery.  

Water, Water Everywhere

We know that brewers are concerned with the current shortage of hops and the increased expense of obtaining ample supplies of malt, but one of their biggest concerns has to be about the decreasing availability of water. Scarcely a day goes by when a media network or national newspaper doesn’t run a feature story about the record drought occurring in many parts of the Western United States.  The flow of once mighty rivers has slowed to a trickle, and the water level in huge municipal dams is at record low levels.  In the absence of breakthrough technology, the west and eventually parts of the east coast will experience potentially catastrophic water shortages in the future.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his epic poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” wrote these famous words, “Water, Water, Everywhere, nor a drop to drink”.  Coleridge was referring, of course, to the undrinkability of seawater.  Yet, seawater, once desalinated, may be the answer to our thirst and the salvation for many breweries in the future as traditional sources of water no longer meet our needs.

Brewers Get Proactive About Water & The Environment

In 2013, a coalition of more than two dozen of the nation’s craft brewers partnered with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) through the “Brewer’s Clean Water Campaign” to strengthen the 1973 Clean Water Act.  Over time, the strength of the Act had been eroded by partisan politics at the federal level.  Brewers both small and large have become increasingly concerned about the future availability of clean pure water - the main ingredient in their beers.  Larry Bell of the Bell Brewery in Kalamazoo, Michigan saw firsthand the impact a polluted river, the result of an oil spill near his brewery, could have on his future.  He acknowledges, “…..If we don’t have clean water, we are out of business.” 

The average water used in brewing amongst all brewers is between five and six barrels of water for every barrel of beer produced. An exception is Vermont’s Long Tail Brewery, which is reported to have refined its process so that only two gallons of water is used for each gallon of beer. Larger brewers such as MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch have economical water to beer ratios between 4.1 and 3.5 barrels.  Bigger breweries have a definite advantage over most of the smaller brewers as they can afford to install large sophisticated reclamation systems.

Clearly, throughout the brewing process, there is great potential for large amounts of water being lost and finding its way down the drain due to cleaning, evaporation and all around general use within the brew house.  As individual breweries grow and produce increased volumes of beer, brewers as well as the local water utility, become concerned with the greater discharge of water into sewer system.  Much of the liquid that finds its way into the system is chock full of spent grains, grain husks and other solids, suspended yeast and cleaning chemicals, all of which can raise havoc with the operation of a municipality’s sewage systems.  So, today, in addition to their concerns about clean water, many brewers are also actively involved with making their breweries “green,” and advocate for the sustainability of our natural resources. Most breweries therefore develop methods to recapture and treat wastewater to the greatest degree possible. Otherwise, they become ready targets for increased fees and stiff fines.

The environmental catch phrase, “reduce, recycle, reuse” is being used by an increasing number of brewers across the United States. For them, protection of the environment is about more than just social consciousness, it is all about the survival of their businesses and the ability to continue to supply customers with the beers they have grown to appreciate. 

So, the next time you are enjoying your favorite beer, stop and think about the fragile nature of its main ingredient – water.