Water: Essential Not Only to Life, But Also to Great Beer
Water is perhaps the most overlooked ingredient when homebrewers start out and certainly should not be. After all, more than 95% of beer’s composition is, you guessed it, water. It must be viewed in the same way as any other core ingredients in beer — those being malt, hops, yeast, and of course, water.
In fact, water is the first ingredient that you should consider when making beer, whether you’re brewing with a prepared ingredient kit or designing your own recipe.
When a brewer chooses the malt for a particular recipe it seems like something one could spend days or even weeks contemplating. With that in mind, it’s important to understand that water merits just as much thought. It serves as the base for your brew, and will have a big impact on how the final product turns out, regardless of whether you did everything else right and used other choice ingredients.
So, what are the main types of water readily available to you for brewing? Chances are you can get your hands on distilled, purified drinking, tap and maybe even rainwater if you have a barrel for a home garden or other purposes. Let’s go through the different types and how they relate to brewing.
First things first with distilled water; it is not recommended for brewing beer. Through distillation, water is boiled then condensed back into liquid form. This process removes all impurities from the water, which sounds nice at first but is all wrong for brewing. Through the removal of these impurities, important minerals are also taken out of the water, which can have adverse effects on the beer. Some minerals are necessary for fermentation and if they’re not there, how can the yeast ferment the sugars into alcohol?
While distilled water is certainly a no-no for all-grain brewing, some say that it’s perfectly OK to perform extract brewing with distilled water because the necessary minerals are present in the malt extract. However, it’s best practice to simply choose a different option. On the other hand, distilled water can be used for the purposes of dilution. For example, some brewers will use it to balance out large amounts of various components in hard tap water.
Speaking of tap water, if you choose to go this route, do your research. While tap water is approved for human consumption, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s great for your beer. Depending on your location, there could be any number of additives in the water including chlorine or other disinfectants. These are introduced for the purposes of making the water potable. While that’s great for keeping people safe, it can impart off flavors in the beer, which is never a good thing.
This isn’t to say that tap water should never be used in brewing; it’s just that you should do your research first. If you really paid attention in chemistry class, you can analyze the water’s chemical and mineral profile yourself, but for the rest of us it’s advisable to contact your local water department and have them provide you with the most up to date water analysis for your municipality. They should be able to break it down to include all of the minerals mentioned in this article.
Purified Drinking Water
Bottled water that you buy from the store is a great option. This water is sourced from a natural spring and has the necessary mineral content for a great brew.
Still, like tap water, it may be worth checking with the company that processes and bottles the spring water to get a water analysis.
Now, while it may seem a little ridiculous to pour a bunch of half-liter bottles into your brew pot, purified drinking water comes in much larger containers that make more sense for the purposes of brewing. Many grocery stores also have dispensers where you can fill 5-gallon jugs — perfect for 5 gallon batches!
To all the eco-friendly brewers out there: Using collected rainwater for your garden is a great idea. The garden was going to get it sooner or later, whether naturally or not, so it doesn’t really make a difference, right? Well, in brewing, it does.
Rainwater is filled with contaminants, debris and other pollutants. These could have come from the collection receptacle itself but the majority of them were actually introduced as the drops fell from the sky. Basically anything that is in the air, such as carbon monoxide from cars, lead and particulate matter can be found in rainwater. So unless you plan on purifying it yourself, keep the rainwater in the garden.
Water Adjustment Techniques
Now that you know about different types of water and how they relate to brewing, you can dig even further by researching water adjustment techniques. Some brewers adjust their water to fit the chemical and mineral profile of water in other areas of the country and world. This is a great way to stay true to a particular style when brewing.
There are beers that originate from specific regions and thus were created with water that is from local sources. The profile of that water may be completely different than anything you have readily available, so if you want the beer to be its best you may have to add things like salt, calcium chloride and baking soda, among others.
No matter how you choose to brew, always remember the importance of the water that you brew with!