Know your brew: Water

The body of beer

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Nowadays brewers can treat their water to fit the style their brewing. Pictured: French Pedaler (Biere de Garde), Mister Bock (maibock), Cool Runnings (tropical stout)
Michael J. Casey

Water: it’s what puts the spring in Golden, the snatch in Burton and the sparkle in Pilsen. It’s the essential ingredient in any beer, and the one most commonly overlooked.

About 90-95% of beer is water. And, historically speaking, where the brewer got that water dictated what kind of beer they produced with it. Take the water in Dublin, Ireland: Drawing on aquifers heavy in bicarbonate, brewers overcame the alkaline hardness of the water by adding roasted barley (which isn’t malted, simply burned) to their grist. The ashy grains balanced the pH to produce delicious dry Irish stout — a fortifying and satisfying ale that is neither hard nor harsh.

The hard water of England and Ireland were crucial to the ales produced. In Burton-on-Trent, the gypsum (calcium sulfate) present in the well water gave the beers of the region a hard mineral edge, a whiff of sulfur and a bitterness ideal for their iconic pale ales. Colloquially, it became known as the “Burton snatch” (the word has a much different meaning over there). It became so desirable that breweries outside the city began adding salt to their brewing water, a process called “Burtonization,” a precursor to the type of water treatments most brewers perform today.

On the flipside: the soft water of Pilsen in the Czech Republic. With water that contained little-to-no dissolved minerals, brewers were free to use it as a blank canvas to express their pale malts and Saaz hops, creating the city’s signature lager in the process.

The examples go on: Munich, Dortmund, Milwaukee, etc. More often than not, a region’s dominant style was dictated by the water chemistry of the area. The Coors Brewing Company (now Molson Coors) even managed to market “Rocky Mountain spring water” as both an ingredient and a way of life.

But a lot has changed in the past century, particularly when it comes to water chemistry. Nowadays, most brewers can and do treat their water to whatever level of hardness or softness fits for the style they’re brewing. It’s one of the reasons why so many breweries can pump out English-style ales, Bavarian-style lagers, West Coast IPAs (bright and bitter) and New England-style IPAs (hazy and soft) without missing a beat.

Today, the primary concerns of water in the brewing process have less to do with its regional properties and more to do with its availability. Water to brew, water to clean; water to grow hops and malts, water to cool and package. On average, it takes seven gallons of water to make one gallon of beer. Less efficient breweries use a ratio of 10:1, while the (CUB) Yatala Brewery in Queensland, Australia, has that ratio down to 2:1.

For centuries, water determined where breweries were located and what beers were brewed. Today, that’s up to the brewers. Tomorrow, it will be up to the brewers who find a way to use less.