Water Profiles for Beer Styles of Various Types

While we spend a lot of time talking about grain, hops, and yeast in beer, we spend very little time discussing water. Interestingly enough, water should be one of the most important points of focus. Why? Because beer is 90% water, and believe it or not, water composition has a huge effect on the end result of your beer. Thus, it is important to understand water profiles for beer styles of various types and how to adjust them when needed.

The Brewing Process

A large part of the brewing process is choosing the right water. Yet, we almost never think about it. We carefully choose our grain, barley malt or wheat, or a combination of both. Maybe you’ll get adventurous and try out an alternate grain like oats or even quinoa.

You’ll decide whether to germinate your grains. After all, you want to unlock the necessary enzymes to make the sugars in your grains fermentable. But you might also want to slow down fermentation and age your beer, offering a lower ABV and a stronger flavor. You’ll toast your grains for flavor, more or less. You’ll crack or grind your grains.

So much goes into the grains that you’d think that’s all there is to it.

But wait, now you want to steep your grains and decide whether to add hops before you mash in or after the boil. It’s a tough decision because adding them before will bring stronger hop flavors but adding them after will provide less bitterness.

In craft brewing, you have a ton of other decisions to make as well, like do you want to add any spices or fruits to your beer for complexity.

Then, we get to the yeast. Do you want to work with local yeasts or commercially produced yeasts? Do you want to cultivate and harvest your own yeast? Maybe you’d like to work with a bit of bacteria to add probiotics to your beer. So many choices.

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But where does water come in?

Water in Brewing

For previous generations, water was simple. You used what you had, and you hoped for the best. There was no wondering about the water profile. Our ancient ancestors from a hundred thousand years ago used well water or water from a local running source – a lake, a river, or a stream. They brewed with the water and trusted the yeast and good bacteria to kill off any offensive toxins and other contaminants.

And every location had its own water profile. Indeed, those local water profiles are what made the beers what they were. Much like the soil and environment make the grapes that make the wine, the water makes the beer what it is as much as the yeast, the grain, or the hops.

It has only been in the last century that we have begun to manipulate water profiles to get the outcome we want.

Whereas once upon a time, if you wanted a true hefeweizen, you had to go to Germany or Belgium for the local water profiles, now you can simply add minerals to any water source to balance out the profile and mimic the water profile from virtually anywhere in the world.

What do we mean by water profile?

It’s all about the acids and the minerals in your water.

As you probably already know, the pH scale tells us how acidic or alkaline a liquid is. 7 is neutral, and water is a 7. Water is neither acidic nor alkaline. The problem is that the enzymes that help the yeast in your wort ferment need a slightly acidic environment. You typically want to brew between 5.2 and 5.6 on the pH scale.

Also read: The Beer Acidity Chart

To get to this point, brewers will add grains, hops, and, of course, minerals to their water.

Water Sources

Before we get into how to lower the pH of your water, let’s look at where you get your water and what to expect.

Spring Water

Spring water is provided by a manufacturer who taps a spring and bottles directly from the source. If you decide to work with spring water, you should contact the manufacturer to find out the exact mineral composition of their water.

Well Water

Well water can be handy for brewing if you have access to a well and the water is not hard. Water that is too hard can be difficult to soften for the purposes of brewing, and you would be better off finding another source. If you do live or operate on a well system, get a water testing kit so you can discover the water profile of your well.

Distilled or Reverse Osmosis Water

Distilled water and reverse osmosis water can be purchased in large quantities from the manufacturer, and they have been known to be used by some breweries as neutral bases to begin with. They have no minerals to speak of, so rather than having to offset existing minerals, you can simply add what you want in your wort to help the fermentation process along. Though, it should be noted, both options still come with disadvantages.

City Water

Finally, you can use city water (aka tap water) if you have the time and inclination to clear out the chlorine. Chlorinated water will make your beer taste like mouthwash or Band-Aids. You don’t want chlorophenols in your beer. Fortunately, you can remove the chlorine from the water with a carbon filter that can be attached directly to your hose.

Adjusting Water Profiles to Various Beer Styles

It’s really difficult to say what your beer might benefit for in terms of the water profile, as even within certain styles there are countless variations and expectations. As always, you’ll have to experiment, do a bit of research and be ready to fail and try again.

As a rule of thumb, though, in hop-centric styles like India Pale Ales (IPAs), brewers typically aim for water with lower mineral content, especially sulfate, as this accentuates the sharpness of hop bitterness and intensifies the floral and citrusy hop aromas. On the other hand, malt-driven beer styles like stouts or porters benefit from higher levels of calcium and carbonate ions in the water. These minerals help counteract the natural acidity of dark roasted malts, resulting in a smoother and less astringent finish. Finally, German lagers, such as Pilsners, thrive in areas with naturally soft water, as it allows the delicate malt and hop flavors to shine through, contributing to a clean and crisp beer profile.

Now, to adjust the minerals of your water, you need to have the primary minerals on hand.

Sulphates add bitterness, crispness, and dryness to your hops and finish.

Chloride makes your beer malty and sweet and enhances its flavor.

Calcium in wort keeps the yeast healthy and prevents beerstone. It also promotes clarity.

Magnesium provides support for calcium as well as souring your beer. Note that too much magnesium, more than 125 ppm, will have a laxative effect.

Sodium is salt. Like in any food or beverage, salt enhances flavor and accentuates the sweetness. However, too much salt just ends up tasting like too much salt.

In the end, adjusting the water profile will help you produce the desired effect in your beer. It will take some experimentation with your water and your minerals, but over time, you will develop a method that works for your brewing process.

Don’t be afraid to switch things up and try a different water source or add a bit more or a bit less of any particular mineral. Remember that much success comes from much failure.

Cheers!

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Sources:

  1. https://brewhq.ca/blogs/academy/brew-water-chemistry-101

 


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