On the Road to Berlin: Water Is Life

Hello all and happy Passover! This week, I’m going to talk a bit about water. Wait! Before you flip back to Instagram or Tiktok or whatever, just hear me out. Water has the potential to be one of the most interesting and engaging subjects in the brewery.

One thing that I can tell you with certainty is that it is the most important subject in the brewery. But how, you ask, can you say that with such certainty? Mash programs, yeast propagation, and efficient packaging are complex and crucial parts of the brewing process as well. How is it that something as simple as water receives the title of the most important thing in the brewery? The answer is simple. While not a sexy ingredient like an experimental hop or a smoked malt, water is the basic building block without which none of this is possible. And when you couple that with the fact that, even after all of the different processes involving grain malt, hops, and yeast, water still makes up the vast majority of the beer- I think you’ll agree that simple ol’ water deserves our attention.

Photo Cred: Pinterest

Unique water profiles and water sources can go as far as to drive an entire beer brand. There is certainly something elemental and prideful about boasting that your brewing water bursts forth from the crystal clear waters of some remote spring or mighty river. Companies like Coors have put their water source at the front of their marketing for years, invoking both a feeling that is associated with a particular region and a transparency in their main raw ingredient. The Molson Coors website reads “water is life” and their slogan used to be “Brewed with pure Rocky Mountain spring water.” But why did they place water at the forefront of their brand? Did they really expect the average drinker to be invested in the water source of their beer? The answer lies across the pond and back in time to regional beer styles that were developed around the local water chemistry and, eventually, climbed the ladder of international popularity to become a staple in the collective beer lexicon, immortalized in any serious beer drinkers’ consciousness as essential waypoints in the history of beer.

If there is a city or region that embodies the idea of a specific water source driving the popularity of the beer produced there, it has to be Pilsen, Czech Republic. Pilsen is home to the Pilsner-Urquell brewery, which was established in the city in 1842. The brewery created a new style of beer using light colored malt, local Saaz hops, and - you guessed it - unique Pilsen water. The result was a golden, highly drinkable and balanced pale lager that grew to be the most widely produced style in the world and remains that way to this day. But what set the beer coming out of Pilsen apart from the other lagers or golden-colored beer styles of the day? The answer lies in Pilsen’s water source, the defining feature of which is an especially “soft” water composition.

You may be asking yourself, how in the world could water be soft or hard? Water is water, right? Well, when we speak about water “hardness,” we’re actually looking at the concentration of salts and minerals in that water. Of particular interest is the calcium and magnesium content in water- the higher the content, the harder the water. Pilsen’s water source (at least at the time of the proliferation of pilsner style beer) was especially soft and lent especially well to the malt, hop, and lager yeast balance of the beer being brewed there. Water hardness or softness also affects pH and the buffering capacity (resistance to changes in pH) of everything from the mash to fermentation. Remaining within pH ranges that are specific to each step in the brewing process is key to creating not just good beer, but is often the differentiating factor that allows us to brew GREAT beer!

Photo Cred: Pilsner Urquell

Another example of water source driving beer style was the pale ale produced in the early 19th century at Burton upon Trent in Staffordshire, England. While brewed throughout the country, Brits began to take notice that the pale ale (a style that favors hop bitterness over malt accentuation) from Burton just tasted sharper and better. Soon, over a quarter of the British beer being exported all over the world was coming out of this humble little market town. But what was it that made this beer a cut above the rest? The answer lies in the unusually high calcium sulphate content that was found in the Burton water, which accentuated the hop bitterness and gave off a slight sulphury whiff upon the pouring of a fresh pint. To this day, brewers around the world often add gypsum to their water composition in order to achieve (and I did not make this up) Burtonisation.

So, you see, water isn’t that “dry” of a subject! It’s importance cannot be overstated. And, to you homebrewers and aspiring brewers out there, I say- just give some basic water composition techniques a try and see how it changes your final product. I think you’ll find yourself happily surprised with the result!

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