Each beer you drink, whether it’s a Bud Light or a heavier craft beer, is made up of more than 90 percent water. It’s no surprise water plays a huge role in the brewing process.
Brewers all over the world have different recipes and combinations of ingredients that they experiment with to create exactly what they want in each beer. But if the water profile isn’t congruent with the flavors the brewer is trying to accomplish, the beer could turn out very different from the desired end product.
So how do brewers find or create the perfect brewing water? There are lots of ways, but finding or creating water that is both suitable and desirable to use in making beer isn’t as simple as going to the store and buying some bottled or distilled water.
“Water is our greatest resource in the brewing industry,” said Sawyer Stevens, head brewer at Lansing Brewing Co.
“It’s very important to have a specific water profile for each and every beer.”
To fully understand why water is so important in the brewing process, it’s important to recall some of that fundamental chemistry that we learned back in junior high.
Water, like everything else, is composed of atoms, but the minerals found in water are made up of ions — atoms that have a positive or negative charge, as opposed to simply being neutral. The ions, or minerals, that brewers pay attention to and look for most within water are: calcium, magnesium, sodium, bicarbonate, sulfate and chloride. They look for these because each of these minerals play a specific role in what the beer ends up tasting like.
While calcium determines the hardness of the water, magnesium can determine this as well, in conjunction with determining the pH level of the water. Sodium and bicarbonate directly affect the taste, as well as sulfate, which can accentuate the flavors of the hops. And, finally, chloride levels will determine the fullness or even the sweetness of the beer.
“Brewing water mineral profile is one of the most important factors in the brewing process, in regard to finished product taste and quality,” explained Aaron Hanson, head brewer and co-owner of Ellison Brewing Co.
Each brewer has their own style, personality and characteristics they aim to achieve in their beer making process. It makes sense each brewer has a different take on how to treat, or where to source, their water.
“Ideally, a reverse osmosis system would be put in place. However, a lot of smaller breweries do not have one, so simply carbon filtering and softening is a huge help,” said Stevens.
Carbon filtering is the process of filtering water through a layer of granular activated carbon, which removes undesired chemicals and minerals. After this process, Steven and his team at Lansing Brewing Co. run their water through a carbon filtration system, adding minerals as needed.
“Depending on what style of beer we are producing, we will use either calcium chloride or calcium sulfate.”
Aaron Hanson and his team at Ellison handle their water prep a little differently. They use Meridian Township water and filter it through a reverse osmosis system to purify the water before they add anything to it.
“Each recipe starts with mineral neutral water and we add back in specific minerals to achieve a custom water mineral profile to each recipe,” said Hanson.
“This can affect flavor, mouthfeel, clarity and aroma.”
Hanson also explained that he and his team have access to a database of city water profiles from all over the world, so they can make traditional beer styles as authentically as possible.
“For example, 517 Pilsner, which is a German style Pilsner, uses malt, hops, yeast and Munich’s water profile to produce as close to as an authentic beer as possible.”