Brewing Ingredients Part 1: Water

Did you know that your beer is 95 to 98 percent water? That’s an extremely high percentage, yet its importance in creating beer is often overlooked. 

Nowadays, courtesy of a pretty keen understanding of water chemistry and how to manipulate it, the water composition at a brewing location is not very important. If a brewer wants to change the types of minerals or alkalinity of water, there are many additives that can do this without much fuss. This was not always the case, however. 

Before brewers were able to mess around with the composition of their water to make it fit their desired style, they had to adjust their ingredients to match their beer’s composition. 

Have you ever wondered why certain styles originated in certain locations? For example, did people in Dublin really like only their dry Irish stouts (think Guinness) and nothing else? Was the Czech pilsner the only beer that locals would drink? Of course not, but they were some of the only (or the most exportable) beers that brewers could make in those locations using their local water source.

Water comes into contact with many materials that then become part of its composition. One of these is limestone, which is composed mainly of calcium carbonate. This does not make ideal brewing water because of high alkalinity. 

Beer is a pretty acidic beverage, so somewhere during the brewing process, the acidity must be adjusted. When brewed with pale malts and hops, a chemical reaction takes place that creates an astringent sort of taste. By adding dark malts and roasted barley, which are quite acidic, the perfect balance is struck. These choices resulted in the dry Irish stouts from Dublin and the Munich dunkels from Munich.

A city in England called Burton-on-Trent is known for its hard, gypsum-rich water. Gypsum is made of calcium sulfate, which accentuates the bitterness in hops to create a crisp, dry, snappy, refreshing beer. Today, adding gypsum to water is called “Burtonizing,” a process that gave rise to an international favorite, the India pale ale.

The water of Dortmund, Germany, contained high levels of calcium sulfate, as well as salt, carbonate and chloride. This composition led to the first pale beer in Germany, the Dortmunder export. It’s all but extinct in the world, but you can get a good sense of it by trying the German Ayinger Jahrhundert or Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Dortmunder Gold. 

A popular use of salt in brewing comes from the German towns of Goslar and later Leipzig. Brewers in Goslar had use of the saltwater Gose river, which gave birth to a style of the same name. It is all but dead in its home country, but it’s living the good life in U.S. craft breweries. Try any of the beers mentioned in my June 5 Peninsula Pulse article, “Cocktail in a Can,” for a cocktail variation of this strange brew.

The discovery of the ability to make pale-colored malts led to competition from many countries. Brewers in Plzeň, Czech Republic, had an advantage because of their extremely soft water. Without minerals to react to pale malt or hop additions, they were able to add high levels of both to create a beer that’s flavorful and complex, yet soft on the tongue. This lager (if you didn’t guess from the name) was called pilsner. 

Brewers in Germany – the land of the lager – were outraged at this beautiful creation and aimed to make their own version. Their hard water, however, did not allow them to add as many hops without the resulting beer being excessively astringent. Their creation was called German pils. 

If you’re able to find a Czech pilsner (try Pilsner Urquell) and a German pils (try Bitburger Premium Pils or Victory Prima Pils), pour the two in clear glasses to compare their color, then taste. The Czech pilsner should be darker in color, but smoother and fuller in taste; and the pils should be lighter in color, with a snappy hop. 

This, my friends, is the power of water.