So...finally have these things going...hopefully I'm using them correctly
Homebrew 101: It’s in the water…
July 28, 2015
It’s fair to say that in Colorado water is kind of a big deal for our way of life. It determines everything from the length of the ski season in the winter to how well things will grow and bloom in the spring and of course whether we can fish, kayak and have a campfire during the summer months. It is also the central component of our now infamous beer culture, and has even been touted for its quality by some of the more super-villainy brands to come out of our state (you know to whom I’m referring, they have fancy cans with mountains that change color that let you know when it’s too cold to taste so you can actually drink it). While we have good reason to take pride in our water for all of the aforementioned reasons, when it comes to brewing there are many things about our local sources that can hinder a beer from being truly extraordinary if not given the proper attention. Allot of breweries will either hire an onsite chemistry buff or send samples of their water to labs to make sure that they are getting everything in balance once it comes out of the tap, but as a home brewer these options aren’t really feasible. So what do you do to make sure your water isn’t ruining your homebrew? Well, grab a pint and let’s go over a few things to watch for and how to take care of some common issues on your own.
What’s the Big Deal?
We all know that most water from the tap is not just water. There are minerals, additives and all manner of fine particulate that find their way to our taps; all of which can have an impact on the taste, clarity and smell of what we consume. Everyone has been somewhere in which the tap water was in a noticeably poor state from the aforementioned causes, and it makes for a bit of a bummer when you need to hydrate. Of course, all of these attributes will be transferred to a beer made with said water and can often result in other unpleasant outcomes depending on the type of beer being made and often cause other unpleasant outcomes.
Dealing with Hard Water
Everyone has heard the term “hard water” but how many of us know what it actually means? Before I started brewing, my own knowledge of the subject was that it was the reason my grandparents had an extra salt-tanky thing sitting next to their water heater in Cheyenne. In simple terms, hard water refers to water that has absorbed carbonates, sulfates, calcium and magnesium salts and other minerals as it interacts with rock and sediment. There are different types of “hardness” based on which of these minerals are present, which can affect a wide range of attributes in beer.
These different types of hardness can be split into two groups: Temporary and Permanent. Temporary hardness is caused by higher levels of carbonates in water and is fairly common in the Midwest and Southwest of the United States. These carbonates rely on carbon dioxide dissolving in the water which in turn forms Carbonic acid, which ultimately causes the water to be more alkaline (I’m sure that’s more science than you were looking for in reading this but you can use it to win a pub quiz or something….) The negative effects from temporary hardness are most often seen in in lighter and hoppy beers, causing aromas and flavors akin to soapy water.
Luckily dealing with temporary hardness is somewhat simple. The easiest way to deal with this problem is to just do a pre-boil of your water prior to brewing. Boiling causes the carbonates to precipitate into calcium carbonate which you will see as floating flakes after the water is boiled. If you live in an area with particularly high levels of carbonates in the water, you can also add a few teaspoons of gypsum to your water to encourage a higher precipitation rate (gypsum is the stuff you add to a water softener and is relatively inexpensive).
Somewhat more difficult to deal with is permanent hardness, which is the term given to higher amounts of sulfites in the water. Sulfites have a bitter character, which can add to some beers but can also cause your beer to be more dry and bitter. Unfortunately removing sulfites can’t simply be boiled out as carbonates can, so if you live in an area where sulfites are common in the water supply you may want to stock up on distilled water in addition to your other brewing supplies.
Other types of Floaties
Outside of the problem of your water having a raging clue (let that one sink in for a sec….) there are other things that can make for a bad beer in your water supply. Among the more common are fluoride and chloride used to kill microorganisms and provide healthier teeth. Unfortunately these can also mean bad news for your yeast, particularly the addition of chloride which will inhibit yeast propagation. The best way remove these from your water is to use potassium metabisulfite, AKA Campden tablets, which will strip the chloramines from the water. If you are going to use Campden tablets do so sparingly, as too much potassium metabisulfite can be just as bad as too much chloride.
Other naturally occurring salts can also make an appearance in tap water, particularly in coastal areas and places where the water supply is derived from desalinization. If you are not looking for a salty beer (speaking of which the Prehistoric Dog at TRVE Brewing is pretty swell you guys…just saying) this is another situation in which distilled water is the best way to go. If you want to remove these salts from your water for more than just brewing purposes, you can also invest in a reverse osmosis or de-ionization system for your home.
Hopefully that little chemistry lesson is a good jumping off point of anyone looking to get their beer a few rungs higher on the awesome scale. Of course this is just an overview of the many intricacies of water chemistry, and there are a myriad of books out there on the topic. I also recommend popping into a favorite brewery and chatting with someone on the brewing staff, they usually have some good tips on what they’ve found in their water and what they’ve done to treat it. If nothing else, I hope that this was a good motivator to appreciate the most important part of your pint. Cheers Everyone!