“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”
– Loren Eiseley
Water is one of the most important and yet most understated resources. It is essential for almost everything on the planet (including the planet itself), and yet, it’s something many people shrug off. If you think about it, one of the major measurements of a civilization’s success is how well it can tame the very thing that makes life possible. Irrigation, for instance, marked the beginning of a new age in society and allowed for the advancement of tribes. No longer was being nomadic the only way of life; populations could stay in one place and not just survive, but thrive. Those that did stay nomadic chartered the world as we know it, connecting people and ideas alike.
One such idea was beer.
Most of beer is water and, without it, our entire history would have been completely rewritten. Although beer tamed us in many ways, we have also learned to tame it. I do believe we are in a new dawning of beer brewing, as we have finally begun to not only understand, but manipulate the water used in the process. So, for now, let’s shift from the globalism of beer to something much more microscopic in nature, if not in significance.
Many people, including some new to brewing, underestimate the impact the water used has on beer created. While you can use any kind of water, that does not mean you should. For example, most would prefer not to drink rainwater once it has touched the ground, and beer agrees. The potential for pollutants is a risk brewers tend not to take, as to keep up the quality and reputation of their beer.
But past the general rule of ‘don’t use dirty water’, what else matters?
Turns out, everything.
While water is considered to be relatively tasteless, quite a few people have opinions on what kind of water has the best flavor- including geographical origins. And this isn’t just in people’s heads. While water naturally has trace amounts of minerals and metals, most places treat their water with additives to either remove harmful or add desired components. Brewers have to do the same thing.
One of the first steps a brewer should take before starting the brewing process is to test the water. This provides data that the brewer uses to determine what needs to be changed about the chemical composition of the water before it turns into beer. The main components that brewers look at are: Bicarbonates, Calcium, Chloride, Magnesium, Sodium, and Sulfates. These minerals at different levels determine factors such as hardness and alkalinity which, in turn, have a substantial impact on the flavor of the beer, which a brewer may have to balance.
Modern day brewers have at their disposal a variety of water treatment options which allows them to change the water composition to fit the style of beer they wish to produce. Brewers of the past had neither the knowledge nor the technology to do this and, therefore, had to use what was available to them and adjust as they could. The implications of this meant that certain areas of the world produced specific styles of beer, based on how ingredients interacted with the minerals in the water to produce flavors. While it did limit the brew possibilities for awhile, it did allow for distinct styles to come into their own, creating the classics we know today.
One such style is the Pilsner. It orginated in Pilsen, Bohemia where the water is considered very “soft.” It has very low levels of all aforementioned minerals.
The Drink-Along: Technical Ecstasy by 2nd Shift Brewing
This beer is a wonderful example of a Pilsner. Just like the name states, it hits all the marks for this style. At first glance, this beer is clear with a very frothy head (“Head”- the foam that forms on the top of a beer when poured into a glass. Try to contain the giggles.) There is a hops taste that comes from the use of Saaz hops, which are traditional to the geographical area and the beer style. With each mineral being fairly absent, this allows a smooth transition between the malt and hops, highlighting each one without over accentuating them. Overall, it is a nice beer for a summer afternoon- refreshing with a very crisp finish.
On the other end of the water spectrum are Irish Stouts. An Irish Stout could not traditionally be brewed in Pilsen without a considerable amount of doctoring due to the needs of the water profile.
The Drink-Along: Guinness
Originating in Dublin, Ireland, this beer style uses much harder, more alkaline water. Alkaline water is created by having higher levels of primarily bicarbonates. As a way to even this out, brewers used roasted barley. The resulting beer is much darker, drier, and more bitter than a Pilsner, but balanced even so. Instead of a light flavor, however, this brew offers a deep, roasted complexity that is more suited to a cozy winter evening in.
While beer chemistry and its effects may seem overwhelming, the take away is pretty straight-forward. Even when early brewers were unaware, water was shaping the way we live, down to the little details of our down-time drinks. And while we certainly do not have to be able to examine each microscopic detail of the brew water to enjoy the end product, it is a nod to just how far we’ve come, both as a society and as industry.