The importance of water in brewing beer
Anyone who knows their beer will tell you that there are only really four ingredients in most brews – grains, hops, yeast, and water. While you might assume it’s the first three ingredients that hold the key to the taste, feel and texture of the beer, it’s actually the water that makes all the difference.
There’s a reason they’ve been brewing beer in Burton on Trent for hundreds of years – it’s home to what the locals refer to as “magic water,” which contains naturally high levels of gypsum sulphate. This is what makes the water so soft and given that beer is around 95% water, it’s what makes beer brewed in Burton so pleasant.
What’s in the water?
Water heavily impacts the quality of beer by determining the flavour of the wort extracted from the mash during brewing. The pH level of the water also affects the bitterness of the beer, while any contaminants found in the beer can make it taste “off.” Therefore, we’d always recommend using properly filtered water in your brew.
The water has a massive impact on the flavour profile, with the calcium, chlorine, magnesium, sodium, and sulphates in the water shaping how the wort tastes and what kind of texture it has too. Of course, you can alter the pH of the water using baking soda, Epson salts and gypsum and the flavour profile by adding different sulphates (adding calcium sulphates to the water used in IPA beers, for example, helps achieve that dry and bitter profile).
However, it’s the original water itself that has historically had a major impact on what kinds of beers are brewed in certain regions and it’s resulted in some of the most iconic beers of all time.
As different regions across the world have different natural combinations of minerals, it has resulted in very different beers being born in different countries before being reverse-engineered by fans sometimes on the other side of the globe.
Burton on Trent – We’ve already discussed the magic water of Burton and it’s this water that led to the creation of the now classic India Pale Ale (IPA) beer. These beers were hopped heavily to help them survive the trek across the ocean to the British colonies in India hundreds of years ago and today, it’s one of the world’s most popular styles of beer.
Pilsen – A pilsner is known as a darker and more flavourful lager and it has its origins in the Czech town of Pilsen, where the water has a very soft profile with low mineral content. This makes it ideal for brewing the subtle and crisp pilsner pale lager. This style was watered down significantly over the years to result in the famous lager that’s sold in pubs and supermarkets around the world today.
Dublin – The high levels of alkaline in the river Liffey running through the centre of Dublin is what gives the iconic Guinness stout its classic deep flavour. Its ruby red colour (yes, it’s dark red, not black) was achieved by roasting the raw barley that makes up the mash.
Of course, just because you have good water doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get a good beer, but you certainly can’t have a good beer without good water. So, if you’re thinking about getting into brewing your own beer, always think about the water first!