Beer is about 90% water. So if you want to brew the best beer you can possibly brew, you aren’t going to want your dirty ol’ well water or overly chlorinated city water to make up 90% of it. But don't worry! You don't need a masters degree in microbiology to understand what you’re doing with your brewing water. After reading this article, you will have a basic understanding of how to go about adjusting your brewing water.
Your Water Source
The very first thing to think about when building a water profile is what your starting minerals will be, and where your water is coming from. Are you going to build off your well water? Are you going to use bottled spring water? Or will you start with a clean sheet of paper by using distilled or RO (reverse osmosis) water?
You will have to contact the water manufacturer and ask them what the total dissolved minerals are in it.
City water is often chlorinated, but potassium metabisulphite (better known as Campden) can take care of this and works for chlorine and chloramine. Boiling your water before brewing can also reduce chlorine levels, but could still leave some residual chlorine. The most effective choice for getting rid of chlorine in water is to use a carbon filter. This can be hooked up directly to your hose, faucet or where ever you are getting your water. This strips all the chlorine out of the water and is still quite affordable.
When looking at the minerals in city water, you can look online and your local water report will tell you everything you need to know. These water reports are usually updated every 1 or 2 years.
Assuming your water tastes fine, you may be able to build water profiles off of it. But, if your water is too hard, you are better off using a different source. If you're not sure, you can have your water sent out to be tested, or buy a water testing kit and do it yourself.
Using distilled or RO water is your best bet for mastering water profiles. These types of water have no measurable minerals, and most of the time, have a neutral PH (we’ll get to PH later) so you can build it to an exact profile. RO water is easily accessible in bulk at most local grocery stores. This is by far the cheapest option for some of the best quality brewing water.
When looking at water reports, you should be focused on these main points:
- pH & alkalinity
- Sulphate (SO4)
- Chloride (Cl)
- Calcium (Ca)
- Magnesium (Mg)
- Sodium (Na)
pH is a measurement of acidity and alkalinity and is measured on a scale of 1-14. Something with a pH of 7 is completely neutral, anything below that is considered acidic, and anything above 7 is considered alkaline. If you didn't know this already, pH is very important during the mash on your brew day. The enzymes that are responsible for converting the starches to sugars in your mash work best in an environment where the pH is between 5.2 and 5.6.
Sulphates and Chlorides
These are the two most important minerals in your water profile. You may have heard some brewing geek talk about their chloride to sulphate ratio. They may have sounded like a huge nerd when they talked about it, but the fact is that this is a huge factor in having a well-balanced beer. Just remember this:
Calcium & Magnesium
You may have heard the term “hard water" before. This term refers to the levels of calcium and magnesium in the water. When brewing water has higher levels of these, yeast health and hot break are enhanced and actually prevents beer stones. If you adjust either of these, Calcium is by far the most important of the two. You should try aiming for around 60-100 PPM for yeast health.
Take a wild guess what sodium is... That's right! It’s salt! Having the right amount of salts in your brewing water will balance the malt flavour. But adding too much salt will make your beer take on a salty flavour. This is great if you’re brewing a Gose, but not so great in most other styles.
What You Need
So now you know about your minerals, but now what? To start adjusting your water, you are going to want to keep a few things on hand.
- Gypsum (aka Calcium Sulphate): Increases calcium and sulphates and slightly lowers pH.
- Epsom Salt (aka magnesium sulphate): This increases magnesium and sulphate levels. (make sure it is food grade)
- Calcium Chloride: Increases calcium and chloride while slightly lowering pH.
- Table Salt: Increases sodium levels. (make sure it is de-ionized)
- Baking Soda: Increases alkalinity and pH.
- Acid: Most commonly used acids are Lactic Acid or Phosphoric Acid. This decreases mash pH.
- pH meter. You will need to ensure your mash pH is between 5.2 and 5.6 to create the right environment for the mash enzymes.
- High-precision scale. Usually, a scale that measures as low as 0.1 of a gram will suffice. You will need this to weigh all your salts. You can also use it to weigh hops!
- Syringe or medicine dropper. You will use this to measure out your acids. Make sure it’s accurate!
There are some good free spreadsheets out there to calculate for you, but if you have BeerSmith, you already have a water profile calculator.
Target Water Profile
To keep it simple, just use a pre-loaded profile in one of the software above. Some of these profiles may be called something like "light and hoppy", "balanced", "light and malty", etc. The main thing you are looking for is the sulphate to chloride ratio. These will be measured in PPM (parts per million). For example, if you’re brewing an IPA you may want a ratio of about 3:1 (for example, 150 PPM sulphate 50 PPM chloride). For a more malty beer (also popular for juicy/hazy IPAs), you may want to use a ratio of around 1:2 (for example, 50 PPM sulphate and 100 PPM chloride). Balanced profiles will be usually around 1:1 (you can do the math there). So just determine which profile will be best for the beer you are brewing.
So now you have the tools and ingredients. Brew day is here, what do you do now? Minerals can be added in the mash, to the water pre-mash-in, or as late as right up until packaging. But, it is safest to add them to your water before you mash in because you will have a better estimate of your final pH (and not to mention that any bugs in the minerals will be killed off during the boil.) The first thing you should do is weigh your minerals. Your software will calculate how much of each to add in the mash and sparge water. Add those minerals once your strike water is heated up and make sure they're completely dissolved. Then mash in as normal.
15 minutes into your mash whip out that fancy pH meter you bought from BrewHQ, pull a sample of the mash (including grains) and submerge the probe into the sample. If your pH is higher than 5.6 you will need to add some acids. Some brewing software will calculate how much you need to add, but most brewers add it in small increments while consistently stirring and taking readings until you hit the correct range.
There you go! Just finish your brew day as normal and then you have made your first step into water chemistry! Now go brag to your friends that you're basically a chemist.