This article will help you understand how to select and create the best water for brewing beer.
As homebrewers, we think an awful lot about things like grains, yeast, and hops. But the main ingredient of our homebrew is often left to chance and can be the single largest reason for homebrew that isn’t great. So what is this essential beer ingredient?
Water. Yes, water.
When was the last time you took a moment to think about the water you are using in your beer? Probably if you are like lots of homebrewers, you don’t think about your water at all.
The problem with this is that water is key to making great beer. Just a few tweaks or a different water source can make a much better beer. If you were to take as much time researching and understanding your brewing water as you do other steps in the brewing process, just imagine how excellent your next brew could be!
One of the biggest reasons many homebrewers don’t think about their water is because water chemistry is a little overwhelming. If you’re not a water professional or have a love of science, the jargon behind water chemistry can be a lot to figure out.
Our goal in this article is to explain the details of water chemistry as they relate to homebrewing in a way that is as simple and understandable as possible. Having this information and how water impacts your beer is a huge step to making a great homebrew.
Water Source vs. Water Supply
Let’s start with this topic because it is about where the water starts, and right from the start, the words are confusing.
Water source means the place where your water starts. There are two primary water sources that ALL water used for brewing comes from.
Surface water is any water found on the surface of the earth. This can be water in lakes, rivers, streams, or ponds. Most municipal drinking water starts as surface water because it is relatively easy to acquire for treatment.
Surface water is suitable for brewing because it is usually low in dissolved minerals like calcium, magnesium, and sulfates. However, surface water sources have more organic compounds that come from the decay of leaves, algae, and other living things in and around the water. Organic compounds are one of the
Groundwater is any water that is pumped from the ground or harvested from the ground using a well. We think that spring water is also groundwater, but there is some argument about this.
Spring water comes from an underground source, but is found on the surface, hence the confusion. Groundwater lacks organic compounds, but the process of passing through the ground allows water to pick up and hold on to minerals. While minerals aren’t bad, they can change the quality or taste of your beer.
As for water supply, in the most basic sense, this is where YOU get your water from. The water supply can be from your tap or a bottle. Your water supply can be filtered, unfiltered, or bought at your local store.
Selecting the Best Water for Brewing
We did a lot of research into the types of water brewers prefer to use in their beers. One common theme is that if you drink the water, you can use it for brewing water.
This is a pretty accurate statement. But it is also misleading. A better statement would be, if your water is safe to drink, it’s safe to brew with. This doesn’t, however, mean that safe water will make a tasty beer. Not all water is the same, and that can significantly impact the taste and quality of your beer.
Distilled water is a type of water that has been boiled to steam and then condensed back into liquid water. Distillation removes all the minerals and contaminants from water, so it is just about as pure as you can get. But that doesn’t make it great for brewing.
Minerals are essential to the taste and mouthfeel of your beer, and some are important for fermentation, so you don’t want to use distilled water in all-grain brewing.
Some brewers like to use distilled water when extract brewing because the extract is essentially condensed wort, and the water quality work has already been done. Distilled water, in this case, is simply used to dilute the wort.
The other downfall to distilled water is that it is more expensive than other water types. So if you’re buying distilled water, keep in mind that you’ll pay more per bottle, and you’ll likely need to make some water adjustments before you brew.
If you don’t have a good water source from your tap (we’ll talk about this shortly), you may want to use bottled water. However, bottled water comes from a variety of sources, and the source is not always labeled.
Most bottled water is treated in some way or another, and often you’ll find that your bottled water has been enhanced with minerals after it’s been treated. If you focus on the water you’re using in your brew; you’ll want to either test your bottled water or get the water quality report from the bottler.
Most manufacturers of bottled water will provide water quality information if you ask.
If you are going to use bottled water, we would suggest that you buy larger containers like 1- or 2-gallon bottles. If your local grocery has a water filling station, you may even be able to purchase 5-gallons at a time, which is just perfect for brewing a 5-gallon batch of beer.
Most of us are using our tap water for our beer. There is nothing wrong with this, as a local or municipal water supplier provides most tap water. Municipal water treatment removes most of the “bad” contaminants from source water but leaves some minerals in the water.
The downfall of tap water is that water suppliers are required to use a chemical to disinfect the drinking water. The most common disinfectants used in drinking water treatment are chlorine and chloramines. These two compounds kill bacteria and viruses in the water and keep them from growing until you can consume the water. This is great, from a health and safety perspective, but not great from a beer perspective. Chlorine and chloramines can impact the efficiency of fermentation and make your beer taste strange.
If you are going to use your tap water for brewing beer, you should understand its water quality. You can test this yourself or keep things simple, reach out to your municipal water supplier, and request the most recent water quality information.
They will be happy to provide you with this information. You can also find a water report for your city water on most city websites.
Filtered water is simply a step up from tap water, and if you want to eliminate chlorine or chloramines from your tap water, this is a great option. Many people use a faucet-mounted or pitcher-style filter in their kitchens.
These inexpensive filters are great for removing chlorine, chloramines, metals, and dissolved minerals. If you’re using a pitcher filter, you’ll want to plan ahead of brew day and make sure you have enough filtered water on hand.
Some homebrewers will have a filtration system installed in their kitchen or sink where they get their brew water. Under-sink filtration systems are inexpensive, easy to install, and are a more cost-effective way to get filtered water at home.
Reverse Osmosis Water
Reverse osmosis water, also called RO water, has been passed through a media filter that removes ions from the water and then passed through a membrane filter for removing solids that may remain. Reverse osmosis water isn’t as purified as distilled water but is cleaner than your plain tap water.
Reverse osmosis water is the preference for many homebrewers, and larger craft beer brewing operations often have an RO system in their brew house. You can install a small reverse osmosis filtration system in your house, but it can be expensive. Most home brewers will buy RO water from their local grocery.
Before we move on, a few words about water softeners. If your home has a water softener installed, you will need to take some time to learn how it impacts your water quality and adjusts your water accordingly. Water softeners use salts to alter the hardness of the water.
Soft water can really change the taste of your beer, so you will need to do a water adjustment before you brew.
Basic Water Chemistry
In the section about tap water, we mentioned that it is crucial to understand the water quality components of the water you’re using for brewing beer. The reason for this is so that you can avoid off-flavors in your water, and in some cases, adjust the mineral content of your water to enhance the quality of specific beer styles.
The easiest way to understand your water chemistry is to reach out to your water supplier and ask for a water quality report. If that’s not an option, you can have your water tested by sending a sample to a water testing laboratory.
This will cost you a little money but will give you a basic understanding of your starting water quality. You can even test your water by investing in a pool testing kit. These will provide you with basic information such as alkalinity, hardness, pH, and chlorine.
When you read your water quality reports, you’ll see that most compounds are measured in mg/L or PPM. These are the same thing. For example, 50 mg/L of sodium is the same amount as 50 ppm (parts per million) of sodium.
Alkalinity is the measure of a compound’s ability to buffer pH. High alkalinity can increase pH, and this may cause strange tastes in your beer. This is also an excellent reason to avoid using Alkaline water in your beer. When looking at your water report, the ideal alkalinity values are around 50 to 100 PPM.
Calcium is a naturally occurring mineral that can change the hardness of your water. It can also lower the pH of your mash. On the plus side, the right amount of calcium can improve the clarity of your beer. Ideally, water for beer should have 50 PPM to 150 PPM of calcium, measured as calcium ions.
Chloride can make your beer taste sweet or more robust. It can also have an impact on the complexity of your beer and its mouthfeel. Unfortunately, chloride is also the base ion for chlorine, and as we know, chlorine is not great in your beer.
Carbonate and bicarbonate are the minerals that impact the alkalinity of the brew water and the pH of the mash. For light beers, look for carbonate/bicarbonate levels between 25 and 50 ppm and dark beers between 100 to 300 ppm.
Hardness is the measure of calcium and magnesium in your water. In your water quality report, you’ll see hardness reported as Total Hardness and Calcium Hardness. Total hardness is the amount of calcium and magnesium and should ideally be at least 150 ppm. For Calcium Hardness (harness as calcium carbonate), look for values of 150 PPM for the best brewing results.
Another mineral that impacts the hardness of your water is Magnesium. This can affect the pH of your brew water, but it is most important for good yeast performance. Look for magnesium levels in the range of 10 to 30 PPM.
Small amounts of sodium won’t have any impact on your beer, but too much, like adding too much salt to your food, will have a significant effect on the taste of your beer. Too much sodium can make your beer taste metallic. Optimal sodium levels are 10 to 70 PPM.
If you like hoppy beers, sulfates in your water are a plus. Sulfate can also lower the pH of your water.
If you want to delve deeper into the water quality side of brewing beer, we recommend investing in a couple of books written by John Palmer.
He is an expert in water quality for brewing and has written two essential books for the interested homebrewer. For references on water quality and brewing, check out “How to Brew” and “Water: A Comprehensive Guide for Brewers,” both written by John Palmer.
Adjusting Water For Brewing
If you are ready to start brewing the best beer possible, here are some ways to adjust your brew water for the best results. Brewing salts are a great addition to your brew day ingredients.
- Remove chlorine or chloramines from your brew water using Campden tablets (1 crushed tablet per 5-gallons of water). Although, it is important to note that most chlorine added to municipal water will be eliminated during the boil.
- Measure the pH of your mash water. For all-grain brewing pH of the mash should be around 5.2 and 5.6. pH impacts the activity of mash enzymes. The pH
- If your pH is too high, use Gypsum, calcium chloride, or an acid such as phosphoric or lactic acid.
- If your pH is too low, adjust using a bit of calcium carbonate or sodium bicarbonate (baking soda).
- If you are brewing an IPA and want to accentuate the bitterness from the hops, add a bit of magnesium sulfate to your brew.
Just like with cooking, you should never add too much of any of these compounds to your mash. Instead, start small and measure the pH of your mash before you add more. This will ensure that you get just what you want and don’t risk fouling your beer.
Water And Beer Styles
If you are looking to brew a specific beer style, you may want to research the water used traditionally to brew these beer styles. This will give you an excellent place to start water adjustments for your own beer.
- IPAs originated in Burton-upon-Trent, where the water had higher sulfate levels that accentuated the bitterness from hops, and the water was very hard, so brewers pre-boiled their water to reduce the hardness.
- Pilseners were traditionally brewed with water that had low bicarbonates and very low amounts of minerals. In Pilsen where the beer style originated, brewers added salts to their water to increase the hardness.
- Use more sulfate (magnesium sulfate) and less chloride when brewing WestCoast-style IPAs. Switch this balance if you’re making a hazy or juicy IPA.