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Water Quality: It Matters Even More Than You Think

January 4, 2020  |  By Brian Hatheway 

a glass of water
Vermont is known for having high quality water for brewing.

Tonight’s beer was from Goodwater Brewery in Burlington, Vermont. The origin of the brewery’s name is pretty serendipitous: The brewery is located in a place known for its good water, and the founder’s (French) last name translates to ‘good water’ in English. 

Now water isn’t a beer ingredient that often gets talked about in the way that, say, hops do but, water plays an extremely vital role in the quality and overall flavor of beer. 

In our day to day lives, we usually think of water as a pretty simple product. Sure we all think we can taste the difference between our tap water and bottled water, but beyond that we don’t give much thought to the flavor of water. But brewers need to give serious consideration to the water they’re putting into their beer. 

Water can account for over 90% of the total volume of ingredients in a beer, so of course it’s going to be important that a brewer’s water is clean, fresh, and suited for the particular style they are brewing. You can think of water as the canvas on which the brewer’s create their art. Water also contributes to the flavor profile of a beer, supports the fermentation process with minerals, and greatly affects the mouthfeel of a beer. Without water, beer as we know it would not be possible.

Home brewers and craft beer lovers will talk endlessly about hop varieties and growing regions and for good reason, but professional brewers need to also be mindful of their water and its source. Much like different hops grown in different areas are going to have different organic compounds and flavor profiles, water from different sources is going to have different chemical profiles and, in turn, have different benefits for the brewing process. 

Let’s take a basic look at a few of the important characteristics in water and what they provide beer:

Calcium has no real flavor impacts on a finished beer but helps immensely with the mash and fermentation process. Mashing is when brewer’s combine crushed, malted grains with hot water and allow enzymes to convert starches into sugar. Calcium helps to stabilize and fortify these enzymes. It also aids in the health of the yeast throughout fermentation and plays a role in clarifying the beer.

Sulfate and chloride are key ions in the flavor and mouthfeel of any beer. Higher concentrations of sulfate aids in showcasing a beer’s hop profile by helping to dry out the finish of the beer and, in turn, give more lingering, assertive hop flavors. On the other hand, chloride helps bring out a rounder, sweeter malt character in a beer. 

The ratio between sulfate and chloride greatly influences the hoppy to malty balance of a beer. Traditionally, beers that showcased their hop character would have a higher concentration of sulfate. This typically meant a ratio of 2 to 1 but you can see ratios as high as 8 to 1 in extreme examples such as the English town of Burton on Trent, where English IPA was the most prominent beer style. In a very different approach, German and Czech breweries favor a chloride dominant ratio to help preserve the more subtle, nuanced flavors of Noble hops. 

In modern brewing the ratio between sulfate and chloride has fueled a transition from drier, more bitter IPAs, to the juicier, full bodied hazy IPAs that now occupy the majority of draft lists across the US. New England IPAs originated in Vermont, where brewers were crafting IPAs that pushed the limits of hop aroma and flavor while reducing the overall bitterness of these beers. The result was softer beers that showcased hop aromas left a resonating impact on the industry, for better or worse. Brewers achieve these softer profiles by favoring later hop additions in the boil and by manipulating their water to achieve a higher chloride to sulfate ratio. 

Historically, these flavor ions in different water sources helped differentiate the styles that developed in different regions. In addition to the aforementioned Burton on Trent, Porters developed out of London where the higher levels of chloride in their wells and rivers allowed for a full bodied, malt forward dark beer. Bohemian style Pilsners are known for their soft profile and  developed in Czechoslovakia due to their low mineral water sources. 

Water has an immense impact on both the development of beer throughout history and the beer itself. It is the most abundant ingredient in beer and should be studied as such but is often overlooked because it is not as cool or sexy as aseptic fruit purees or Southern Hemisphere hops.

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