It's The Water
Equally important as malt, hops and yeast are in the brewing of beer is
water, although there are those who suggest that water isn’t really an
ingredient, but only a solution in which the chemical process of beer
making takes place. (According to those theorists, yeast isn’t an
ingredient either, only the agent which causes the process to begin.)
But for our purposes we’ll consider water to be a vitally important
ingredient and there are many reasons why this is so. Water from
different locations produces different characteristics in beer styles which
caused great brewing centers to arise and be noted for particular styles.
For example, the low percentage of salts in the waters of Bavaria
contribute to the softness of lager and the water from Burton-on-Trent
in England is so suitable for the brewing of pale ale that the word
“Burton” has been used to promote that style of beer, most notably the
legendary Ballantine Burton Ale.
Water containing calcium increases the extract from malt and hops
during mashing and boiling, sulfates enhance hop bitterness and
chlorides bring out the sweetness of particular beers. In addition to the
heat, one of the reasons that the southern United States was never
noted for having any kind of a sizeable brewing industry is that the
waters of the Deep South are not conducive to the brewing of good
Today, practically any water can be “adjusted” to create any kind of beer
anywhere. In fact, at least one Caribbean brewery desalinates seawater
to brew its beer. Since all of the Caribbean lagers I’ve tried are uniformly
nondescript and bland, I wouldn’t be surprised if they all do.
The lack of purity of some water was another reason for the
development of great brewing regions when people discovered that the
boiling of wort in the brewing process killed all sorts of microorganisms
that previously had been killing them. Beer in medieval Europe was safe
to drink, Water was not. Plymouth Rock became famous because the
Pilgrims, no fools they, packed beer for the arduous journey from
England, knowing that water would make them even sicker than the
rolling and pitching of the Mayflower. But while heading for Virginia, they
ran out of suds and so had to put in at Plymouth Rock to start brewing
more beer. If they had been sailing down the East River 350 years later
they might not have had to stop.
In 1973, to protest a proposed tax which would make it more difficult to
compete with national brewers, the Liebmann Brewery dumped 100,000
gallons of Rheingold Extra Dry into the East River. This was maybe the
only time in history when the water of the East River was safe to drink.
Water is such an important part of brewing that “lite” beer was invented
to prove it. To beer lovers, lite beer IS water. In fact, in a recent
blindfolded tasting several members of Draught Board 15 were unable
to distinguish Coor’s Light from Perrier.
Breweries have varied sources for the water they use to brew, the late
beer guru, Michael Jackson cited several. The Lapin Kulta Brewery of
Lappland uses water from a local river, Malta’s Farson’s Brewery collects
rainwater from reservoirs on its roof and the famed Rodenbach Brewery
of Belgium brews with water from a lake fed by underground springs.
But most breweries just use local water. Newark’s Ballantine had its own
wells but used that water to clean and flush toilets. Newark city water,
the best I’ve ever drank, was used to make Ballantine Beer, XXX Ale,
and the long gone but well remembered Ballantine IPA.
Beer advertising in the United States has always relied heavily on water
to promote brands. Olympia brewery of Tumwater, Washington said it
all with its famous slogan “It’s The Water”. Many beers bragged about
their use of “pure” water (what else were they going to use, “sewer”
water?). Reading’s Sunshine beer claimed to brew with “mountain spring
water” but the still thriving Straub’s one –ups that with PURE ”mountain
For years, Minnesota’s Hamm’s Brewery relied on the slogan “Refreshing
as the Land of Sky Blue Waters” to sell their beer. Buffalo’s Simon Pure
Brewery assured drinkers that Simon Pure was brewed only with “cavern
spring water” and the First National Brewery (could you open a savings
account there as well?) of McKeesport, Pa. stated that “We use water
from a historical mountain spring for ALL our beer. The use of the word
“all” (instead of merely stating “our beer”) leads one to surmise that the
brewery believed that some consumers suspected that NOT all their
beer was brewed with water from a historical mountain spring. Maybe
these doubters thought only SOME of their beer was brewed with those
waters. If there was any basis for those suspicions it naturally makes
one wonder with what water the REST
of their beer was brewed!
Some breweries subscribed to the real estate marketing strategy of
“location, location, location “ in touting their beers’ water sources.
Weber’s Old Fashioned Beer of Sheyboygan, Wi. used only “Famous
Wisconsin Water.” Casco Bay Brewing uses only “pure Maine water”,
Barmann’s took advantage of Catskill Mountain water and Coor’s always
promotes its Rocky Mountain water. Maybe the Deep South would have
had a more robust brewing industry if its breweries had brought in tank
car loads from other sources. A great promo would have been for a
Florida panhandle brewery to proclaim they used only fresh-delivered
Newark. N.J. water in their
Many breweries bragged about using artesian well water, among them
Camden County Beverage Company of Camden, N.J. (whose label
looked mighty like a Budweiser label…..great marketing strategy, there)
and Furmann and Schmidt of Shamokin, Pa. Another brand from F&S
was Polski Piwo, evidently aimed at the demographic of Polish coal
miners in the area, which was brewed with “superb” water.
Mineral springs also are promoted heavily as sources of brewing water.
The Schwartzenbach brewery of Hornell, N.Y. brewed it’s Old Ranger
brand with the “Famous Water of Old Ranger Spring” and it’s KDK
Cream Ale contained only “soft mineral water”. Bingo Beer was brewed
with “sparkling” spring water. Would this mean that the beer needed no
further carbonation? The current micro, Great Northern brews it’s
Wheatfish with “pure glacier water”.
All this talk of water has made me a little thirsty, so I think I’ll have beer.
But of course only one brewed with city, artesian well, river, mineral
spring, mountain, desalinated, glacier, cavern, sparkling, rain or lake
Beer Raconteur, Writer and Historian