It's All About The Water
Beer contains approximately 90% water so the importance of the liquid to beer quality
cannot be over-estimated. You might think that water from rain is the most potable
(drinkable). However, while water falling as rain, hail, sleet or snow is pure, it
dissolves gasses such as oxygen and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. On
reaching the ground the water runs off into rivers, streams and lakes and on in some
cases to reservoirs. The composition of the water in the reservoirs is dependent
upon the nature of the catchment area. In areas where the rocks are hard, the water
will not penetrate deeply, and will be 'soft' - that is low in dissolved salts. In areas
where the rocks are more permeable - gypsum or limestone for example - water will
penetrate readily and dissolve many minerals on its way to the reservoirs to become
So, if your water supply is barely potable, it's safe to say your beer will be the same.
Still, beer can be made with poor water. In the middle ages many water sources were
contaminated, and it didn't stop brewers then and it doesn’t stop them today.
In fact, for centuries beer was considered to be the first choice for drinking over plain
water, which could contain any number of pathogens. The difference was that beer
was typically boiled, which essentially sterilized it. Then, with the addition of ethanol
from the yeast and a little preservation from the hops, you had a stable, clean
drinking source. It may not have tasted good but it was safe.
Of course, in those faraway days not all water sources were tainted or inconsistent.
Many towns had pristine subterranean aquifers from which to draw, each containing
a signature mineral content that was consistent with the geological surroundings. It
was no mystery, then, that certain areas of the globe became known for the purity
and flavor of their beer.
On one end of the spectrum was Burton-Upon-Trent, in Staffordshire, United
Kingdom. Burton water was, and is, very high in calcium and sulfate with a balanced
alkalinity. Beer brewed with this water was notably lighter in color and had a more
accentuated hop character. And the brewers of Burton exploited this difference. The
beers brewed there became the benchmark for the style to be known as pale ale
which eventually led to today’s most popular craft beer style, IPA.
On the other end of the spectrum is Pilsen, in the Czech Republic. In Pilsen the
water is remarkably low in mineral content which meant the brewer could achieve
balance between soft malt flavors and smooth bitterness from the local hops. Darker
malts were not needed to balance pH levels and with the advent of the thermometer
and precise temperature readings, malt could be made very light in color. And so, the
pilsner style was born.
With the explosion of craft brewing in this country and around the world, how can all
these various breweries in all these various locations maintain a clean consistent
water supply to make quality beer in various styles? The answer is – science. With
today's modern municipal water treatment and our ability to filter out almost any
impurity, as with reverse osmosis (RO) treatment, clean water isn't a problem.
Reverse osmosis is an advanced water purification method that was initially
developed by the U.S. Navy to produce drinking water from sea water for submarine
crews. It is a membrane filtration technology that works by forcing water under
pressure through the very tiny pores of a semi-permeable membrane. Modern
reverse osmosis units for the breweries and even the home combine membrane
technology with carbon and mechanical filtration to produce highly purified, great-
In many regions the water is just fine to brew with. But it's especially difficult where
the water supply varies greatly from month to month depending on whether the water
is being drawn from a well or a reservoir. How the water is treated will determine a
beer’s consistency from batch to batch. The advantage these water treatment have
is that any great water in the world can easily be mimicked by adding a few naturally
occurring salts and minerals. Scottish ales can be made with Edinburgh water;
porters can be made with London water, and pilsners with water from your very own
tap no matter where you live.
So you see, beer really is all about the water.
beernexus.com - SPECIAL REPORT
water in beer