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Where on Earth is the Best Water for Brewing?

Hops and yeast are the two ingredients that often get the most attention in craft beer culture today, but water can also impact a beer’s flavor, appearance, aroma and mouthfeel. After all, it makes up about 90 percent of beer! So where on Earth is the best water for brewing? That’s a good question for a beer connoisseur to ask, but turns out it’s the wrong one.

Historically, water profiles in eight European cities were key to the rise of dramatically different beer styles because certain elements in those cities’ water supplies interacted with the other ingredients in beer (malt, hops and yeast) in specific ways. While most brewers now treat their water – and any style can be brewed anywhere – different types of water are ideal for particular styles. This article will focus on the effect that water has on brewing as well as where to find the best water for brewing different styles around the world.  

A Deep Dive

Before we take off on a world tour, we’ll take a look at the properties of water that are important for brewers to understand.

In his book “New Brewing Lager Beer,” the late Gregory J. Noonan, owner and brewmaster of Vermont Pub and Brewery, emphasized that the acidity level is key to a successful brewing cycle. A quick pH test of the mash tells the brewer how acidic it is. The pH scale goes from 1 (most acidic) to 14 (most basic), and 7 is considered neutral. Keeping the right pH matters because the enzymes that convert malt starches into sugars work best within a relatively narrow range on the pH scale – about 5.2 to 5.5.



This USGS map shows water hardness across the United States, with the hardest water found in the Mountain West and Midwest.


Minerals in the water affect pH, and their presence largely depends on the geology of a region. For example, in areas with limestone, the water is more likely to pick up alkaline substances that neutralize acids. Higher alkaline water is “hard” water, with a pH of 8.5 or higher. Fewer minerals are picked up in places with more volcanic rock, so the water is more acidic or “soft,” with a pH under 6.5. Other factors can come into play, like heavy rain or snowmelt, making consistency difficult to achieve when using only “natural” sources (even when filtered through a municipal water supply).

Brewers need to know what kind of water they are dealing with, but for most, precise calculations matter less than general principles. Water purity matters first and foremost – brewing water should be free of pollutants, such as bacteria. The mineral composition is a secondary concern, according to Noonan, because it can be adjusted.



Based on the desired color of the beer style they are brewing, brewers can calculate how much grain (which provides acids) is needed to offset the residual alkalinity of their water. Photo courtesy Full Sail Brewing


Starting with the desired color of a beer, brewers calculate how much grain is needed to offset the alkalinity. They then can determine what, if any, adjustments need to be made. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Darker beer styles such as Munich Dunkel, Porter and Stout can work well with hard, alkaline water. This is because colored malts are more acidic and counteract the higher alkalinity, bringing the pH level down closer to the desired range.
  • Conversely, pale malts may not add enough acid to reach the ideal spot on the pH scale, so brewers may need to add lactic acid, use an acid rest during the mash, use acidulated malt or add gypsum or other salts to the brewing water.
  • For bitter beer styles like IPA, a mash with a higher pH is not ideal because the alkalinity can amplify hop bitterness to the point that it becomes harsh or astringent. Softer water can be achieved through a number of methods, such as diluting it by adding distilled water.

So which is better to start with, hard or soft water? It depends on style; the less you have to adjust water, the better.

One of the issues with treating water is that almost any course of action sets off a chain reaction. For example, when alkaline substances are removed from hard water, they can pull too much calcium with them. But all beers need a certain base amount of calcium for the mash to function well, so it may need to be added back. In the case of soft water, trace minerals such as zinc and copper may need to be added so the yeast has something to chew on. However, those minerals could also oxidize a beer or create unpleasant tastes, among other negative impacts.



Malt extract used in homebrewing. Photo courtesy American Homebrewers Association


It’s also worth noting that brewing with malt extracts means the mashing has already been done for you so there is no need to adjust the mash pH, according to “Pale Ale” author Terry Foster, who holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry.

Alkalinity aside, other substances brewers must consider are chlorine and chloramines. Found in many municipal supplies, chlorine and chloramines are not harmful but can react with phenols in malt and hops to create gross-smelling chemicals. Brewers can remove chlorine and chloramines with a potassium metabisulfite (Campden) tablet, or through different filtration methods. Homebrewers may let water sit overnight in an open container to allow the chlorine to evaporate.

There are a variety of ways to conduct a water analysis. Breweries concerned with consistency may pay a laboratory for a fairly in-depth report or use sophisticated equipment. Homebrewers can purchase a simple kit that allows them to test their own water or they can contact their local water utility for an analysis, though many homebrewers get by with only testing the pH of the mash.

Historical Water Profile Cities


The Pilsner Urquell brewery in Pilsen, Czech Republic. Photo courtesy tadekk/Flickr


Eight European cities are associated with distinct water profiles that led to the rise of eight very different, beloved beer styles. That being said, despite not having a sophisticated understanding of chemistry, brewers throughout the centuries may have treated their water by adding salts, pre-boiling or other methods. They include:


Pilsen (Plzeň), Czech Republic – The water’s very low alkalinity favors light, base malts and calcium chloride salts may need be added to reach a lower pH. Pilsner is often described as having the soft, rich flavor of fresh bread. A lack of sulfate in the water allows for some mellow hop bitterness.


Historically, Pilsen had soft water that favored only light malts. Photo courtesy Artur Borowski/Flickr


Dortmund, Germany – Also famous for pale lagers, Dortmund Export has a more assertive malt character than Pilsners because the water has a higher level of chloride that brings out the malt flavor.


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Comments

thecruizer1's picture
What, no mention of Maine!?! I think Maine has some of the best if not the best water in the nation!
Editorial Dept.'s picture
Hi thecruizer1, Certainly there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of water sources we could've mentioned in this piece, but we opted to focus on the most historically significant bodies of water throughout brewing history. Indeed, we could've done an entire piece on New England or the Pacific Northwest or San Diego, but instead we opted for a more history-leaning piece that delves into the effects of specific major water sources throughout brewing history.

Comments

thecruizer1's picture
What, no mention of Maine!?! I think Maine has some of the best if not the best water in the nation!
Editorial Dept.'s picture
Hi thecruizer1, Certainly there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of water sources we could've mentioned in this piece, but we opted to focus on the most historically significant bodies of water throughout brewing history. Indeed, we could've done an entire piece on New England or the Pacific Northwest or San Diego, but instead we opted for a more history-leaning piece that delves into the effects of specific major water sources throughout brewing history.

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