It’s Elemental: Water’s Role in Beer

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Chris McDonald, Shawn Meek Atlantic Canada Beer Blog

Despite making up roughly 95 per cent of beer, water is often the most-ignored ingredient in our favourite beverage. Those just getting into brewing at the home brewing level can usually get away with following the “if your water tastes good, it’s good enough for brewing” adage; but if you want your beer to taste great, you have to start taking your water more seriously.

At the commercial level, brewers often know their water profile down to the tiniest detail, frequently making adjustments to its chemistry based on what style of beer they wish to brew, and what characteristics of the finished beer they want to highlight. For as long as beer has been made, the region it is brewed in has a strong influence on how the beer tastes, due to the local ingredients at the brewer’s disposal, including water.

In the Czech Republic, the city of Pilsen has long been known for its Bohemian Pilsners — clear, crisp, pale-golden beers that are aided by the soft water (that is, low-mineral) inherent to the area. In the city of Dortmund, Germany, the water is high in minerals such as sulfate, allowing the hop bitterness of the locally-brewed Dortmunder Export to be accentuated.

Aside from having a clean, safe water source, there are other aspects that the brewer has to consider. For starters, is the water in question treated with chlorine or chloramine as a disinfectant? If so, eliminating these compounds is extremely important; if present in brewing water, the yeast used to ferment the beer will process the chlorine/chloramine and produce chlorophenols, giving the beer a medicinal, “band-aid” off-flavour. Next, brewers will likely have their water analyzed for mineral content. Most Nova Scotia brewers begin with water from their local municipal supply, which is treated and tested to be safe, but may have vastly different constituents depending on source, treatment plant, and even the time of year. The levels of calcium, chloride, magnesium, sodium, and sulfates, to name a few, can have a significant effect on the resulting flavour, mouthfeel, and perceived bitterness of the beer, not to mention other important factors such as mash pH and yeast health. Modern brewers are no longer boxed-in by their water source, thanks to the sophisticated tools available at their disposal. If their water is low in certain minerals, they can add in the appropriate brewing salts such as Gypsum (calcium sulfate), Epsom salt, or calcium chloride. If too high, using filters, chemical reactions, or reverse osmosis water to dilute the bulk source, can reduce the unwanted components.

Tatamagouche Brewing Company starts with water from their local water treatment plant, a state-of-the-art facility on the French River. Before using the water in their beer, it passes through a charcoal filter, and an additional chlorine filter. “The water is very soft which allows us to start with a blank slate for each beer,” says Matt Kenny of Tatamagouche Brewing. “In fact, we do not adjust the water for our North Shore Lagered Ale, as we feel the soft water we have works well in this lighter beer.” For their Deception Bay American IPA, however, hops are the focus in aroma, flavour, and bitterness, and as such, they add calcium sulfate (in the form of gypsum) to enhance those characteristics. “This benefits a hop-forward beer, as the gypsum will help with bitterness and allow the hops to shine.”

Tatamagouche Brewing Company’s North Shore Lagered Ale is available at NSLC stores and their Deception Bay American IPA will hit store shelves in the near future.

Occasions Recommends
Tata Brew North Shore Lagered Ale, 4x473ml $16.95

Next week
Chris and Shawn discuss the influence of yeast on the flavour of beer, highlighting the beers of Garrison Brewing.

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