A closer look at beer: water

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First Posted: 3/4/2014

When it comes to water, we hear terms like “Rocky Mountain” and “sky blue,” and we picture grand images of clean running water through untouched areas of nature. However, water is probably the most overlooked ingredient when it comes to beer. Many of us take it for granted that our water is clean and chemical-free straight from the tap, which is true in many cases. However, when brewing beer, there is much more science involved and water needs to be examined under much stricter codes.

If we take a step back in history, we can see that if it wasn’t for the fact that water was so dangerous for many of the settlers to drink, beer may not have taken off quite as well among what many regard as strict Puritans. The process of making beer actually purified the water and made it much safer to drink, so the risks of getting ill from drinking beer were very small compared to the much higher risks that came with drinking water.

Ben Franklin, a beer-loving man if ever there was one, was quoted once as saying, “In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is freedom, in water there is bacteria.” This idea was strongly held by many for quite a number of years until time rolled closer to our modern-day conveniences, with clean running water pumping straight into our homes.

However, our water systems can vary greatly throughout our country and throughout the world. In some areas, there may be more calcium or other minerals compared to other areas that may be higher in chloride or other such treatments used in water. All of these factors have a direct impact on beer and on beer’s flavor.

The basic ingredients for beer are barley, hops, yeast, and water. If the water has certain combinations of chemicals, minerals, or any other variant, not only can the water impart these flavors directly into the beer, but it can also have reactions with the other ingredients.

A perfect historical examination of this comes from the India Pale Ale style of beer that many of us have come to know and love. Back in jolly ol’ England when this style was growing in popularity, the main hub brewing this style was Burton-on-Trent. This area boasted a water supply that was much higher in calcium and sulfates and thus imparted more of a firm bitterness and dry finish to IPAs than the beer of other breweries. When other breweries tried to brew this style elsewhere, they were unable to achieve the same taste due to the difference in the water available. Thus, many breweries at the time, and some still today, began to “Burtonize” their water, adding these missing ingredients.

Water can be a very tricky ingredient to examine on its own; after all, it does taste like water, and unless something is off about it, it can be difficult to tell the difference. However, as an ingredient in beer, it can be a bit more discerning to pick apart.

Some breweries, American and otherwise, brew the traditional IPA and will “Burtonize” the water. Examples of these are: Fuller Smith & Turner, Fuller’s India Pale Ale; Southampton Publick House, Burton IPA; and Brooklyn Brewery, Brooklyn East India Pale Ale.

There is also one standout brewery when it comes to tasting a difference in the water source, and that brewery is England’s Samuel Smith Old Brewery. The brewery was established in 1758 and still draws water from the original well dug when the brewery first opened. That well is its only source for water used in the brewing process, and its cleanliness is evident in every one of Smith’s fantastic beers. Some standout beers from Samuel Smith Old Brewery that highlight this clean water bill are Famous Taddy Porter, India Ale, Organic Chocolate Stout, Oatmeal Stout, and Yorkshire Stingo.