I think I’m somewhat in the minority with respect to the homebrewing community, but I believe that water chemistry is criminally under talked about. After fermentation temperature control and yeast, I think it’s next in line to make killer beer. And it’s gotten such a rap online that people are terrified of it. This is partially because it’s an extremely complex topic that very few people fully understand, but if you can get a few basic concepts down and don’t get bogged down in the technical and complicated side of it, it’s pretty simple to improve your beer.
This isn’t meant to be an in depth analysis and explanation of water chemistry in brewing. If you want that, I highly, highly recommend Water from John Palmer and Colin Kaminski, braukaiser.com and a variety of forums including /r/homebrewing and HomeBrewTalk. Brewing water is a topic that you can spend hours and days and weeks on and still not fully understand it. I find it’s best to not get too bogged down in the science behind it and know just enough to get by. This is more meant to be a quick reference guide for myself and a way to wrap my head around this complicated subject and hopefully other people will benefit as well.
To me, water chemistry is about mash pH and a select few minerals which can accent crispness, hop character, malt character and overall quality.
First things first you need the content of your water. I asked my city for a water report and received mine back. It looks like this:
After a lot of reading, I found that all I need to know from this is calcium, magnesium, alkalinity, pH, sodium, chlorine and sulfate. I don’t have some of those, so I assumed 0 when entering into my spreadsheet. I use BrewCipher, which VikeMan on Beer Advocate made. It draws from a few other places to make a spreadsheet that I find easier and cleaner to use than anything else. I’ve checked the water numbers against Bru’n Water and they are always essentially the same.
The things my spreadsheet needs to be inputted are Ca, Mg, Na, Cl, SO4, HCO3 and pH. These are the things I worry about when I’m brewing and here’s a quick rundown of why.
Calcium (Brewing range 50-200 ppm)
Lowers pH, promotes clarity, flavor and stability. Needed for alkaline water to drop pH. Too much can inhibit yeast performance. Flavor neutral, can reduce sour perception of magnesium. Works in conjunction with magnesium to define your hardness (temporary can be boiled off, permanent cannot, this is a more in-depth subject than what I’m going into here)
Magnesium (Brewing range 0-40 ppm)
Similar to calcium, less effective in lowering pH. Yeast nutrient. Laxative in higher amounts (>125 ppm).
Sodium (Brewing range 0-100 ppm)
Lower levels generates a cleaner flavor in beer. 70-150 ppm rounds out flavors and accentuates sweetness of the malt, especially in conjunction with chloride. High sodium and high sulfate can be harsh/sour/bitter.
Chloride (Brewing range 0-200 ppm)
Accentuates malt sweetness and fullness. >250 ppm can be salty, >300 ppm can affect yeast health/fermentation. Can be minerally or salty when combined with sulfate or sodium in high amounts.
Sulfate (Brewing range 0-400 ppm)
Accentuates hop bitterness (drier and more crisp). >400 ppm can make the bitterness astringent and unpleasant. Can be added but not readily removed.
Bicarbonate sort of aka alkalinity (Brewing range 0-?? ppm)
Has the biggest impact on mash pH. Basically, higher alkalinity means you have to add more stuff to lower the pH into range. You could read for hours on this subject (and you should), but for now, I’ll stop.
One of the main reasons we care about these ions is because of mash pH. Why do we care about mash pH? Let’s let braukaiser.com explain
“A commonly accepted optimal range for mash pH is 5.2 - 5.7 with 5.5 being optimal for starch conversion activity but many authors report wort and beer quality benefits if the pH is lowered into the 5.2 - 5.4 range [Kunze, 2007][Narziss, 2005]. Kunze in particular lists the following benefits for a mash pH as low as 5.2. Since it is a good and fairly comprehensive list I cited it here. Some of these benefits listed will be explained in the following sections [Kunze, 2007]:
- The enzymatic activity in the mash is increased as all important enzymes get activated. (except for alpha amylase which starts to suffer at a pH below 5.6)
- The extract yield (efficiency) is improved
- The protein coagulation and precipitation is improved (improved break formation)
- The run-off speed is improved
- The color increase during the wort boil is reduced
- Better trub precipitation and faster pH drop lead to faster fermentation and greater attenuation of the beer.
- The taste of the beer is more rounded, fuller and softer. The beer is crisper, more fresh and shows more character.
- The hop bitterness is more pleasant and doesn't linger
- The foam is more stable and denser
- The color of the beer is lighter
- Mash oxidation is reduced since the main culprit, the lipoxigenase enzyme, doesn't work well at low mash pH conditions
- Haze stability is improved
- Susceptibility to microbial spoilage is reduced through lower beer pH beer spoilage organism don't grow below a pH of 4.4
- Higher attenuation
Convinced yet that brewing water/mineral additions needs to be focused on more? Since I’ve paid attention to my mash pH and gotten it into the 5.3 range, my beer has been lighter in color and crisper than ever before. It seems like a lot of information but it’s been made so much easier due to the wide availability of spreadsheets you can find online. In case it’s still not 100% clear, I’ll walk you through how I set up my water.
My water doesn’t have much to it and a low alkalinity so when I’m formulating my water profile the first place I stop is Water. I look up my style, then the acceptable range for Ca, Cl, SO4 and alkalinity (HCO3). That’s it! Then I hop into my BrewCipher excel sheet and play around adding gypsum (CaSO4, lowers pH, adds Ca and SO4 ions), calcium chloride (CaCl2, lowers pH, adds Ca and Cl ions) and baking soda (NaHCO3, raises pH, adds Na and HCO3 ions). I’ll try to get my Ca, Cl, SO4, Na and HCO3 levels into the ranges given from Water all while keeping the pH around 5.3 (remember that study that said to get as close to 5.2 as possible without going below? I aim for 5.3 so I have some leeway).
If I can’t get the pH into range and the ions into range, I’ll add some lactic acid (liquid form, buy it from any homebrew site/shop) and add that to get it into range. Like I mentioned before, my water has low alkalinity so I don’t have to worry about my sparge water but if I did, I’d add lactic acid to get it to ~5.5 before sparging. You can also add more salts to the sparge or split your brewing salts evenly between mash and sparge to get your pH in line.
Voila. That’s it. On brew day I measure all of the minerals out, dump it in with the grain, give it a stir then let it sit for about 10-15 minutes before taking a sample, letting it cool and taking the pH. If my pH is in range, great! If it’s high, I add lactic acid, if it’s low I add baking soda, in 1 mL/1 g increments.
I have many thoughts and experiments planned on how to make my hoppy beers even better and some theories on the proper water needed to brew kick ass saisons ala Hill Farmstead (I wish), but that’s for another day.