How To Perfect Your Brewing Water Profile

Brewing Water

New brewers often overlook brewing water, and it is no surprise as to why. There are so many variables you must work through first, such as malt, hop, and yeast selections that the water you use may seem inconsequential. Make no mistake, your water profile can be the difference between a world-class, gold medal winner and an undrinkable beer. While you can dive deep into the chemistry of your brewing water there is generally no need to. In this post we will walk you through all the steps you need to take in order to optimize your brewing water, starting with a discussion of the major ions themselves.

Major Ions

While there are numerous ions found in all water sources, there are only a couple of major ones we focus on for brewing. These include:

  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Sodium
  • Sulfate
  • Chloride
  • Bicarbonate

Each of these has varying importance and differing benefits. We have put together a table of these ions with their pros and cons, along with their recommended range.

Table of Ions

Ion Pros ConsLevels
Calcium1. Lowers mash pH, which is critical for alpha- and beta-amylase
2. Increase extract yield
3. Less astringency
4. Enhances yeast flocculation and sedimentation in fermentation
5. Improves clarification, stability, and flavor
1. Too much calcium removes phosphate, which is a vital yeast nutrient
2. High concentrations lower extraction of hops
3. High concentrations lead to harsh, thin flavor
40-100 ppm
Magnesium1. Benefits yeast metabolism1. More astringent bitterness0-30 ppm
Sodium1. Enhances perceived sweetness
2. Pleasant round sweetness when paired with chloride
1. Creates an unpleasant harshness when combined with sulfate0-100 ppm
Sulfate1. Positively impacts protein and starch degradation
2. Promotes mash filtration and trub sedimentation
3. Accentuates hop bitterness
1. Can impart a harsh, salty, and unpleasant flavor in beer if used in excess
2. This effect is worsened by potassium and sodium
10-250 ppm
Chloride1. Accentuates maltiness, sweetness, and fullness1. Too much can be cloying and harmful to yeast activity50-150 ppm
Bicarbonate1. Can act as a pH buffer for beers with high amounts of roasted grains1. Can raise pH, causing less fermentable wort and difficulty with wort filtration
2. Harsh bitterness
Varies
Table of Major Brewing Water Ions

As shown above, these ions can have some major impacts on your beer. And, with levels as low as 10 ppm, it takes very little to make a huge difference. The desired ppm of these ions will vary based on color and flavor requirements. For example, a malty English beer will have higher amounts of chloride to enhance the maltiness, sweetness, and fullness. On the other hand, an American IPA will have high levels of sulfate to accentuate hop bitterness.

Now that you know what the ions are, let’s move on to how to use them.

Hard and Soft Water

Before jumping into water profile adjustments, we need to talk about the different types of water – hard water and soft water.

Hard water simply means that the water has a high mineral, or ion, content, while soft water has low levels of these minerals. Adding the total amount of bicarbonate, carbonate, sulfate, chloride, and nitrate anions together will give you what is called the total hardness, which we discuss more below. If you want to do a quick test to get an idea of whether your water is hard or soft, wash your hands with soap. Hard water will struggle to form a good lather, while soft water will easily lather.

The total hardness of the water can be further broken down into permanent hardness and temporary hardness. Permanent hardness is caused by non-carbonate salts including sulfates, chlorides, and nitrates of calcium or magnesium, and it cannot be precipitated by boiling. Because of this, these ions must be removed in other ways, such as filtration or ion exchange. Temporary hardness is the carbonate or bicarbonate salts of calcium and magnesium and will precipitate out through boiling. 

Hard and Soft Water in Brewing

Generally speaking, soft water is more suitable for brewing than hard water. Hard water can cause scale to develop on stainless steel appliances, which will reduce the efficiency of heating elements and encourage microbiological contamination in fermentation vessels. In our experience, it is much easier to add salts to your water than it is to remove them.

Ions can be removed by water-softening systems through ion exchange. These systems have sets of columns that contain resin beads that have both positive and negative ion exchange sites. The water flows through these columns and exchanges the ions you do not want with ions you do want. This requires a lot of additional equipment and can be expensive if you do not already have a home water softening system. If you have hard water and are unable to use a water-softening system, we recommend using low-mineral or bottled water. We use a reverse osmosis (RO) system to filter out all minerals and then add in the salts that we want to use. This filtration is done by forcing the water through membranes to trap up to 98% of all dissolved minerals.

In addition to removing minerals, if you are using a municipal supply that uses chlorine as its sterilizing agent, you will need to remove it. Chlorine is very harmful to yeast health and has negative impacts on the flavor. You can remove chlorine by running it through a carbon filter, or by adding Campden tablets at a rate of 1 tablet per 20 gallons of water.

Understanding Your Brewing Water Profile

Now that you have a basic understanding of the composition of brewing water, it’s time to figure out your own water’s composition. The best way to do this, in our opinion, is to send a sample of your water to a lab for analysis. We used the company Ward Laboratories when we did our test. We chose them because they have a kit specifically designed for brewing water. They will send you the kit to take your sample, therefore all you have to do is fill it and send it back. They will email you the results.

The base test costs $47.50 and gives you readings for bicarbonate, calcium, carbonate, chloride, iron, magnesium, nitrate, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, sulfate, total hardness, total alkalinity, electrical conductivity, pH, and total dissolved solids. You can add on additional tests for an extra cost, but it is unnecessary. Once you have your results, you are ready to start making adjustments.

Adjusting Your Brewing Water Profile

You are finally ready to start making alterations to your water profile. If you are worried about what the chemistry and calculations are we have great news for you – there is an amazing free software that will do all of it for you. It is called Bru’n Water and has completely revamped our own beer recipes. Bru’n Water was developed by Dr. Martin Brungard, who is a professional engineer with a specialization in water. He is also an accomplished homebrewer and beer judge with over 20 years of experience.

It is downloadable as an excel file and comes with all the instructions you need. With it, you can input your grain bill and adjust various salt additions to calculate pH and the major ions instantaneously. Dr. Brungard has included the ideal water profile for all styles of beer so you will have ranges to aim for. We cannot stress enough how helpful this software is.

Closing

While brewing water is not as glamorous as malts, hops, and yeast, it is just as important as the other Reinheitsgebot ingredients. Following the steps in this article will make your lagers crisper, the bitterness on your IPAs sharper, your English beers maltier, and much, much more. If you have any questions, feel free to look at some of our beer recipes. We include our water profile for each beer.

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