Saturday, February 2, 2013

Brewing Water

One of the big challenges I'm facing as I try to get this tiny brewery up and running is brewing with the local water. Water that is far from ideal when it comes to making good beer. The primary problem is the very high alkalinity as a result of the extreme hardness from bicarbonate, calcium and sodium levels. These mineral not only cause a high ph level that inhibits starch conversion in the mash but also leave the final beer tasting muddy, dull and uninspired.

To brew a good beer you have to start with a good mash ph level. A ph of between 5.2 and 5.5 will enhance the enzymatic action that occurs, converting starches to sugar and at the same time producing a fermentable wort. It allows for a good 'hot break' in the boil which later helps with beer clarity, yeast flocculation and enhanced hop flavor and utilization.

I wasn't sure what the water was like here in San Miguel except that it was hard. The local water company would not or could not provide me with any information about its make up. Using a chemical ph tester I could see that the ph was above 8 but this was the extent of my knowledge. So, I sent a sample off to Ward Labs to try and get to the bottom of this. The results came back quickly and although I'm not surprised with the analysis, I can now see exactly what I'm dealing with.
Dos Aves Brewing Water Profile

PH 8.2 with Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) Est. ppm 376

PPM _________________________________________

Sodium, NA 61 (this sodium level is pretty high)
Potassium, K 15
Calcium, Ca 56 (the calcium is relatively high, but less than London)
Magnesium, Mg 16 (pretty typical)
Total Hardness, CaCO3 207
Nitrate, NO3-N 8.9 (SAFE)
Sulfate, SO4-S 11 (very low)
Chloride, Cl 15
Carbonate, CO3 14
Bicarbonate, HCO3 321 (high and very similar to the Bicarbonate in Dublin)
Total Alkalinity, CaCO3 287
Total Phosphorus, P 0.75
Total Iron, Fe <0 p="">

As you see from the report above, I'm working with some pretty hard water. Although in comparison to some brewing water from around the world, much of the other components in the water are within reasonable levels.

Brewing water used for classic styles of beer
Water stripped to it's basics
Capturing brewing water
But, the hardness has to be dealt with if I'm going to make decent beer down here, and when I say decent I mean really good beer that other brewers in the area envy. So my approach is simple, dilute the tap water with treated water. In this case I'm using reverse osmosis filtered water. Water that is virtually stripped of all minerals. From the report you can see that the bicarbonates are at 321 parts per million and if you compare this to other brewing water around the world it is only exceeded by the water in Flanders and is almost identical to the waters of Dublin. But, if I substitute 50% of my brewing water with treated (R.O.) water I will drop the bicarbonate lever down to half or 160 ppm which is getting closer to a reasonable level and at the same time lower the ph. My level of dilution will naturally depend on the style of beer I'll be brewing. Lighter beers will receive a higher percentage of the treated or soft water where as the darker beers will require less. The reason for this is because the darker roasted grains in darker beers provide additional acid in the mash that will help drop the mash ph.

However, I also need to consider the other elements in the water when I dilute it. Some of these minerals may end up reduced to levels too low and I will need to add them back into solution to balance the water composition that is needed. Again, depending on the style of beer I'll be brewing. For instance, replacing the diminished calcium with gypsum, or adding back in epsom salt or calcium chloride. Fortunately there is a great water spread sheet available to guide me through what are the proper amounts of each of these minerals per beer style. It's called Bru'n Water and can be used to either compare your water to water from other parts of the world or compared to water used in particular beer styles.

The bottom line is that there are two elements that must be considered when your goal is to achieve a good mash ph. One is the brewing water composition and the other is the mash grain bill. The water provides the initial ph level and the grain bill will drop that level down depending on the grain color. The darker grain and the more you use of it, the more it will lower the ph of the mash.

I'm looking forward to tasting the beers that will be coming out of the fermentors in the near future. Everything brewed from this point on will have gone through some degree of water treatment and I have high expectations of getting clear, crisp and defined malt and hop qualities from the use of style specific water. I'll keep you posted.

How do you treat your water?

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