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Old 02-05-2013, 03:18 AM   #1
kenlenard
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Default Hey Martin! A question about bicarbonate

I have been on an odyssey over the past couple of years attempting to get the right water profiles for various styles. I recently found out that some bulk RO water I was using was not as low in TDS and bicarbonate as I thought so from now on I will be using distilled water to dilute my bicarbonate-heavy tap water. Martin Brungard had commented on a Pils thread in the recipe forum and it made me think of bicarb and what it actually does when you make a pale or amber-colored beer. From experience, I know it creates a harsh finish in the beer. Another guess is that it messes with your ability to get the beer clear. The beers where I have lowered the bicarb level with distilled water seem to come out clearer. Also, it seems that bicarb can wreak havoc on head formation and stability. The lower the bicarb, the better, cleaner and clearer the beer becomes, IMO. What other effects does a high bicarb level have on the final beer?

Ps. The bicarb level in my source water is 138ppm and I make a lot of beers between 5 and 12 SRM. Cheers.

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Old 02-05-2013, 04:47 AM   #2
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Ken, rather than paraphrase I'm going to quote from Greg Noonan's "Brewing Lager Beer".

"Carbonate is a strongly alkaline buffer (which) goes into solution as hydrogen carbonates...Carbonate resists increases in the mash acidity by neutralizing acids as they are formed. (It keeps the pH high, in other words) It also hinders gelatinization of starch by alpha amylase, inpedes trub flocculation during the cold break and increases risk of contamination in the ferment. It contributes a harsh, bitter flavor overwhelming in delicate lagers...Preferably, carbonate should be less than 50ppm when pale malt...is used."

So this pretty much matches your brewing experiences.

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Old 02-05-2013, 01:11 PM   #3
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When this comes up I always suggest that people take a glass of water, add some baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) to it and taste. Do you like that taste? I certainly don't. If you have high bicarbonate levels in your beer you will have that unpleasant taste underlying everything. This really came through to me when my wife bought us a house in the country. The well is loaded with bicarbonate and at first I couldn't drink it. I was going to the store and buying bottled water which I thought tasted awful too. Then it occurred to me to read the label. Some of these bottled waters are loaded with bicarbonate as well and I must therefore conclude that some people like that taste. That's why ask whether or not you like it rather than declaring you won't.

Now the OP and Greg Noonan both blame carbonate and bicarbonate for bad things in beer and I don't doubt, based on the taste tests, that there is some truth to this but there is more to it than the action of bicarbonate ion (there is very, very little carbonate in brewing water and even less in beer). Bicarbonate is actually an indicator of the pH. If there are equal concentrations of bicarbonate ion and carbonic acid molecules in a water/wort/beer the pH is 6.38 which is too high. It doesn't matter if there are 2 mmol/L of each or 1 or 0.1 the pH is still too high. (The fact that the 1:1 number is 6.8 says that bicarbonate is not strongly alkaline at all but it is a base nevertheless).

At a proper mash pH, lets call it 5.4 for purposes of discussion, there should be 10 times as much carbonic as bicarbonate. Since carbonic is dissolved CO2 gas and that is of limited solubility it departs the solution at proper mash pH and you are left with very little bicarbonate when pH is set correctly. Thus if you bring the mash to proper pH you will have disposed of the bicarbonate by converting it to CO2 gas. If your water has high bicarbonate it takes a lot of acid to effect this conversion. If your water's bicarbonate is lower it takes less but acid is still required because base malt is also a buffer which tries to control mash pH to a higher level than desired. So it is not enough to dispose of bicarbonate. You must supply more acid to get proper mash pH.

If you brew with distilled or RO water and don't supply acid your beer will still taste muddy, take longer to clear, lager more slowly etc. even though no bicarbonate is present. IOW bicarbonate does not deserve all the blame. It is really pH that needs to be attended to. But attending to bicarbonate is part of controlling pH.

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Old 02-05-2013, 01:58 PM   #4
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Thanks guys... much appreciated. BigEd: I have read that paragraph before but it's been awhile. AJ: All I know is that I can brew with 100% filtered tap water (138pp bicarb) and get my mash pH correct (by using CaCl, CaSO4 and also lactic acid if necessary) for a pale beer and end of with a harsh, unsmooth, tangy finish in the beer. As I continue to brew with water that is lower in bicarbonate, I continue to keep an eye on proper mash pH, calcium and chloride levels, etc. and I expect things to improve. My guess is that you're saying that lowering bicarb alone is not the answer... only if it's combined with keeping proper mash pH and proper ion levels for the style will it make a difference. To take that one step further, I'm also strongly considering some amount of dilution for beers in the 7 to 12 SRM range as well as pale beers. I made an SRM 12 beer last year and for whatever the reason, I decided to use 50% distilled water and just bring the other numbers (Ca, Cl, SO4) back to where they were before the dilution and the beer came out fantastically smooth and clear as well. Cheers & thanks again.

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Old 02-05-2013, 02:12 PM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by kenlenard View Post
My guess is that you're saying that lowering bicarb alone is not the answer... only if it's combined with keeping proper mash pH and proper ion levels for the style will it make a difference.
That's it.
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Old 02-05-2013, 02:20 PM   #6
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Bicarbonate is not a culprit when it is properly paired with an acid. That reaction produces H2O and CO2, neither of which are a problem. However, the issues rise quickly when excess bicarbonate exists in wort or there isn't enough acidity in the wort to reduce pH into a desirable range. When the wort pH is high, color rises, hop utilization and tannin extraction rises...and flavor suffers.

Bicarbonate is a weak base and many of the acids produced in wort and beer are weak also. So their reaction (neutralization) is not guaranteed. I'm not a fan of AJ's example of mixing baking soda in water since its likely that it is mixed at an excessive concentration in the glass and there are few acids in that water to neutralize the bicarbonate, as there are in wort. However, I don't fully doubt that bicarbonate has a flavor impact in water.

It is a balancing act. As AJ said, you have to attend to excessive bicarbonate in brewing water. Ken, you are effectively using one option to reduce bicarbonate (alkalinity) in your brewing water. However, I feel that you are ignoring a simpler and less expensive option, acidification. The modest bicarbonate level in that water should be no problem for phosphoric acid use and only a possible problem for lactic acid.

Bicarbonate is what I feel is the number one problem for most brewers. Tailoring that level to match the grist and reducing it to low level in sparging water makes all the difference in brewing. The rest of brewing water chemistry becomes nuance once the bicarbonate issue is addressed.

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Old 02-05-2013, 02:55 PM   #7
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Thanks Martin. We have discussed the neutralization of bicarbonate with acid in the past. I do not have phosphoric acid right now, only 88% lactic acid. On my next trip to the supply house, I may pick up some phosphoric acid. Can you shine a light on the best way to use it? If I were making a pale beer with 100% of my filtered tap water and added some CaCl (maybe 2-3g in the mash of 4 gallons) and my calcium, chloride and sulfate numbers were where I wanted them, my pH would probably be very close... within a few tenths of a point. At that point I would use my lactic acid to get it in the range and call it a day. But my pale-colored beers were not coming out smooth with 100% filtered tap water so my thought was that the level of bicarbonate in the water was causing a harsh character in the beer. In that case, how would I employ the phosphoric acid? Also, how do you determine how much bicarbonate has been 'neutralized' by the acid? Cheers and thanks again.

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Old 02-05-2013, 03:46 PM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by mabrungard View Post
Bicarbonate is not a culprit when it is properly paired with an acid. That reaction produces H2O and CO2, neither of which are a problem.
Bicarbonate properly paired with acid is bicarbonate removed (as CO2). The art lies in determining how to dispose of (remove) the bicarbonate, from one point of view, or from the other, set the pH properly in which case the bicarbonate has been removed.


Quote:
Originally Posted by mabrungard View Post
Bicarbonate is a weak base and many of the acids produced in wort and beer are weak also. So their reaction (neutralization) is not guaranteed.
Some of the acids are quite strong, some not so. But it should be clear that a mix of malts that has a DI pH of 5.7 is not going to pull water at pH 7 below 5.7 even if it has no bicarbonate.

Quote:
Originally Posted by mabrungard View Post
I'm not a fan of AJ's example of mixing baking soda in water since its likely that it is mixed at an excessive concentration in the glass and there are few acids in that water to neutralize the bicarbonate, as there are in wort.
Then they can go to the store and look for one of the bottled waters that has high bicarbonate content and taste that. I want them to taste bicarbonate. They can't do that unless there is some there to taste. If then put bicarbonate in water and reduce pH to 4.5 then there won't be much bicarbonate to taste. The point is that they need to reduce pH to the point where that is true i.e. most of it is gone. The higher they allow their pH to be the more bicarbonate there will be. That is, as pointed out in earlier posts, only one of the reasons to reduce pH.


Quote:
Originally Posted by mabrungard View Post
However, I feel that you are ignoring a simpler and less expensive option, acidification. The modest bicarbonate level in that water should be no problem for phosphoric acid use and only a possible problem for lactic acid.
Phosphoric acid is fine unless calcium levels go above the value where calcium precipitates. This doesn't mean you can't still use phosphoric - just that your calcium may not be where you think it is.

Quote:
Originally Posted by mabrungard View Post
Bicarbonate is what I feel is the number one problem for most brewers. Tailoring that level to match the grist and reducing it to low level in sparging water makes all the difference in brewing. The rest of brewing water chemistry becomes nuance once the bicarbonate issue is addressed.
Bicarbonate is, no doubt, enemy number one but, also as noted above, defeating it (i.e. by removing it completely by RO) is not sufficient. One must also acidify the grist to a proper pH.
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Old 02-05-2013, 04:49 PM   #9
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I think bicarbonate's effect of the taste of the beer has more to do with its ability to raise mash and boil pH than the mere presence of bicarbonate ions. At beer pH there are virtually no bicarbonate ions left.

High mash and boil pH can cause the harsh flavors and lingering haze described by Ken.

Kai

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Old 02-05-2013, 05:05 PM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Kaiser View Post
I think bicarbonate's effect of the taste of the beer has more to do with its ability to raise mash and boil pH than the mere presence of bicarbonate ions. At beer pH there are virtually no bicarbonate ions left.

High mash and boil pH can cause the harsh flavors and lingering haze described by Ken.

Kai
Thank you Kai. I also saw the effects of high mash and boil pH on your site where you had two different worts (one correct pH, one high) next to each other and I agree with your statetment... the difference is remarkable. Probably not just in appearance either but in taste. I think the bottom line for me is to determine how much dilution should take place (more, possibly up to 90% for pale beers like a Czech Pils and less, maybe 25% for beers in the 7-12 SRM range), make sure my other ion levels are reasonable, make sure the mash/sparge/pre-boil wort pH is correct and then pray to the Gods of beer that everything else is in line. My experience tells me that even amber-colored beers can benefit from a reduction in bicarbonate. Thanks again!
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