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Understanding Your Brewing Water - And Why

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I got into home brewing in February of 2010 when I brewed a small extract batch that came in a kit someone had given to me as a present. I was so excited because soon I would be brewing my very own beer at home. The only thought I gave to my brewing water was hoping I had enough of it mixed in with the malt extract to hit my target volume. Over the next three years I did expand my brewing skills to include steeping grains, liquid yeast, all grain full wort boils, all sorts of hopping schedules, making yeast starters and yeast washing. Which is pretty much the natural progression to advanced brewing.
Today I know how small differences in temperature, during various stages of the brewing process, influence the taste and quality of my finished beer. As an all grain brewer the most obvious are mash and fermentation temperatures. Too high a fermentation temperature encourages the production of fusel alcohols and too low a temperature leads to an increased lag phase, lower attenuation and the production of green apple and buttery off flavors.

When brewing all grain recipes a lower mash temperature produces wort that ferments into a thinner bodied higher alcohol beer and a higher temperature mash produces wort that ferments into fuller bodied sweeter tasting beer. In my fourth year of home brewing I dove into brewing water properties and discovered how they influence the fermentation characteristics of wort. I also learned how brewing water properties can easily be adjusted to significantly improve the flavor, taste, color and quality of all my beers. Who knew?

I started out by filtering water through a two stage carbon filter, filling the hot liquor tank and then mixing in a tablespoon of gypsum to increase hop flavor. I didn't realize that chlorine or chloramine in the brewing water worked against producing a beer with a crisp clean hop flavor. Instead their presence in brewing water muddied up both the hop and malt flavors producing a duller tasting beer. Chlorine can be boiled off, charcoal filtered out or will dissipate out of water if left uncovered overnight. Removing chloramine requires at minimum the addition of Campden tablets, be sure to buy Campden tablets that contain potassium metabisulphate and not the sodium metabisulphate tablets, leave those for the winemakers out there.

You can further improve the taste of your beer by increasing its malt flavor, while offsetting harsh bitterness, by adding a little calcium chloride and Epsom salt to the same filtered, chlorine and chloride free water. I think of brewing water as a way to brighten the color and taste of my beer, in much the same way a treble control is used to increase the brightness of music during playback. If you're really interested in learning more about creating the perfect brewing water profile visit the EZ Water Calculator site and download their free easy to use spreadsheet. It takes all the guesswork out of adjusting your water properties while keeping your additions within safe recommended ranges. There is a whole lot more to water chemistry, but you can begin to get your feet wet using just a few little tweaks and produce some really great beers.
Vince Feminella [aka: ScrewyBrewer]
[email protected]
For more from Vince "The Screwy Brewer" Feminella please be sure to visit his blog, or keep checking back in the coming weeks for more from this awesome brewer!
Although I live next to the Rocky Mountains, I don't have direct access to that crystal clear water. Of the brews that I have done, the water that I filtered through a charcoal filter produced the best tasting beer. When I got lazy and pulled directly from the tap, not as good. Water is the MAIN ingredient...
Vince, you mention that potassium metabisulphate and not the sodium metabisulphate Campden tablets should be used. I just realized that I bought sodium metabisulphate tablets. Will the sodium ones NOT eliminate chloramine? Or are there any other ill effects? Should I just forget about them and purchase the potassium tablets?
Considering I live in a place where our city water is a absurdly chlorinated, is there any suggestion beyond boiling to reduce that chlorination chemically? I know I can go get RO/distilled water to dilute/replace my city water if necessary, and boiling and then cooling takes too long with large volumes.
Great article, Vince. You were one of the first guys that I ran across when I first got my mr beer kit 3 years ago. It's funny how all of us have progressed in our brewing in a few years. Anyway, thanks for the knowledge you've passed on!
@FrozenOcean while all grain brewers benefit the most extract brewers can improve their beer too by removing chloride and chloramine from their brewing water.
@sancycling I prefer using the potassium metabisulphate blend because they don't introduce sodium into the water, but they both will remove chloramine.
@kgriffin before installing an RO filter in my brewroom I used a General Electric GXSL55R Dual Stage under sink filter, the filters, housing and faucet were included and cost a shade under $100. Carbon block filters are perfect for removing chlorine, how often they need to be replaced depends on the volume water treated, as an active brewer I replaced mine once a year.
I've heard there are couple of other ways of removing Chloramine. One is to add a zeolite chamber after a carbon filter. The carbon breaks the bond of chlorine and ammonia by removing chlorine. Zeolite then removes ammonnia. If you use are using a standard carbon filter chloramine will burn it out premature. One of the better ways is to use a catalytic carbon. It will remove chloramines alone. You can get it from companies that sell r.o. filters and parts. I would consult with them if you are using it by itself to make sure it is suitable to use for drinking water without an R.O. I like using an R.O. because it will remove even more than chloramines if set up right.
@okiedog I bought that hydrometer from the Mr. Beer web store back in 2010 and it's managed to remain unbroken after all this time, including hundred's of batches and three moves worth of packing and unpacking.
Thanks for the write up. I'm getting in my 4th year soon and I'm also on the water profile step. I'm looking forward to stepping up my quality!
@bobeer good to hear that. It's amazing how many brewers wait until they've eventually run out of other things to try before they start paying closer attention to their brewing water.
I'd like to try this, but I don't know where to get the equipment to test (and the chemicals to treat) the water. I've used our town's water (after leaving it out overnight to ditch the chlorine) which tastes good and seems to make good beer. Maybe some fellow Canadian brewers could point me in the right direction?
I have used 1 gallons bottles of Ice Mountain Spring water for my last couple batches of beer. I assumed it was clean, chlorine/chloramine free. Am I assuming incorrectly?
Thanks for this article! A great first step to making quality beers. I'm starting to go into competition and finding this is the major difference between 4th place and 1st. Does anyone have any suggestions on further reading on the topic? Or, has anyone had experience in competition?
Also, I should note, I just brewed my annual Rocktobrefest last night - I live in Seattle where the water is super soft so I added some calcium chloride to enhance the clarity and flavor profile.
@jeneliz I've written several articles on the topic, you may want to check out the first installment at http://www.thescrewybrewer.com/2014/03/brewing-water-demystified-part-i.html
@Due51 the bottlers of your water should have the spec sheet of what is in it, I'd start with them first. For the purest water use reverse osmosis or distilled water, but then you'll have to carefully adjust the pH and add in your salts and minerals to taste.
<< Will the sodium ones NOT eliminate chloramine? Or are there any other ill effects?>>
IMHO...it doesn't really matter which one you use. It's the metabisulfite anion you are after. The tag along cation (K or Na) is just a residual addition. Since so little metabisulfite is needed, any residual sodium is negligible.
Disclaimer: I am not a chemist...but I play one on TV.
Todd K.
Homebrewing since 1981
Here are my notes from experimenting with metabisulfites for chloramine removal. This was done on Houston Main System tap water which has fairly typical levels of chloramine.
Sodium Metabisulfite
1 Campden tab = 686 mg
686 mg / 20 gal leaves a residual sulfite taste
3/4 of this still dechlorinates with less after taste
2/3 of this is not enough
So...~0.5 grams / 20 gal is optimal
@toddk63 thanks for sharing. I guess without breaking out the chemistry notebooks and reviewing the Lewis Structures, its one of those matters of personal preference, whether to use sodium metabisulphate or potassium metabisulphate.