Basic Brewing Water Chemistry

Basic Brewing Water Chemistry - Chris Schaefer

Getting your brewing water right will help you along if you are on a quest to make the tastiest beer you can. Keeping it simple is a good thing if you are starting out and still learning the brewing process. Tastier beer with minimal effort, nice.

Brewing Salts

There are a few salts that you can add to your brewing water that will cover most beers you are likely to make. They are Calcium Chloride, Calcium Sulphate and Calcium Carbonate. Each of those salts add a different character to your beer. 

-    Calcium Chloride enhances maltiness so you would use more of it in a malt driven beer like an amber or a brown. 

-    Calcium Sulphate enhances bitterness and also makes your beer seem a bit dryer so you would use more of that in a USIPA or similar. 

-    Calcium Carbonate changes a beer to be less acidic so some can be used in dark beers such as a stout to counter the acidity from the dark grains. 

It is good to get at least 50ppm (50 parts per million) of Calcium for most beers. If you are using soft water like Melbourne water or rain water you could do the following. To get the 50ppm you simply use about 1 level teaspoon of salts per 20ish litre batch of beer. Add about half of that teaspoon of salts to the water before mashing, give it a good stir, and add the other half at the start of the boil, no need to stir that addition.

If the water you are using has more calcium in it you could use rain water or cut back the salt addition so you still end up with about 50ppm of calcium.

How much you use changes proportionally with batch size. For double the batch size, double the salts and so on.

For an American Ale or USIPA you could use two thirds of a teaspoon Calcium Sulphate and one third of a teaspoon Calcium Chloride. For a brown ale you could use all Calcium Chloride or mostly Calcium Chloride and a little Calcium Sulphate. For a stout you could use half a teaspoon of Calcium Carbonate and half a teaspoon of Calcium Chloride.

pH

Besides your 50ppm of calcium, pH is another important water variable. You probably know pH is used to measure acidity. We have found with soft Melbourne water adding some acid helps get your pH level in a good range for all light beers and even amber and brown beers. Darker beers such as a stout have enough acidity. If you want to keep the acid addition simple, for a 20ish litre batch of light beer - brown beer, add about 1.5ml phosphoric acid to your hot liquor (the water you put your grains into). This is approximate but will help get your mash and wort pH levels into a good range.

pH meters are not so expensive these days so grab one if you want to have a bit more accuracy with pH levels. For many beers a good mash pH range is about 5.2 to 5.5 and closer to the 5.2 is preferred.

For those who want to keep it simple for now, the info above should keep you going.

A bit more complicated

Water for beer can become more interesting when you understand that beer styles evolved in certain areas because of the water profile. Here are a couple of examples. The Pilsen region in the Czech Republic is famous for the Pilsner style of beer that tastes great brewed with the soft water there. Dublin in Ireland is where Dry Stouts evolved because the water is high in bicarbonates which makes it difficult to make a light coloured beer. Make a dark beer with a similar water profile can work beautifully.

You can find water profiles of famous brewing areas online. If you end up being interested in water profiles you can try to replicate the famous water profiles for your brew. If you have soft water like Melbourne water or use rain water or have access to reverse osmosis water you will have water which has low levels of minerals which is great to build your target profile. For example, if you are making an Irish Stout you might want to add salts to make up your water profile the same as the Dublin water profile.

Be careful, sometimes adding salts to match the water in these cities will not produce the desired effect. Take it gently.

There are brewing water chemistry calculators available – Brewers Friend is one. You can add your local water profile to the calculator and work out the salts you can add to make up the water profile you would like to use.

How good is it that? These days with our knowledge of chemistry we can now make up a water profile as we want it rather than being stuck with the water supply that we have and it’s limitations of the beer styles that can be brewed with it!

If you get excited by water and geek out, enjoy. It’s not for everyone so you probably won’t be able to have a great chat with your partner about it when you get home or even with your brewing buddies when you are having a beer. It will definitely help upping the quality of your beers though!

As you can imagine there is way more to water chemistry than this short article. If you have a need for some great in depth info about water chemistry you could have a read of John Palmer’s Water book

I have spoken with a few guys who like learning about brewing water and a lot of them agree that a good approach is read up as much as you like while you are interested then when your brain is maxed out with water info have a break. Break for a week or a month or many months then have another read until your brain is maxed out. Rinse and repeat until you are happy with your water knowledge.