by Alain Schepers Beer sommelier and blogger at Bierista.nl
What's beer without water?The most undervalued ingredient
What’s beer without water? Hardly anything at all. Beer contains just a small percentage of alcohol and a small quantity of other substances. It’s mostly made up of water. That’s not exactly a shocking revelation, but water is such an obvious ingredient that we often forget about it. We can talk for hours about the different types of hops, the flavours of special malts and the influence of yeast, but water...
You would think that there would be plenty of water on our blue planet. There is, but it might not always be that way. Clean freshwater is becoming ever more scarce, so it’s important to be economical with water. Many brewers recognise the seriousness of this problem and have been trying to reduce their water use for years.
Not long ago, you needed 6 to 8 litres of water to brew 1 litre of beer. These days, a large, modern brewery only needs 3 to 4 litres.
And yet, reducing water use is still high on the agenda.
Monopoly on water?
Large beer brewers such as AB-InBev and the soft drink giant, Coca-Cola, are preparing for the predicted scarcity of clean water. The largest beer company in the world owns numerous water sources. When water becomes more scarce, at least AB-InBev won’t have to worry about it.
From a commercial point of view, it makes sense. However, it raises the question of what this means for the beer consumer and the competition. Only a handful of beer companies are responsible for half of the world’s beer production. When water becomes more scarce, the companies that have their own water sources will have a huge advantage.
Role of water in beer
These are not the thoughts that come to mind when we’re drinking beer. We just want it to taste good. But water is absolutely essential to your beer drinking experience. It has an important role in determining the beer’s flavour.
In the Netherlands alone, there are huge differences in water hardness. For example, the water in South Limburg is completely different to the water found in Winterswijk, in the far east of the country. The water in Limburg is soft and it contains very few minerals. However, the tap water in Winterwijk is hard and chalky.
Just like washing machines, brewing equipment can also be affected by limescale. It’s a challenge for brewers in areas with hard water to keep limescale from building up on their brewing equipment. These deposits are not good for the equipment and have a negative effect on the beer.
Most brewers use tap water to fill their kettles. If you asked two brewers, one in the Hague (Kompaan) and one in Groningen (Bax), to brew the exact same beer, you would discover obvious differences in the flavour of the end products. The reason for this is water composition.
Hard water for India Pale Ale
These days, brewers have many methods they can use to control the composition of water. One example is the pH level — the acidity of the water — which is an important factor for the brewer. A pH level of between 5.1 and 5.5 is the optimum range for the brewing process. If the pH level is sub-optimal, the brewer can adjust it by adding acids such as hydrochloric acid or lactic acid.
Previously, brewers could do very little to change the water composition. They had to make do with what they had. This is how brewers discovered that hard water is ideal for brewing more strongly hopped beers. The minerals in the water — predominantly calcium in hard water — enhance the flavours of the hops.
The British town of Burton-on-Trent is famous for being the birthplace of the India Pale Ales, or IPAs. There’s a good reason why the IPAs that were brewed here were so incredibly flavourful. There are few places on earth where the water is as high in minerals as the water in Burton-on-Trent.
A pilsner brewed in Burton-on-Trent wouldn't have tasted half as good as the Czech pilsners. Czech water contains very few minerals and this soft water is the perfect base for a Pilsner. Therefore, historically, water has played a huge role in determining where the different beer styles were invented.