Water is the stuff of life. Our bodies contain more than 60 percent of it, more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by it and beer is more than 90 percent water. That’s a lot of water floating around. How much does water affect the flavor of beer? Quite a lot.
Water is involved in three main characteristics of beer: PH, seasoning and off-flavors. PH in water is the expression of how acid or alkaline it is. Too much of either and beer made with that water will be unpalatable. A little, though, can be a good thing. (More on this later.)
Seasoning refers to the sulfate-to-chloride ratio—in other words, the salinity. Again, a little is OK, even good, but too much is a disaster. Off-flavors are caused by contaminants like chlorine and organic particles. Ground water, like that in Northeast Florida, is generally low in organic matter, but high in dissolved minerals—both can alter the flavor of a perfectly good beer.
Back to PH: Water in different parts of the world obviously has different PH. For instance, the Czech Republic’s Pilsen region is famous for its soft water and as the birthplace of pilsners; the U.K.’s Burton-upon-Trent’s renowned pale ales and IPAs are the result of the area’s extremely hard water. There are reasons why beers are uniquely suited to the water of a geographic location.
Low PH attenuates or heightens flavor, while high PH reduces the flavor profile. The result is dull suds. Over time, pilsen brewers have learned their area’s water makes flavors pop; they adjusted the profile so Pilsen is flavorful and crisp, but not crushingly bitter. The brewers of Burton-upon-Trent added more hops to counteract the dulling effect of its water’s high PH.
Now, seasoning. Without going too deep in science, suffice it to say that, depending on the ratio of sulfate-to-chloride in the water, the sweeter or drier the beer will taste. More chloride results in a sweeter, less bitter and meltier character; more sulfate gives a drier, hoppier balance.
Brewers’ woes are contaminants in the water. Even the smallest amount of particulate matter can harbor normally innocuous amounts of bacteria that could degrade even the most carefully brewed beer. This is why many brewers are meticulous about cleaning machinery and fastidious about water they use.
To many brewers, the only way to go is to strip all minerals from the brewing water and add them back in specific quantities to develop the water profile they want for the beer being brewed. This gives them complete control and minimizes disastrous results from untreated water. It also lets them duplicate water profiles of famous brewing areas like Dublin or Munich.
So the next time you pick up a pint of a favorite quaff, stop for a moment and consider the chemistry of the water that went into its production. Then take a sip and savor the stuff of life.