Monday, July 26, 2010

Brewing Water Chemistry is Your Friend

I recently gave a presentation at my homebrewing club on practical brewing water chemistry.  The goal of the talk was to provide an overview of the key aspects of water chemistry that impact the brewing process and what ways they can be manipulated to make improve the resulting beer.  This included several specific steps and procedures that homebrewers can take before and during brew day.

Jeff and I figured this information would be of interest to our viewers and I have listed the speaking notes below.  Please keep in mind that adjusting water is a relatively advanced brewing technique.  Brewers who are starting out should focus on sanitation and fermentation control first before working with water, because these elements make a much greater impact on brewing quality and consistency.

1.      Why should you care about changing your brewing water?
o       You can make excellent beer without worrying about it at all
o       However, water adjustments can help fine tune your beers and make good beer even better
o       Understanding how your mash works, for all-grain brewers can be important
o       Many people have trouble brewing beers at ends of the color spectrum, which can be due to   water hardness (stouts versus pilsners)
2.      Where to start?
o       If you are an extract brewer, you will likely want to do nothing, or if you have hard water, dilute with reverse osmosis (RO) water
§         Extract already contains concentrated ions from when the wort was concentrated
§         It is difficult to know what the concentrations of those ions are, so you certainly don’t want to add more through brewing salts
§         Trial and error, along with getting used to a specific brand of extract, is your best way forward
o       Assuming you brew all-grain, your first step is figuring out your waters brewing ion concentration
§         Without knowing this, it is hard to proscribe anything more than a generic recommendations (use 1 tsp of gypsum for hoppy beer)
§         Your water report may provide the key information
§         I got a report from Ward Laboratories for $16.50
·        Realize that your water chemistry will likely change over the year
§         Key ions include: Calcium, Magnesium, Sulfate, Chloride, Residual Alkalinity (RA) (from Bicarbonate or Total Alkalinity)
·        RA acts as a buffer to neutralize the acidic nature of mashes that use darker roasted malts
o       Figure out some key elements of the beer you are trying to brew, including its color and whether it is hoppy, neutral, or malty
3.      Brewing salts
o       In general, we adjust brewing water for ion concentration using brewing salts
§         Salts are cheap and they are an easy method of transferring the ion we want
§         You can also use acids or bases directly, but this is less common
o       Chalk (calcium carbonate – CaCO3) – used mostly for calcium – can reduce RA
o       Gypsum (calcium sulfate – CaSO4) – used for sulfate – can reduce RA
o       Calcium Chloride (CaCl2) – used for chloride – can reduce RA
o       Epsom Salts (magnesium sulfate – MgSO4) – used for magnesium
o       Baking Soda (sodium bicarbonate – NaHCO3) – used for RA
o       Other products, like Five Star’s 5.2 stabilizer, can provide basic buffering capacity to the mash
4.      Procedure for adjusting water on brew day (and before)
o       Planning
§         You are adjusting for ALL the water you are using on brew day (mash, sparge, and any kettle additions)
·        Evaporation is considered in this already, so plan on dosing all the water you have
§         Figure out your chloride to sulfate ratio (this has the most impact on flavor)
·        It is the RATIO that is important, so you need to know where you are starting from
·        0.0 to 0.5 Cl:SO4 ratio will be a very bitter beer
·        0.5 to 0.75 Cl:SO4 ratio will be a moderately bitter beer
·        0.75 to 1.25 Cl:SO4 ratio will be balanced malt/hop
·        1.25 to 1.5 Cl:SO4 ratio will favor the malt
·        1.5 to 2.0 Cl:SO4 ratio will be very malty
§         Shooting for 75 ppm calcium, which helps with yeast health and flocculation
·        Calcium reduces RA, so you don’t want to go over board
·        Calcium comes from gypsum, calcium carbonate, and chalk.
o       Figure your sulfate to chloride first, then bump with chalk
§         Figure out RA
·        This is what controls mash pH – where you are targeting 5.2
·        The darker the beer, the more RA you need (up to 300 ppm for Russian Imperial Stouts)
o       Don’t go higher than this, or it will taste minerally and thin
·        Baking soda is your primary adjustment here
·        This is the most complicated, so use a spreadsheet
o       On brew day
§         Mix your salt additions for your mash water right in with the grain
§         Do NOT add salt additions to the sparge water directly
·        pH is not low enough to make them dissolve
§         Instead, add them to the boil kettle at the start of the boil
§         If you are adding any water to the kettle during the boil (kettle too small) then make sure to add those salts at the beginning of the boil too
§         Check your pH, if you like, half way through the mash time, after the salts have had a chance to impact the pH
·        Target is 5.2
5.      Neat idea
o       If you want to play with the sulfate to chloride ratio, try adding a pinch of a brewing salt directly to a pint or a half pint of beer
§         Stir it up and see how it changes the flavor
§         Calcium chloride – maltier
§         Gypsum – more bitter
6.      Resources


While brewing water adjustments are a relatively advanced brewing topic, they can be effectively utilized with a little research and trial and error.  Hopefully, the information presented above can act as a catalyst to beginning to work with water.  Please leave a comment and let us know if it was helpful.




  1. Nice post, Tom. I've just started looking into my water chemistry after noticing a difference between two pale ales from the RIFT single hop pale ale experiment. To one I added some epsom salts, the other I forgot. I think I detected a definite crispness to the treated pale ale (my water is very soft and my Cl:SO4 ratio is waaaay on the malty end). I've been using the EZ Water Adjustment spreadsheet: and it's pretty awesome.

  2. Bil,

    Thanks for that comment and the link. It looks helpful and I will check it out.




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