In preparation for a brew day, homebrewer Brian Haslip has a slightly different routine than most homebrewers. After gathering the malt, hops and yeast he’ll need for his all-grain recipe, he drives a few miles outside Troutdale, Oregon, where along the roadside at the bottom of a hill, a pipe emerges from a leafy bank. A steady stream of cool, clear spring water flows from the pipe. While many people collect drinking water from the spring, Haslip has other plans. He fills a half-dozen food-grade plastic buckets with the water that he’ll use to brew two 5-gallon batches. Haslip learned of the spring more than a year ago from a member of his homebrew club. He’s been using the water for his beer-making ever since. “Once I tried it,” says Haslip, “I didn’t look back.”
The practice of collecting spring water for homebrewing may not be widespread, but it’s hardly new. Just as naturally occurring springs have long been used as a source of drinking water, so too have they attracted homebrewers who prefer to brew with untreated spring water over tap water for a variety of reasons. For some, there’s a satisfaction, or even romanticism, to creating something consumable made with ingredients gathered from the wild.
For others, using spring water for brewing is a practical consideration. In some locations, tap water has unpleasant flavors that are either inherent in the water source or derived from disinfectants at a treatment plant. While some undesirable flavors may boil off, others may not. The disinfectant chloramine, for example, may trigger reactions in brewing that can harm beer flavor. Since beer is predominantly water, brewing with aesthetically inferior water is likely to produce less-than-stellar beer.
Before you gather a collection of plastic jugs to fill at a local spring for your next homebrewing session, consider several issues. It will be helpful to take a quick look at water as an ingredient in beer before discussing spring water specifically. Although beer consists mostly of water, water tends to be the least understood and most ignored brewing ingredient for homebrewers. Many take the attitude that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This laissez–faire approach isn’t necessarily a problem. “In general, a fresh-tasting, potable water source will produce good beer,” says John Palmer, co-author of Water: A Comprehensive Guide for Brewers and author of numerous articles on the subject.
That doesn’t mean, from a brewer’s perspective, that all water is created equal. Without getting into a technical discussion of brewing water chemistry—there’s a wealth of literature available on the subject—it’s important to understand that the concentration and proportion of certain minerals in brewing water, as well as variables such as pH, hardness and alkalinity, can impact beer flavor and accentuate different flavor attributes. “Chloride accentuates the malt character of the beer. It makes the malt character a little sweeter, rounder, fuller,” Palmer explains. “Sulfate accentuates the hop character of the beer. It accentuates the bitterness. It makes the beer seem a little drier. A water with high alkalinity is most appropriate for dark beers because the natural acidity of the dark malts will balance that alkalinity in the water. For pale beers, you want low-alkalinity water because the pale malts are only weakly acidic.” While this is an overly simplified explanation of a complex topic, it illustrates the point that the water you brew with is not a neutral entity. It’s also worth noting that, since components of brewing water produce interactions in the mash, water chemistry is of much greater concern to all-grain brewers than to extract brewers.
With the addition of various salts, brewers can modify their water profile to increase its suitability for different beer styles. The more you know about your water, the more you know about its favorability for brewing specific types of beers. By extension, familiarity with your water profile provides a basis for adjusting it for brewing a particular
This brings us to spring water. For our purposes, let’s simply define a spring as a location where groundwater flows to the surface. This frequently occurs on a slope where an impermeable layer that sits below a permeable layer is exposed. In some places where springs have convenient access, pipes have been placed, or more elaborate structures have been constructed to make it easier to collect the spring water.
The biggest concern with using spring water for homebrewing is that you really don’t know what you’re dealing with unless you get the water tested. With untested spring water, there may be a risk of contamination. The presence of disease-causing organisms is a greater concern for those collecting spring water for drinking than for homebrewing since these organisms are likely to be killed off during the boil of a brewing session. Of more concern for homebrewers are contaminants such as nitrates, arsenic and other pollutants that pose health risks. Nitrates can enter groundwater from fertilizer runoff, animal feedlots, industrial waste and other sources. Nitrates don’t boil off and can’t be detected by smell or taste. Be especially leery of springs located near farms and gardens, golf courses or industrial facilities. It should also be noted that the composition of groundwater can change, with concentrations of impurities fluctuating over time. While there are risks, many springs are safe. People collect and consume untreated spring water regularly without ill effects.
As was mentioned previously, theconcentration and proportion of certain minerals in brewing water can impact beer flavor and accentuate different flavor attributes. “Groundwater is typically high in dissolved minerals,” Palmer says. “If you have a groundwater source, the chances are these minerals are already there, but one or more of them may be at a less-than-ideal level for the style of beer you want to brew. For somebody who wants to brew with a local spring water source, step one is to get the water tested for mineral content. Then you can make the decisions on, ‘Is this water appropriate for malty beers? Is it appropriate for hoppy beers? Is its alkalinity high?’”
Haslip, who brews mostly pale ales and IPAs, has been pleased with the results of the beers he’s brewed using water from the local spring. Even so, he’d like to get the water tested. “The reason I want to do the testing is I want to get an idea of the mineral levels in it so I can start making some modifications to really amp up the [hop] aroma and flavor.”
Simple water-testing kits, such as Taylor Technologies pool and spa water chemistry kits, are useful for obtaining water properties such as pH, total alkalinity and calcium hardness. Ward Laboratories offers more in-depth water testing services specifically for brewers at a very reasonable cost. Other private labs, as well as some local municipalities or colleges, may offer water testing services including tests for contaminants.
To be fair, many homebrewers who use municipal tap water exclusively for their beers never bother to seek out information about the profile of their brewing water, even if that information is readily available. Many of them make perfectly good beer. However, they lack the information required to fine-tune their brewing water for a particular beer style or know what styles are best suited to their brewing water. To many homebrewers, these are nonissues, no matter what their water source.
Natural springs are widely dispersed throughout North America, with the largest concentrations in Pennsylvania, New York and California. The website findaspring.com provides information on hundreds of springs and includes valuable input from people who have visited each spring. For homebrewers with access to good-tasting, potable spring water, using this water for brewing can be both an interesting experiment and a gratifying experience.
Sugarfoot Belgian Table Beer
The following recipe was generously provided by Denver’s Spangalang Brewery. The beer was the 2016 World Beer Cup bronze medal winner in the Other Belgian-Style Ale category. This low-ABV Belgian ale will provide plenty of interest without masking the qualities of your brewing water.
Batch size: 5 gallons
Standard 2 Row Malt: 68%
Rye Malt: 9%
Spelt Malt: 9%
German Magnum: 12 IBU (75 minutes)
East Kent Golding: 3 IBU (end of boil)
Belgian Candi Sugar, Soft, Blond: 11% (added to the boil)
Sweet Orange Peel: 1/8 ounce
Coriander: 1/3 ounce
Dried Lemon Peel: 1/3 ounce
Yeast: Spangalang uses a blend from a local source. Comparable yeasts available to homebrewers are Wyeast Belgian Ardennes 3522/White Labs Belgian Bastogne 510 and Wyeast French Saison 3711.
Mash: 148 degrees F (64 degrees C) for 1 hour
Boil time: 75 minutes
Allow to ferment to completion, transfer to secondary, then steep the spices for about 5 days (a hop sack is recommended).
Dan Rabin is a Boulder, Colorado-based beer and travel writer and award-winning homebrewer.