Here is the paradox of water as it relates to brewing beer: it is, by volume, the dominant ingredient, yet it’s the one that you hear the least about. Hops, with the myriad of exotically named varieties—Fuggles, Tettnanger, Crystal, Nugget, et al.—is the attention-getter that has become the sexy ingredient du jour. Malt, beer’s backbone used to both color and flavor, as well as pump up the specific gravity on the burgeoning array of high-ABV brews out there, get its fair share of the glory. And don’t get a brewmaster started on the thousands of cultured yeasts—some proprietary—that can be used to create vastly different flavor profiles in recipes using the exact same malts and hops.

So what about water?

Though less acknowledged today, since brewers can effectively alter it to suit their needs (more on that later), water is, in fact, primarily responsible for the development of the pantheon of classic beers. “It is really interesting to look at the variety of styles that popped up in different parts of the world and became popular and good because of the water they had available to them,” notes Harpoon Brewing’s vice president chief brewing officer, Al Marzi. “The ingredients were all the same, except for the water, and you’ve got completely different beers being made.”

The basic recipe has always been water, malt, hops and yeast. So, why did the darker beers develop in Munich and Dublin, the hoppy pale ales in Burton, England, the pilsners in Plzen? As Olympia Brewing Co. founder Leopold Schmidt, so astutely proclaimed at the turn of the 19th century, it’s the water.

The True Connection Between Hard Rock and Beer

Water is the medium in which all the magic in the brewing process happens. And as innocuous as it seems—it’s clear and, for the most part, tasteless—it’s not all the same. You may have actually noticed when traveling that the water in, say, Portland, OR, may smell (or even taste) a little different from the H2O that comes out of your own tap at home. You may even have to use more soap or shampoo to get a good lather depending on what the water is like. This is what’s referred to as water hardness. And this, specifically, is what’s responsible for the development of different beer styles.

The chemistry of turning malted grains, yeast, hops and water into a delicious, refreshing alcoholic beverage, is relatively straight forward: grains are transformed into starches that, with the help of water and heat, the yeast can consume and turn into alcohol. But a little something called “water hardness” complicates things. “Hardness is mainly due either to lots of calcium and magnesium in the water, so-called ‘permanent’ hardness, as it’s relatively difficult to get rid of,” explains Professor Alex Maltman of the Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth University in Wales, “or bicarbonate in the water, ‘temporary’ hardness, which can be precipitated out by boiling.

“There’s a whole range of taste effects [in brewing] that arise from the presence of these substances, such as calcium promoting the bittering contribution of hops, and magnesium enhancing beer flavor, like salt in food. But the main effect—certainly of bicarbonate—is to affect the pH, or acidity, of the liquid during brewing.”

Yeast, who, let’s face it, do all the heavy lifting in the brewing process, are particular about the environment they work in. So, if the pH is comfortable for them, they can do their job well. Now, before this chemistry was known to brewers, they simply had to adjust their ingredients to suit the water. Bicarbonate-rich water—such as that in Munich and Dublin—creates a high pH (too alkaline for the yeast to do their thing properly). But roast some of the grains nice and dark, and it lowers the pH in the mash; the yeast are happy and they make a tasty dark brew, such as a German dunkel or Irish stout.

We can thank the varied geology of this great blue marble we inhabit for the variety of beers we drink today, because the different dissolved minerals in water—depending on the source—have had a profound effect on the development of brewing beer. “Burton-on–Trent in England has very mineral-rich water, including calcium and magnesium,” says Professor Maltman, “so it produces a strong tasting beer. It is also rich in sulfate, which adds a characteristic flavor and improves stability. This why the style known as English pale ale originated there, and the stability enabled it to travel far in those colonial days, even as far as India, if brewed strongly—hence India pale ale.” A relative lack of dissolved minerals, or “soft” water, such as that in Plzen in the Czech Republic, was key in the development of pilsner.

So, yeah, it’s the water. But, really, it’s what’s in the water. That is to say, those dissolved minerals—calcium, magnesium, sulfates and bicarbonates—are really what affect the pH, taste and stability. Which begs the question, how did they get there and why do some places have more or less? The answer lies in the earth itself. “The chemistry of water is greatly influenced by the geology of the aquifer in which it has resided,” explains Professor Maltman. “As one example, the bedrock below Burton, England, consists of sedimentary strata formed around 250 million years ago—a time when what is now England was closer to the equator and in desert conditions. Saline lakes evaporated to leave the sediments—what is now bedrock—rich in minerals such as gypsum, also known as calcium sulfate, and Epsom salts, also known as magnesium sulfate. Just as they were originally dissolved in the ancient lakes, these minerals now readily dissolve into the local groundwater, which is why Burton brewing water is like it is.”

So one may safely draw the conclusion that since the geology of North America is equally varied, the water is too. True enough, and though it hasn’t exactly given rise to specific beer styles, the water available to brewers here has had a profound effect on them—from San Diego’s challengingly hard water to the surprisingly perfect-for-brewing Brooklyn water. The difference today is that with the advanced understanding of what’s in our H2O—most municipal water suppliers can provide brewers with an analysis of the water makeup—we no longer have to brew beers that suit the particular local hardness. Or as Al Marzi at Harpoon so cleverly puts it, “The brewer’s art can be expanded to create any type of water he’d like to have for a particular style.”

That No-So-Mountain-Fresh Feeling

Though one would like to hold on to the romantic notion—such as that offered up by Coors in various ads over the years—that the best beer is made with the purest, glacier-fed streams that gush down from high in the Rocky Mountains, that is, for most brewers, simply a pipe dream.

Steve Carper, executive brewer at Terminal Gravity Brewing in Enterprise, OR, is living that dream, however. He specifically decided to start his craft brewery/brewpub in the tiny northwest Oregon town of Enterprise, largely based on how amazing the water coming from the Wallowa Mountains was. (John Maier, Rogue’s brewmaster called it, “some of the best water I’ve ever had,” when he was in the area for the beer festival held in nearby Joseph in the summer of 2008.) Carper had, in fact, originally looked at starting his business in Joseph, but found the water to be less than ideal, especially compared to Enterprise’s.

“The water we use in Enterprise comes out of a subterranean river, underneath Hurricane Creek,” says Carper. “It’s springs and snow pack that seeps into a granite sub-layer—and there’s not very much granite in Oregon, but we do have some out here—which acts as a perfect filter medium for the water. The [municipal water supplier is] able to just put in the bare minimum amount of chlorine, and the water has the blend of salts for British-style ales, which is what we mainly brew.”

The “salts” Carper refers to are the dissolved minerals discussed above that affect both pH and beer flavor. Though Enterprise’s water is particularly well-filtered and mostly free of chlorine (something that can easily be removed via a carbon filter), like a majority of brewers in the North America, Carper still needs to adjust the pH of the mash depending upon the style of beer he’s brewing. So while his water may be perfect as is for his winter Festivale or IPA, it needs augmenting to replicate the bicarbonate-rich water from which stouts were born.

This adding of salts to the mash, in this case calcium carbonate, is a fairly standard practice among commercial and home brewers alike, but for Andy Ingram, the brewer/owner of Four Peaks Brewery in Tempe, AZ, it is absolutely essential.

Unlike Terminal Gravity’s Carper, Ingram started his brewery in an area with water that he describes as “questionable at best” for brewing. Drawn from three different sources—two reservoirs that provide hard water and one well that is much softer—the percentage of the three that comes out of the tap changes drastically throughout the year. So, in lieu of constantly testing and retesting it, Ingram uses a reverse osmosis (RO) machine to basically strip the water of the salts, so that it’s almost completely pure (a negligible amount of dissolved minerals are left in), thereby creating a blank palate from which to work.

He then “rebuilds” the water using various combinations of salts—”recipes” that replicate the water sources that gave rise to everything from kölsch to pale ale—depending on what he’s brewing. “We make a concentration,” Ingram explains. “It’s usually four or five basic salts. And we mix those together based on the municipal water supply [we’re trying to replicate]. As we mash in, we dose in the concentrate.”

Tomme Arthur, director of brewery operations at Port Brewing Co. and The Lost Abbey in the San Diego area also has to deal with water that’s “crap, really hard and full of a lot of minerals and things that you don’t necessarily want for a range of brewing.” And, like others in the area, such as Stone Brewing, they use an RO unit to dramatically reduce that hardness. Arthur doesn’t strip it down as much as Four Peaks’s Ingram, who reduces his water to about 100 parts per million of dissolved solids, and therefore doesn’t also have to rebuild it in the same fashion.

“We’re taking the water down to about 200 parts per million of total solids,” says Arthur, “and then we’re not adding anything back. It’s a pretty soft water at that point, but it’s not totally devoid of minerals. I believe if you look at the Czech water perspective, some of their water is below 50 parts per million in the hardness levels—incredibly soft. We’re keeping some of those things behind.”

Singin’ Those Big City, Water Hydrant Blues

Across the country in the Big Apple, at least in Brooklyn, the water is significantly better than both San Diego and Tempe. “It is basically pretty perfect water to start off with for brewing,” says Brooklyn Brewery’s brewmaster Garrett Oliver. “It’s extremely soft, so [there isn’t] much in the way of dissolved minerals in the water.” The water is so perfect—particularly for pilsners—that there were nearly 50 breweries in the Brooklyn at the turn of the nineteenth century.

One thing that Oliver does have to worry about with regard to his water supply is probably a uniquely big-city problem: random and unexpected pressure surges that cause organic elements that have settled in pipes to cloud the water. “If somebody opens a fire hydrant a few blocks away,” he explains, “the water downstream from that will turn murky. So that’s a concern that we always keep our eye on. Fortunately I’ve never seen any thing of that sort that gave [the beer] a bad aroma, or flavor. It’s mostly simple organic material that’s totally harmless, but you’d rather not have it going into the water.”

Most brewers will admit that the water they brew with isn’t necessarily the most interesting part of the process, but it’s a part that they have learned not to take for granted. “It’s not as glamorous as pulling some fresh hops out of a bag, or testing the malt—even the yeast itself is more interesting, to a large extent, than looking at water chemistry,” says Harpoon’s Marzi. “But the day you come in and you sample your water and it smells swampy, or there’s chlorine filling your water, or you find out that the water you’re planning to brew with is incredibly alkaline and is going to buffer anything that you’re going to do to make a pale ale, then you suddenly realize that you really can’t take it for granted.”

This is why, as mundane as it may seem, just tasting his brewing water every day has become an essential part of Marzi’s work routine. “One of the first things I do in the morning,” he admits, “is grab a glass of water, just in case there’s something going on. I’m going to look at it, smell it and taste it.”