Tastings School - Everything you need to know about... water

Tastings School

From basics to more advanced topics, the Beer School has all the info to expand your knowledge and enjoyment of your beers, ales and lagers.


Everything you need to know about... water

In the latest in our series Michael Jackson investigates the role of water and how important a quality sourse is to the overall taste of beer

Water has a significant influence on the flavour and body of beer, though not as great as the contribution made by malted barley and other grains; by hops; and by the brewer himself.

If barley took up more water from the soil, it would contain juice, as grapes do. That would make it – like the grape – easy to use in the production of drinks. It would also render it – again like the grape – soft, fragile, and more susceptible to damage and deterioration. Being drier and thicker-skinned makes barley tougher and more resilient. Barley flourishes in a wider range of soils and climates, and especially in cooler places than the grape. That is why the Central Northwestern countries of Europe typically produce beer, while the warmer Southeast favours wine.

Barley is tough in more senses than one. Not only can it stand up to the weather, it is also tough to chew; too hard to eat, for example, in its raw state.

It can be softened by being turned into malt. This means that it is steeped in water until it begins to sprout, then dried. After being malted, the grain is biscuity, and soluble. In the brewhouse, the malt is mixed with water.

This is the principal use of water as an ingredient in beer. And this is where the character of the water most influences the flavour of the brew.

In the simplest method, the mixture of malted grain and water sits in a vessel like a gigantic coffee filter. The liquid that filters through is the “juice" of the barley or other grains (eg. wheat, oats, rye).

Extra water is run through (like the second or third pull on an espresso machine), and all the “juices" collected are boiled in a large kettle with the aromatic cones of the hop plant. When the brew has cooled, it is moved to a fermentation vessel. Yeast is added, fermentation starts, and beer will shortly be served.

When the “coffee filter" is cleaned, it contains lots of husky grain residue.

This “spent grain" cannot be “squeezed" totally dry, so a substantial amount of water is wasted here. (Spent grain is usually given to local farmers as cattle feed). When the kettle is boiled, more water is lost in evaporation.

A great deal of water is also used in washing equipment, bottles, casks and the brewhouse itself.

When every village had a brewery, the total volume of water needed was manageable. These breweries each served just one pub, or perhaps two or three. They were like mom-and-pop bakeries. When steam power made it possible to brew on an industrial scale, and the birth of railways made it possible to distribute beer throughout a big city or region, and eventually nationwide, far greater volumes of water were needed. When a regional brewery was planned, a site was chosen where there was plenty of water from springs or wells. A brewery on an industrial scale could not afford to lose its supply for even the odd day in a dry summer. The water must be inexhaustible, consistent, clean and pure.

A village brewery generally has its territory to itself. That changed with the birth of industrial capitalism. Competing brewers boasted in their advertising that they had the purest water or the deepest wells. If a brewery said that its beer could only be produced with the local water, that claim sounded very convincing to the public. Strictly speaking, it was true, but water can be treated.

If a brewery became famous for a particular style of beer, others wishing to make something similar would adjust the chemical composition of their water accordingly.

A brewer wanting to make lager beers resembling those produced in Budweis, Pilsen or Munich required soft water like that found in those cities. The beers themselves have a soft, clean, character.

The characteristically crisp, firm, edge of a pale ale is best achieved with hard water, high in calcium sulphate, like that available in the small town of Burton, England's most famous brewing centre.

The town, in the middle of England, is on the river Trent, and had easy access by canal to the port of Liverpool. Its pale ales were exported throughout the Empire, and especially to India. Today's most famous Burton brewery is Marston's. A brewer elsewhere adding calcium sulphate to his water says he is Burtonising it.

A brewer producing a porter or stout might look for water rich in calcium chloride or calcium carbonate, like those of London or Dublin. That composition of water seems to produce a rounder body and fuller flavour. Contrary to legend, the water used by The Guinness Brewery in Dublin does not come from the city’s river Liffey. It arrives by way of the delightfully-named rivers Dodder and Poddle, having risen in the Wicklow mountains. This supply was first tapped in the 13th century – by a nearby abbey. Many springs and wells used by breweries pre-date the general availability of piped municipal supplies.

A brewer with his own spring or well tends to boast about it. Such an asset makes him feel good. The deeper and cooler and faster running it is, the more secure he feels in his supply. It is the first step toward the purity and consistency of his beer. It will not in itself ensure a wonderful beer, but it is a good start.

Not all breweries have such luck. Some pipe, or even truck, water from distant springs. On Malta, the Farson's brewery has a roof designed to catch and conserve rain water. Some tropical brewers de-salinate sea water.

Many Belgian brewers use water that rises in the forested hills know as the Ardennes. Devotees of spring water know that the word “spa" originates from the name of a town in the Belgian Ardennes. The springs there were known to Pliny and rediscovered in the Middle Ages, and the word “spa" was introduced to the English language by two British doctors in the 1700s.

The term has been suffixed to many towns, but there is only one called simply Spa, with a capital S, and that is the original, in Belgium.