The Influence of Brewing Water on the Character of Beer



The influence of brewing water on the character of beer has sometimes been over estimated and at other times overlooked.  However, the fact has been established that the chemical composition of the brewing water exerts a far reaching influence on the entire brewing process as well as upon the quality of the finished product, but we also hear of cases in which disturbances during the brewing process are attributed to the quality of the water without just cause.

It has generally been contended that a good drinking water must also be a good brewing water, although I think that the requirements of water for brewing purposes are not exactly identical with those for drinking purposes.  If drinking waters are pure, not excessively hard or saline, and free from injurious metals and organic impurities, they satisfy the necessary conditions, but for purposes of brewing, the mineral salts held in solution are of the very highest importance.

The composition of natural waters which may be employed for brewing varies greatly, and it has been found that such composition has a marked influence upon the character of the resulting beer.  This opinion is especially prevalent among English brewers, who prefer a hard water and one possessing a considerable permanent hardness for the manufacture of their ales , and who , if such waters are not readily at their disposal, artificially harden their water by the addition of certain mineral salts. This treatment is known as the “Burtonizing process.”  There is no doubt that this practice among English brewers is based upon extensive observation and experience, and according to the opinion of English brewers and brewery experts the excellent quality of the Burton ale, which has gained a world-wide reputation, is due to the fact that it is brewed from water of that characteristic composition.

As early as 1798 we find in “Dr. Shaw’s History and Antiquities of Staffordshire” 1 a scientific note which attributes the excellence of the Staffordshire ales to the composition of the local water.  There we find an extract from Dr. Darwin in which he states that the natural properties of the Burton springs fully account for the superior strength of the famous Staffordshire ales.”  But I cannot,” he says, ” leave this account of calcareous or hard waters without adding that, I suppose, from the great affinity between calcareous earth and sulphuric acid may be explained a circumstance the theory of which has never been understood, and, therefore, the fact has been generally doubted, and that is that hard waters make stronger beer than soft ones.  I appeal to the brewers of Burton for the fact, who have the soft water of the Trent running on one side of their brew houses, and yet prefer, universally, the harder calcareous water supplied by their pumps.”  In connection with this notable disquisition of Dr. Darwin’s, it is interesting to recall the action at law taken by the Burton brewers, as a body, against a certain Mr. Booth, who wrote a work entitled “The Art of Brewing” in 1829, and therein accused them of adding, among other things, “6 ozs. per barrel of sulphate of lime.”  The attack upon what Mr. (afterward Lord) Brougham called “that generally respectable body,” the brewers of Burton, ignominiously failed, as it was shown that the chief excellence of their water lay in sulphate of lime, “and yet,” says an early Victorian chronicler of small beer, “men will decry hard water as though it were a detriment and a plague, though 1 oz. of that which makes it so, will preserve 6 gallons of ale forever and a day.”

More or less attention has always been paid to the composition of brewing waters, and what peculiar ideas once prevailed when the brewers were working in the early stages of empiricism, may be illustrated by a communication from Dr. Neuman in regard to the Berlin brewing water 150 years ago: 2

     “Experience has often shown that for the manufacture of a good beer, and in the best brewing methods, it is not always and at all times requisite to employ the purest and cleanest water.  The muddiest, dirtiest, filthiest and most unsightly water often produces the best, most palatable and nutritious beer.

     “As a rather unique illustration as to the ideas prevailing at one time (1802 ) regarding the qualities of a good brewing water, I may cite the work by Otto Staab, Brother of the Order of the St. Benedectines and Cellarer in the Noble Chapter – House at Fulda: 3

     “The treatment or improvement of different waters not fitted for brewing purposes should not be left to the option of an inexperienced operator.  Some try to soften a hard water by the addition of cow manure.  Zükert advises that by this manipulation the necessary degree of fermentation of the beer is weakened; although there would probably result no danger to health, it is disgusting to every stomach to think of this dirty mixture.  I must advise against the addition of several tubs of soda ash lye or one or two pounds of dissolved potash to a water not found suitable for brewing on account of its mineral matters.  It is true that the malt is thereby more thoroughly extracted; however, the lye salts prevent a correct fermentation, and, as it is not completely neutralized, the beer must necessarily, and especially in summertime, increase the thirst in addition to its nauseous taste and give rise to all kinds of foul diseases.  The following requirements seem to me, therefore, necessary:

     1) The police should forbid the use of all dirty and foul water for the brewing of beer, or at least, if no other water is at disposal, to compel the brewers to run the water through sand several times.
     2) The improvement of hard waters may be accomplished simply by boiling and keeping the water in a somewhat warmer atmosphere, or by other harmless and previously examined means.
     3) No water containing various mineral constituents should ever be recommended for brewing, without an exact analysis and determination that these mineral constituents will not be harmful to health.”

Although great progress has been made regarding the studies of the influence of the various mineral constituents of water upon the quality and character of the beer, the opinions still vary greatly and, in some cases, are almost contradictory.  There is, however, a consensus of opinion that the water should not be alkaline or contain any iron salts, nor should it be excessively hard; and, as a general rule, a medium hard water, especially such containing permanent hardness, is to be preferred.  However, as to the reason for this, opinions differ widely.

Southby 4 points out that when a given malt is mashed with a gypseous water, and distilled water under the same conditions, the worts will behave very differently on boiling. The gypseous wort breaks well; that is, the coagulable albuminoids are thrown out in large curdy flocks, and after short standing the wort itself becomes brilliant. The wort from distilled water throws out its albuminoids not in curdy flocks, but in the form of a fine powder, and even after standing, the wort refuses to brighten. The gypseous wort then is brilliant, the precipitate lying compactly at the bottom of the vessel; the distilled water wort is turbid, the precipitate being partly distributed in the liquid and partly resting on the bottom.  Moritz & Morris,5 who repeated Southby’s experiments, state that their observations entirely confirm Southby’s.  They furthermore point out that the relative brilliancy and turbidity of the worts is strikingly in accordance with the respective soundness, which, as known from experience, would result from these waters; gypseous worts are sounder than those from untreated waters, and they state that the connection between gypsum in the water and the resulting soundness seems to depend, in some measure, upon the removal of the coagulable albuminoids prior to the cooling stage.  They furthermore made exhaustive tests as to the influence of the mineral constituents upon the diastatic conversion in the mash tub.  From their experiments they draw the conclusions, that by the employment of gypseous water we obtain considerably more dextrin than by any other saline compound used, and that the sulphates give delicacy and cleanness of taste.

Regarding the influence of the gypseous water upon the color and flavor, they state that there is complete agreement among chemists – namely, that gypseous waters give pale beers and prevent the extraction of the rank, coarse flavor of the hops.  They further claim that the relation of gypseous water to the keeping quality and stability of beers is proven by the fact, that the coagulable albuminoids, generally considered unfavorable for the clarification and stability, are more thoroughly removed before the cooling of the wort, and therefore the stability and the clarification of the beer is more satisfactory.

The same opinion has been expressed by Mulder 6 who claims that, as in legumes, the proteids of the malt become ineffective when hard water is used, by the formation of in soluble compounds with the lime and magnesia salts. Tauber, who made comparative tests with distilled water and gypseous water, came to the conclusion that when the latter is employed, a larger yield is obtained, and that the fermentation, as well as the clarification and taste of the beers are satisfactory in every respect.

Thausing, 7 on the other hand, has found that by the use of water containing gypsum the yield is smaller, while in other respects only beneficial results have been obtained by hard water.  Habich supports Thausing in regard to the higher yield, but upholds the opinion of the English chemists that waters rich in gypsum are favorable for a good clarification of the beer.  Leyser may be quoted as follows: 8

     “A very important role must be attributed to the gypsum as a mineral constituent of brewing water, especially in its effect upon the main fermentation, as it decreases the degree of attenuation.  By the addition of 6 to 10 kilograms for a brewing of 60 hectolitres, the yield was not materially decreased, the mashing process proceeded normally, and the beer showed a lower degree of attenuation than without the addition.  It clarified well during storage, and at the time of racking showed still a considerably higher percentage of unfermented extract than that beer which had been brewed without the addition of gypsum.”

In summing up all our experiences regarding this question of gypseous water for brewing purposes, why should we wonder that the usage of artificially treating waters in England has been so firmly established, so that factories are in existence manufacturing gypsum for this very purpose.”

Some experiments which G. A. Neumann published in the “Wochenschrift fuer Brauerei” allow him to conclude that by using water containing gypsum, the malto-dextrins in the wort are increased and the amount of sugar diminished.  He furthermore finds that the calcium sulphate increases the yield, while the calcium carbonate diminishes it.

I have presented to you a summary of the somewhat different views held by various authorities on this subject, and if I now give you the result of my own recent observations and tests, it is not because I wish to pose as an authority on this subject, but simply in order to bring some facts to your attention which have come within my own experience.

We all know that the water which we use in this vicinity is very soft (NYC); that its total hardness hardly exceeds two or three degrees.  It is also well understood that such waters are not as well adapted for brewing as those with a higher degree of hardness.  I have therefore treated our brewing water by the addition of a Burtonizing compound, bringing about a permanent hardness of 16 degrees.  I have closely followed the effect of this treatment by comparative tests with untreated water through all stages of the manufacture of beer.

 It is very interesting to note that I can entirely confirm the observations quoted before, that calcium sulphate increases the yield, as in all my tests I have obtained a somewhat heavier wort from the same materials mashed under the same conditions, the increase being from 0.1% to 0.2% Balling.  This increase seems to be entirely due to the fact that the calcium sulphate exerts a favorable influence upon the gelatinization of starch in the converter mash.  I have found that the converter mash became more liquid and ran off faster.  The higher yield must simply be attributed to the fact that the starch was in a better condition to be acted upon by the diastase of the malt.  The influence of the treated water upon the converter mash was quite striking, as the converter mash ran off in about 11 minutes instead of 18 minutes, which is generally the case when the water is not artificially treated.  I have also observed that the wort showed greater brilliancy and that the break in the kettle was more big flaky, thus confirming the experience of the English investigators.

As I am not a scientist, I do not wish to be mixed up in the controversy as to whether this better break is caused by the precipitation of undesirable albuminoids or by the effect of the calcium on the phosphates; it may suffice to state that the break was better than with the ordinary water.  The effect of the artificial treatment of the water during fermentation was also very beneficial.  I found that the kraeusen stood better, being more creamy, and the fermentation was healthier.  The “break” of the beer was very good; the cover at the end of fermentation was thicker and more compact than before the yeast became very white and seemed to be very healthy.  No doubt the lime acted as a stimulant upon the yeast, as the fermentation proceeded at a very nice rate and with great regularity.  I certainly found a great improvement during all stages of fermentation.  The beers racked somewhat heavier, with 0.4 % , which would indicate that during the mashing process a higher percentage of malto-dextrins or unfermented extract had been formed.

This is a very noteworthy fact.  The present tendency of the public, demands the production of a beer of full body with a comparatively low percentage of alcohol.  We have learned how to accomplish this by our mashing process, or by the after- mashing method which is accomplished in England by using high initial mashing temperatures.  The fact that by paying proper attention to the correct composition of the brewing water, the brewer possesses an additional assistance in producing such beers, is certainly of interest to every brewer, and also explains the fact that the English brewing experts have so carefully studied this question.

 As to the influence of the treated water on the color of the beer, I can also corroborate the above findings, that the beers were of paler color than with the untreated water.  However, this difference in color was only observed after the boiling process, while the worts ran off at the same color.  It is therefore evident that this paler color can only be attributed to the fact that the hard water does not extract from hops certain coloring matter which is extracted by soft water.  The beers showed good clarification and perfect brilliancy on racking.

It was quite a surprise to me to learn that the composition of the water should have such a marked influence upon the finished product; the beers tasted more round and palateful, and possessed a nice, delicate hop flavor, which was more characteristic than before.  The beers also showed a somewhat paler color.

I must say that the artificial treatment of brewing water has brought about a marked change and great improvement in the finished product.  If I may be permitted to sum up my own findings regarding the influence of the brewing water upon the brewing process and the character of the beer, I might say the following: Hard or hardened water tends to produce a beer of fuller body, better brilliancy and improved stability.  It exerts a beneficial influence upon the settling qualities and purity of the yeast; the yield is increased; the hop flavor is more pronounced and more delicate; during the mashing process the formation of less fermentable substances is favored; the converter mash becomes more liquid and the wort runs off more brilliant.  During all my observations I have not found any disadvantages from the treatment of my brewing water, and I therefore thought that it might be of interest to you to learn something about these tests.  I hope that this paper will give rise to very lively discussion, and that you will give me your free opinions on this subject, although they may not coincide with my own.

1 Transactions of the Institute of Brewing, Vol. X, 1904, p. 407
2 Zeitschrift für das ges. Brauwesen, 1897, p. 617.
3 The American Brewer, 1881, p. 20. (Aus alter Zeit.)
4 Transactions of the Institute of Brewing, VI, p. 109
5 Handbook for the Art of Brewing, London, 1891
6 Zeitschrift für das ges. Brauwesen, 1893, p. 271  
7 Malzbereitung und Bierfabrikation, by Thausing, p. 89  
8 Leyser – Heiss Bierbrauerei, p. 67

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