Historically, one of Britain’s most important brewing towns has been Burton-upon-Trent, in Staffordshire. At one time there were a dozen breweries in the town and it is still home to well-known breweries, such as Marstons and Burton Bridge. IPA, or India Pale Ale, was one of the most famous beer styles produced in the area and one of the reasons for its success was the local water. Burton’s water has a very high calcium and magnesium content, but very low sodium and bicarbonate. This mineral content makes the water very hard, which together with high sulphate levels, enables more flavour and bitterness to be extracted from the hops, as well as leading to paler beers. Conversely Plzen, in the Czech republic, has very soft water with a lack of sulphates, which is suited to the light, delicate style of very pale lagers and pilsners, while London’s water produces characteristic dark English bitters and ruby porters.
It’s not just beer brewing which is affected by water quality, however, cider (if making from kits) and wine will also turn out very differently, depending on what water is used. Soft water can often lack vital minerals needed for both flavour and yeast health. Softened water can also contain high levels of sodium (salt), which can be detrimental to the yeast.
My water tastes like a swimming pool
One of the main issues for the home brewer though, is the chlorine and chloramines added by the water companies. These are added to ensure that the water remains safe to drink, in the long journey from the treatment plant to our taps. The trouble is that chlorine not only has a very distinctive swimming pool taste, it can also bind with phenols produced during the brewing process to create chloro-phenols, or TCP. Even in very low amounts, these can give a certain medicinal smell and flavour to your home brew, and is often responsible for what is known as a “home brew twang”.
Fortunately, chlorine can be removed from your brewing water in a couple of ways. Leaving your brewing water to stand for at least 24 hours will allow the chlorine to come out of solution (off-gassing), however, this takes much longer and is less effective for chloramine. Boiling tap water for at least 15 minutes will remove chlorine, but the time taken to remove chloramine by boiling is too long to be practical. Using an activated carbon water filter (e.g. a Britta-style jug) will remove both chlorine and chloramine, but is only really suitable for small amounts of water. Campden tablets (sodium metabisulphite) can be used to neutralise both chlorine and chloramine, use one crushed campden tablet per 20 litres of water. While this method is suitable for wine, if your tap water already has high sodium levels, it can elevate the sodium levels too far for beer, leading to a slightly “off” taste. This is more of an issue in soft water areas or with water that has been softened.
Go for bottled water
While all of these methods will work, our preferred method is to use ready-bottled mineral water. Mineral water is not chlorinated so doesn’t need any treatment and comes in handy pre-measured amounts so you know how much to add to your fermenting vessel! Beware of very cheap “bottled water”, as this is often just tap water, complete with all the chlorine you are trying to avoid. We use Lidl’s selected by Carrick Glen (Maple Spring), as it has good levels of calcium and magnesium, but we also use Tesco’s Ashbeck water, because it has a lower pH level which is more suitable for our no-rinse sanitiser.
Acidity, hardness and mineral content is even more important when it comes to brewing beer from grain, rather than kits, but we’ll cover this in a future post.