Water: Tips from the Pros

Water is the foundation of the brewing process and 95 percent of the finished product. What appears to be the simplest of a beer’s ingredients is often the most overlooked.

The three pros surveyed for this month’s column agree that it is important for brewers to research the content of their local water supply. The first step to curing bad water is locating the problems. Whether you need to add gypsum, extract unwanted chlorine, purchase bulk amounts of bottled water, or leave your water alone, you must first determine what exactly you’re working with. Beyond this common ground, the pros offer a spectrum of suggestions and insights about the importance of water to your finished product.


Paul McErlean
Lowell Brewing Company, Lowell, MA

Water is certainly important. You have to have clean, potable water to brew with; that’s the first requirement. You don’t want to have a lot of particulate (dissolved solids) in your water.

Basically, you want clean water to brew with. You’re ultimately going to do other things with it than make beer. You’re going to wash with it, you’re going to rinse things off, clean your equipment, etc. It becomes imperative that you start out with a good water supply that doesn’t have high levels of chlorine, because the boil can produce chlorinated flavor compounds that are very intensely flavored and the flavor is not good.

Every brewer does something different to ensure clean water. We use a carbon filter. Here in Lowell we have very soft water, which is far better than hard water for cleaning. Consequently, however, we have to add calcium sulfate (gypsum) to our water for brewing purposes. Basically, you want to do that to ensure your mash is acidified. Otherwise you extract things from the mash that you don’t want, such as tannins and silicates.

Homebrewers might want to invest in a water hardness testing kit or something of that nature. This might be especially worth the investment if you’re brewing in an area where the water is changing a lot—for example, if your water comes from a river during one part of the year and from a well during another part of the year. If you’re positive that your water is pretty much the same all year, then you can check it biannually with your local water company and go with that.

There are differences in your approach to water between extract brewing and all-grain brewing. You need sufficient levels of calcium in your water to have a nice acid mash so that you’re not extracting things from it you don’t want. If you’re using a commercially prepared extract, then you don’t really have to worry about that.

The bottom line is knowing what’s in your water. There are certain areas of the country where there are a lot of things in the water that you definitely don’t want in your beer. If your water supply has high levels of iron, for example, you might be better off buying bottled water. Iron is very bad. It catalyzes all sorts of nasty reactions in beer, a lot of haze-forming reactions.

Heavy metals are generally bad. Particularly in an area like Davis (California), where there’s a lot of agriculture, you can get a lot of pesticides in the water. You should also be aware of nitrates that can come from fertilizers. In an agricultural area, you should check your water for things of this nature, and that might warrant a professional analysis.


Carol Stoudt
Stoudt Brewing Company, Adamstown, PA

I think that water is extraordinarily important to the brewing process. Historically, small breweries became popular because of their water source and that’s the reason for certain beer styles. Just look at the water profile in Germany, where you have the pilsners in the northern part and the malty, Munich-style beers in the south. Ninety-five percent of a beer is water and on that criteria alone, water is very important.

Much of the success enjoyed by the great breweries comes from their natural water source. Some people might locate a brewpub in a metropolitan area as opposed to near a great water site because of the marketing benefits from the traffic and location. For a microbrewer, the water source should be a high priority. For many breweries, an affordable building often outweighs the proximity of quality water.

I don’t know that if I were a homebrewer, I would necessarily adjust the water. It depends upon what style of beer you want to make. Most homebrewers probably don’t want to copy a style but rather just brew quality, original beer.

We brew about 80 percent lagers at Stoudt Brewing, so we have excellent water for making southern German-style lagers. We do harden the water for the ales that we make, but again, we’re doing 30 batches at a time. Our water is natural; it comes from deep artesian wells into the Susquehanna aquifer.

A lot of homebrewers primarily make ales, in which case the hardness of the water is very important. The salt levels dramatically affect a brew’s outcome, but you can remove or add salts to the water when necessary.

All homebrewers should certainly have their water tested to figure out which styles of beer would be best suited to their local water supply. After testing the water and determining the best styles to make, they can then decide whether they want to alter their water or not. I would recommend starting by not altering the water, unless you’re brewing in a major city that has a lot of chemicals in the municipal water supply. Better yet, if you’re worried about your water, just go out and buy some pure water.

Information about your water is available to the public. As far as home treatment and filtration systems, I’d recommend calling Cloister Spring Water Company at 1-800-426-2665. They are international, and they were one of the first that started water treatment for the home as well as the industry. That would be an excellent source to contact. The local university would probably be more than happy to do an analysis. A lot of brewers use their local university to handle their yeast management and other stuff like that.

Most homebrewers should just use their natural water source and use taste as the litmus test. If the water tastes good to drink, then I would use that as my gut feeling. On the other hand, if the water is horrible and metallic, I would really consider buying water from a good source.

The whole process can become quite technical. As a microbrewer, you start by getting a detailed analysis of your natural water source, then brew a batch and evaluate it. Ultimately, you must decide if  you want to alter your water based upon your initial evaluations and if so, how. The amount of time and money you want to spend altering the water is also a factor.

Additives such as gypsum are fine with hard-core ales, but I wouldn’t even consider adding gypsum when extract brewing, because many of the extracts could have some salts in them already.

If you are concerned about the quality of your water, I would recommend buying good water rather than trying to filter bad water. When you’re buying in large quantities, water isn’t that expensive. If you’re going to invest the time and the labor into making your brew, don’t start with something that you know to be bad.


David Evans
Ybor City Brewing Company, Tampa

My favorite response to the importance of water is that it depends. To me, even as a homebrewer I felt that water chemistry was pretty important. Not only from the standpoint of establishing the correct mash pH but getting the right flavor profile in the finished beer as well.

Choosing your water can be fairly cut and dry. Usually most people don’t have a choice. Most people will use tap water. But what I’ve done for a long time as a homebrewer is to filter my water using an under-sink cartridge filter from Sears or wherever. Cartridge filters usually remove 99.9 percent of the chlorine and heavy metals and that sort of thing. Some filters will also include an activated carbon filter that will remove odors and turbidity (sediment).

It’s usually not necessary for homebrewers to test their local water supplies themselves. Most municipalities will provide analyses to homebrewers free upon request. All you need to do is call your local water department. Some departments will actually have a lab, and the supervisors can give counts in parts per million of all the important ions (for example, calcium and bicarbonate, chloride, sulfate, and sodium).

Homebrewers should start by looking at the bicarbonate level in the water; they need to look at the hardness. Homebrewers then need to adjust their calcium content with respect to their bicarbonate level. Those figures will vary from location to location based on geography and seasonality of the water supply. For example when I lived in Colorado, we would get a lot of snow melt during the spring, which made for very soft water. During the summer and fall, water supply would switch over to reservoirs, and we’d get more of the earth salts (like sulfate) in the water.

Most people brewing with soft water will have to add some source of calcium. Usually that will take the form of gypsum. Here in Florida we actually have rather high sulfate levels in our city water, so we restrict the amount of gypsum we use and augment that with calcium chloride; in essence establishing a balance between our sulfate content and our chloride content.

Something else that I have noticed judging homebrew competitions in Florida is that a lot of homebrewers have added gypsum to their water even though the water is already fairly high in sulfate. It’s pretty important to first establish what your water is and what is in it before you add any salts. I’ve tasted some beers where the brewer has gone way overboard with gypsum additives and the beer comes out with a very dry, salty, parching taste.