From my previous post on brewing water, you may remember I discovered that I needed to really do some added work to my water to create the best beers possible. I was going to have to start purchasing water, or purchase some sort of home filtration system. Treatment with slaked lime was helping reduce my bicarbonate levels, but I obviously needed to do more.
So what is the best method to treat brewing water? That is going to depend on your situation, and how bad off your water is. There are several ways to treat your brewing water including filtering, traditional salt-water softening, ion exchange resins, distillation, or reverse osmosis. And there is always the option of buying water produced from one of these methods or another clean source. So lets touch on all of these a bit
SALT-WATER SOFTENERS / ION EXCHANGE RESINS: Generally this is the standard household water softener. These types of systems are made up of an ion exchange, where the hard water minerals change places with other ions. In a traditional salt-water system they change places with sodium. Brewing with high sodium water is not recommended. There are other ion exchange resin systems on the market, even those that eliminate sulfate and nitrate specifically. These systems are costly, and also require regeneration with salt. Pros: These are all good choices for general household softening, with high output. Cons: Expensive, and need to be set up properly. Sends waste water down the drain during regeneration cycle. Bad choice for brewing water without further treatment by one of the other methods below, as this is not filtered or “purified” water by any means.
REVERSE OSMOSIS: This is basically a fancy filtration system. Water passes through a series of filters to scrub out some general impurities, chlorine etc. The water then passes through the R.O. membrane. The membrane only allows water molecules by itself to pass through, in general no other particles get through. But in the process, these systems create waste water. In fact, they create from 3 to up to 20 times as much waste water as clean water. So 10 gallons of clean brewing liquor will create a minimum of 30 gallons of waste sent directly down the drain. The harder your water, the more waste water is produced as the impurities are flushed away. The so called “Zero Waste” R.O. systems on the market send the waste water back into your hot water system. Yeah, just what I need is harder hot water. Spotty beer glass anyone? While it is possible to recapture waste water from these systems into a holding tank for other uses, it is generally not practical for most people. The other negative to R.O. systems is that if you have very hard water, including high levels of sulfates like I do, the R.O. membrane part of the system will have a rapidly decreasing lifespan. The cost of replacing the membrane even once a year and the other filters every 6 months can add up rather quickly, costing more than the system itself in some cases. Most manufactures recommend that if you have very hard water, that the source water going into the R.O. system be softened using another method first, to reduce the stress on the membrane. Many of the systems require you to sanitize the system and tank periodically, mainly after replacing the R.O. membrane or other filter changes. Basic tabletop R.O. systems start at around $100, to $140 for systems with 3 gallon holding tanks and faucet, and they go up from there. Replacement R.O. membranes and other filters on the system can easily overshadow $100 per year if your source water is very hard. Pros: Pure, almost distilled water at low cost to output per gallon depending on water source. This is a good option for brewers needing large amounts of pure water, that have low to moderately hard water or a household water softener already in place feeding the R.O. system. Cons: Large amounts of waste water produced. System needs periodic sanitization and periodic filters and membrane replacement, with higher costs on some models. Bad choice for brewers with very hard water that do not have a household water softener in place.
DISTILLATION: We are talking about water here, don’t get too excited 🙂 This process basically boils water and sends the steam through a condenser. The impurities in the water are left behind in the boil pot, and purified water comes out of the coil. Distillation does NOT remove chloramines however, so these will still need to be removed before or after distillation using either a carbon block filter, or by using something like a campden tablet to react with the chloramine to remove it. But is this practical for the homebrewer? There are small distillation units on the market, for as little as $100, that distill about 1 gallon of water every 5 hours. Depending on your needs, this may or may not work for you. There are larger systems that can distill 10 gallons or more per 5 hour cycle, costing about $500 and up for the unit. Distillation in general requires limited pre/post process filtration, but uses energy in the process, equaling about 40 cents per gallon depending on your energy costs. Pros: Purest water available, lower maintenance costs compared to R.O. systems. Good choice for brewers needing low amounts of water Cons: Slower to produce the output water, uses electricity, must clean impurities from the boil pot. Bad choice for someone needing lots of water NOW.
ACTIVATED CHARCOAL FILTERS: That charcoal filter you have inline or on the end of your faucet? Yeah that does just about nothing for removing hardness/mineral content. While some may be great for possibly improving the flavor of your water, and removing contaminates like lead etc, read them carefully. Know that some don’t remove chlorine, and all but the best “carbon block” filters do not remove chloramine. Think of this as a polishing step to your already OK brewing water. Most R.O. systems have these built in. Pros: Makes good tasting water taste “better”. Cons: May actually do nothing to improve your situation. Does not remove hardness, and most do not remove chloramines.
PURCHASING WATER: You can always buy water, but beware that bottled “Drinking”water has variable mineral content. At the time of writing this, Distilled, Drinking, Spring, and Purified water costs between $0.90 – $1.oo per gallon. Some grocers have R.O. systems in the store, where you can bring in your own containers and fill for $0.40 – 0.50 per gallon. This is defiantly the cheaper route, but beware that the R.O. systems mineral output can be variable depending on the health of the membrane and filters. These machines are probably not getting daily maintenance / checkups etc. Not to bash these systems, just something for the consumer to be aware of, and not to assume you are getting pure / distilled / sterile water from them. There are water delivery services available depending on your location, and for some this may be ideal. The cost of delivered spring / distilled or otherwise seemed to be about $2 per gallon at the time of this writing. Don’t even get me started on the “food miles” of bottled water. How far it traveled to get to the store you purchase it at, and how far you drove to go get it are all things you should take into consideration. Pros: You pay for the water you use, no maintenance, no equipment, no upfront costs. Cons: You will have to carry all that water home from the store. Variable sources and quality of water. You may not be getting the same water all of the time. Higher per gallon costs; over time you may have come out ahead by purchasing some sort of water filtration system.
Whew! That was a lot to take in from these interwebs! I’ve got some thinking to do, and weigh it all out. No matter what method brewers ultimately decide to use is a matter of personal choice and brewing situation. Not every method is going to work for everyone. Stay tuned for Part 3!