Does your tap water suck? Mine does. Take a look at the above photo. On the right you have chamomile tea made with my very hard tap water. On the left you have the same tea made with the same hard tap water treated using slaked lime / pickling lime. The result of the water treatment is visibly obvious. But the taste and aroma were also effected for the better. Instead of smelling like musty socks and tasting like mud, the tea smelled and tasted like tea! I encourage you to try the tea test with your brewing water against some Reverse Osmosis, distilled, lime treated, or bottled water. If the tea made with your tap water sucks, that means we’ve got work to do! Now that I’ve jumped ahead lets start back at the beginning. This will be a multiple post series. During the process of writing my experience down, it became apparent this was way too much info for one post.
I’ve known my water was very hard for a while, but I have been brewing with it untreated anyway for a few years. I’ve had some good success with it and some not so good results with all grain brewing using it in conjunction with 5.2 ph stabilizer. It has taken me a while to get my brewing process down, and so I was just blindly using the 5.2 stabilizer hoping for the best. I had too many things to worry about on brew day, let alone mash pH. So I would make hoppy / light colored beers and detect something there that I couldn’t put my finger on, that just tasted BAD. A minerally, musty flavor. But only with highly hopped beers, and more specifically dry hopped beers. Also, my beers were coming out way more bitter than what I was aiming for. Over time I just learned to reduce my bittering hops by quite a bit. But this lingering taste was always there in some form or another, mainly when large quantities of hops were involved. I knew something had to be up with the water, since my morning tea always tasted not so great. Could the same effect on my morning tea be the same issue with hops? I have detected this same off-flavor profile from one brewpub in the region, with the same kind of highly hopped beer recipe.
So I sent my water off to Ward Labs. And the results were slightly depressing. Left untreated, my water is basically suited for only making dark / very bitter beers. I have very high bicarbonate levels and my sulfate level is 381 ppm. For those of you who will have your water tested by Ward, keep in mind the SO4-S value listed on your report is NOT sulfates, its sulfur. So take this number and multiply by 3 to get your proper sulfate SO4 level. (I did not know this, and recently made 2 batches of beer attempting to reach Burton levels. My resulting beer had something like 1000 ppm sulfate – wow, that was some interesting beer…)
Recently during a brew session, I tested my mash pH, just on a whim. Like I said, I had been using 5.2 assuming all was OK. It wasn’t. My mash registered about a 6 on the mash pH strip. Crap. Why didn’t it work? After some searching, 5.2 stabilizer wont really help you if your water is way out of wack, and my water is wacky. Very high bicarbonates with a high buffering capacity. Light beers just don’t get low enough pH in the mash with my water.
As I said before, one problem with my water is the high levels of bicarbonates. OK, now that I know that, how can we reduce it? After doing some research I found a few good articles on line, one being an article on Winning-Homebrew.com. So, The simplest way to reduce bicarbonate in brewing water is by boiling it. While its boiling, the bicarbonates in the water react with any calcium there is available, and precipitate out. You can then rack the water off of the precipitate, before it is reabsorbed into the water by reacting with CO2 in the atmosphere. Boiling requires energy, and unless you are brewing with electricity, boiling 10 gallons or even more uses a lot of propane. So this is where the method linked to above comes into play, treating with pickling lime. This process uses no energy, but does take some care and calculations. You will also need to have some knowledge of your water chemistry. So, if you know you have hard water and are having trouble brewing lighter beers but don’t want to get too fancy with treating with lime, boil it before you brew. Keep in mind that the reaction in boiling removes calcium as well, so you will need a surplus of calcium in your water in order for the reaction to take place.
The second issue I’ve had with my water is the high levels of sulfates, and more specifically, the amount of sulfate vs chloride. Sulfates enhance bitterness. Chlorides on the other hand accentuate malt sweetness and roundness in mouth-feel. My brewing water has 381 ppm sulfate vs 4 ppm chloride. Yeah, bitter! Unfortunately without distillation, reverse osmosis, ion exchange resins, or dilution with water treated with one of these processes, the sulfate numbers can not be changed. I don’t have any of these systems, and don’t really want to buy water for every brewday. So then the only thing I can do at this point is add some chloride to change the ratio in the form of calcium chloride. So, lets brew some beer and see what we get!
I brewed 4 batches of beer with slaked-lime treated water to help with my pH, and with added calcium chloride increased to 100 ppm in the boil to hopefully balance out the chloride/sulfate ratio, and my results were greatly improved. The resulting mash pH for lighter colored beers was hitting right at 5.3 or so without the use of 5.2 stabilizer. The beers flavor also seemed to improve. But yet when I again brewed an IPA, that odd flavor I was detecting in all of my hoppy beers was still there but on a reduced scale, more in the finish now. The slightly harsh bitterness from sulfates also seemed to still overpower any malt presence in an IPA even with added chlorides. So, now what? Additional steps seemed to be in order. So I then began looking at all the ways to treat or purchase my brewing water.
In part 2, I will share some of the info I discovered along the way, so stay tuned.