Water for Dummies: A Simple Approach to Brewing Water


When it comes to water, it's been my experience that brewers spend far too much time and effort tinkering with it - or, paradoxically, they're terrified of it.  Neither of those are productive. 

Bad water can really wreck your beer - but most water isn't bad. 

Water chemistry is complicated - but we don't need to understand the chemistry to get what we want out of our brewing water.

My point is that for most brewers, the water they're using is probably fine - or could be, with one or two small (and consistent) adjustments.  One approach - the Beer Simple approach, for sure - is to identify a couple of rules-of-thumb for your own brewing rather than approaching every recipe as a new opportunity to tinker with your water.

Today at BS we'll be talking about a strategy for getting your water in good shape (and maybe coming to realize that it's already in good enough shape).  This is for non-chemists, particularly because I'm definitely not a chemist.  I'm also not going to be delving into how to adjust your water - this is about identifying a path to water independence.  

Understanding your brewing water for just a few minutes can set you up for the rest of your homebrewing life.

Don't Chase a Problem

Let's get the cliches out of the way first, shall we?

If your water tastes good to drink, it'll probably make good beer.

There.  Done.  Don't go chasing a problem.  If you're not noticing a consistent deficiency in water flavor or finished beer flavor, then maybe just ignore your water chemistry until such time as you've ironed out every other aspect of your brewing life.  If your water tastes good, then there are almost certainly far more substantively significant things for you to address: recipe formulation, ingredient storage, mash/boil/fermentation processes, yeast health and more are far more likely to have noticeable effects on your beer than your water.

Three Steps to Water Independence

Let's say you have noticeably troubling water and/or you're confident that the rest of your process is sound.  That still doesn't mean you need to enroll in night classes in chemistry or geology to be "water competent."  Most brewers will be fine with three steps.

First, you need to know what's in your water.  There are lots of testing kits out there, and you might get some solid info from municipal water reports, but for my time and money there's nothing better than Ward Labs' brewing water report (note: not a paid endorsement - it's just fast and easy and affordable).  They'll send you a container.  You put your brewing water in it and send it back.  They e-mail you a PDF of a report with the relevant brewing info/ions listed.  Done.  But be sure you're sending your brewing water.  If you filter, filter it.  If you use hot water, send water from the hot side of the tap.  Send the water you'll be using to brew.

Second, you need to know what your report means in terms of brewing.  Note that I didn't say you need to know what it means in terms of the water.  I have a good understanding of technical terms like residual alkalinity and pH and anions v. cations - but I didn't when I first made my water adjustments.  Grab your copy of How to Brew and flip to the section on water - you'll find a set of nomographs to get you in the ballpark on a range of beers that are good for your water, and some basic instructions on how to adjust for other styles.  It's not the only one - BeerSmith, Bru'n Water, and other calculators/tools are out there, too.  What I love about How to Brew is that it's possible to use those nomographs to figure out your water's potential and shortcomings even if you don't understand the chemistry behind it.  Maybe enlist the help of one of your water-nerdy friends to be sure, but you'll end up with the answer to two questions: What can I brew without adjustment, and what styles need adjustments?

Third, and last, you need to know how to adjust your water chemistry.  This doesn't need to be complicated.  First, there's likely a range of beers you can brew without any adjustment at all. And when you do need to make some changes, most of the time we're just talking about a small addition of acid or some mineral/salt.  Some with particularly hard water might need to dilute instead.  You don't need to dial in, exactly, every single beer.  Most will fall into broad categories.  What adjustment, based on color?  What adjustment for hoppy beers?  What adjustment for Czech lagers?  Focus on the practical side of things and you can forget everything you ever knew about chemistry.

And that's it.  Figure out what's in your water.  Figure out what you don't need to adjust and what you do, and then work up a handful of cheats for yourself.  This isn't something you have to delve into with every new recipe. 

Water Doesn't Have to be Hard

For me?  Two adjustments.  Pale beers get a quarter teaspoon of gypsum to bump up my sulfate-to-chloride ratio and accentuate hop bitterness.  Dark beers get a quarter teaspoon of baking soda to keep the mash from going too acidic and add roundness to the malt flavors.  Everything else is as-is, with the exception of anything Plzen-originated, which gets a dilution with distilled water.  That's it.

Water doesn't have to be hard (pun intended).  I know why I do these things - but I didn't when I started, and I don't need to know now.  The mash doesn't know if I understand what the sodium bicarb is doing.

Can you get better results by minutely controlling additions and adjustments with every batch, emulating specific brewing centers and using specific adjustments to yield precise flavors?  Sure.  Probably.  But is it worth it?  

It might be, if you've covered everything else, and you care that much, and you enjoy the minutiae of the brewing process.  But if you're more of a "Relax, Don't Worry, Have a Homebrew" type but still want to do some water adjustment, it's possible to do so without jumping into the chemistry deep end with every batch.  

Keep it simple.


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"OK" Wins in Homebrew Competitions


If you're a homebrewer, you don't have to compete.  I think you should, but you certainly don't need to.  The other day, though, someone gave me what is probably the worst reason not to:

"My beer just isn't good enough for competition."

You know what?  It probably is.

Competition Quality

I don't know what you're picturing when you think of a homebrew competition, but it's hardly a nonstop run of incredible beer, even under the best of circumstances.  Even in the final round of the National Homebrew Competition you get some real dogs, and at your average competition, here's how the entries usually break down in a typical 10-beer flight:

  • 2 uniquely bad beers that make you question whether you'll ever get the taste of Sharpie and goat ass out of your mouth
  • 3-4 beers that don't have a dominant fault but die from "a thousand cuts" - a little oxidation, a little astringency, some diacetyl, a bit of odd phenol...
  • 3 beers that are OK, but nothing to write home about - adequate, no apparent faults, the kind of thing you'd get if you picked randomly off of the tap list at TGI Fridays.
  • 1-2 beers that are genuinely good and make you want to find the brewer and thank them for entering.

If you're making generally "clean" beer and following a reasonably competent recipe (either yours or someone else's), you have a decent chance of earning yourself a ribbon.

Consensus Winners

Then there's the ways in which judges sometimes find themselves picking the "winner" in a flight.  There's a reasonably strong negative-control tendency at the judging table.  What I mean by that is that while we sometimes pick a winner by acclaim, we just as often end up picking one because it hasn't bothered anyone that much.

Let's look at a sample case.  We're judging Rauchbier (I love Ruachbier).  We have three examples before us.  One is a great Marzen that's remarkably delicate in its smoke character.  One is well-made and adventurous and used some hickory-smoked malt.  One is just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill rauch.  Who wins?  

Well, the hickory-smoked beer, while envelope-pushing, is too avant-garde for one of the judges, who ardently says s/he can't support it to win.  The other says that the delicately-smoked version is "too weak in its smoke character" (even though the guidelines acknowledge that the style doesn't need to be intensely smoked).  Each stakes out a position on the other's preferred beer...and as a result the generic Rauchbier takes the gold.

Often, winning in competition isn't about being the best.  It's about not being objectionable.  So that "tastes fine" English Mild you made?  It's in with a chance.

Get Them On the Table

If you're making beer that at least semi-objective friends with some degree of palate training are saying that they like, then you're probably making beer that's more than capable of winning in competition.

Broadly speaking, if you're entering consistently great beer, you can expect a yield of about 50% from your entries (some will store poorly, or fall victim to bad judging, or just run into a buzz-saw of a table with a lot of great entries).  But if you're making consistently "OK" beer, then you can still expect that about three in ten will come home with some hardware.  Why?  Because your beer isn't going to beat itself.

Every beer that wins a medal has to get to the point where it's mini-Best-of-Show time in the flight.  We narrow it down to the potential winners, sometimes using score as a guide.  But once they're lined up in a little row of five or six cups, scoring tends to become secondary.  And if you're routinely putting 30-point beers into competition, lots of those are going to end up "on the table" at that point, and some number of them are going to win.

If it's OK, go ahead and enter it.  I mean, hell, I say enter them all, but at least don't let "just OK" prevent you from entering a competition.  Get them on the table.  You might be surprised what you get.

Keep it simple.


Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).