Preparing Your Water for Brewing – Part 1
For a guy who loves beer, you might not expect me to write an article about water. However, water plays a vital role in the quality of your beer. Water can be a complicated subject and I am by no means a chemist or an expert on the subject. My goal is to write a series of articles which cover some basic information about brewing water, creating a custom water profile, and how they can affect your beer. If you are looking for more technical details, there are plenty of good articles and books already out there.
I have spent a good bit of time experimenting with water profiles for the beers I have brewed over the past two years. My original goal was to improve my IPAs because I just could not seem to get them where I wanted them to be as far as hop flavor and mouthfeel. I was also having some issues with mash efficiency. Ah – that reminds me of something I should mention right now.
If you are an extract brewer or you are just getting started with home brewing, I would not worry too much about water profiles. You should first focus on learning brewing processes and perfecting basic beer styles like pale ales, wheat beers, etc.
A good place to start with water would be buying bottled spring water at your local grocery store. You can also just use your tap water, but you should at least try to remove as much chlorine as possible by using an activated charcoal filter.
You can brew good beer with just about any water. In fact, many breweries will tell you, “we have perfect water for brewing here in (insert name any town/city)“. I often find that hard to believe because any one water type is not great for all styles of beer. I think what they really mean is that they have good, neutral water which they can add minerals and other additives to in order to get the water profiles where they want them for various beer styles. Water profile is something that can potentially make a good beer a great beer. It has definitely made a difference in the beers I brew, but your results may vary depending on your water and the styles of beer you brew.
Water Profile: Where To Start
The first thing I did when I started my adventures in water profiles was to get my Dillsburg, PA tap water tested by a laboratory. I chose Ward Laboratories, Inc. since they offered a Brewer’s Water Test Kit on their site. I went with the W5A – Brewer’s Test & Kit which cost $42. This test includes results for the following: Sodium, Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Carbonate, Bicarbonate, Chloride, Iron, Sulfate, Nitrate, Electrical Conductivity, Est.Total Dissolved Solids, pH, Total Hardness (Lime), Total Alkalinity & Total Phosphorus. After ordering the kit on their site, they shipped me a box which contained a sterile sample vial and return postage for sending the sample to them. I received my results via email within a few days of mailing the sample to Ward Labs. OK, I have my results! Now what do I do with them? Here is an image of my test results from Ward Labs (if you are on public water in Dillsburg, PA you may just be able to use these):
There are a few options you have when it comes to using your water test results. Some of the popular brewing software applications (such as BeerSmith) include inputs for water results and features for adjusting water profiles. If you are not using brewing software or the software you use does not include features for water profiles, there are Excel workbooks you can download for free. The two most popular Excel files for brewing water are as follows:
I have tried both and I prefer the file from Bru’n Water. Any examples I show in my articles will be based on the Bru’n Water Excel file.
Enter Your Test Results
When you first open the Bru’n Water Excel file it will look pretty intimidating (unless you work in Finance and use Excel on a daily basis). Don’t worry, it is really not that difficult to use once you get familiar with it. The first sheet in the workbook includes instructions. The second sheet is named ‘Water Report Input’. This is where you will enter the various test results you received from the laboratory. The sheet will look like this:
Most of the results can simply be entered into the appropriate spot on the sheet. However, there are a couple of exceptions.
- For Sulfate – you need to multiply the lab result by 3 (if the lab reports Sulfate as SO4-S which Ward Labs does)
- For Nitrate – you need to multiply the lab result by 4.43 (if the lab reports Nitrate as NO3-N which Ward Labs does)
Next – move to the Sparge Acidification sheet. There are only a few things you need to do on this sheet.
- Select the Acid Type that you plan to use for adjusting the pH of your sparge water. I use Lactic Acid, but another popular choice is Phosphoric Acid. Both of these should be available at your local homebrew store.
- In the cell for Desired Water pH, enter a value of 5.8. Research has shown that adjusting the pH of your sparge water to a value of 6 or below helps reduce the chance of extracting tannins from the grain husks during sparging which can result in astringency in your beer.
- In the cell for Water Volume, change the value to 1. You DO NOT have to change this value to the actual amount of sparge water you will be using. That value will be entered on another sheet in the workbook.
OK, we are done entering the test results. That was easy, wasn’t it?
Is Your Water Good For That IPA You Are About To Brew?
For the remainder of this post, I just want to demonstrate the affect that water can have on something as simple as mash pH. Over the next couple of months, I will be writing at least a couple of other water related posts which will cover things like adjusting the sulfate to chloride ratio and adjusting water for a softer mouthfeel (think Tired Hands, Tree House, etc.).
The two most common beer styles I brew are IPAs and Saison/Farmhouse Ales. Almost all of my beers are very light in color which is how I like them. Unfortunately for me, my tap water is not great for brewing beers which feature a bunch of low SRM malts (2-row, Pilsner, wheat, etc.). My water is actually better for brewing stouts and porters. This is primarily due to the high level of bicarbonate in my Dillsburg water. Bicarbonate is an alkaline buffer that limits pH reduction during mashing. This, in combination with the high percentage of light colored malts I use, was basically resulting in my mash pH being too high (above 5.2-5.6). I also did not have a pH meter to check my mash pH at the time which meant my mash pH was most likely higher than the recommended range for my first few years of homebrewing.
I will now show you how to use the Excel file to determine what your mash pH should be based on your water and the grains you will be using. For this example, I am using the recipe for the Bent Propeller IPA I brewed for Harrisburg Beer Week this year. My beer finished second in the judging and third for People’s Choice – yeah water profile!
Enter The Grains You Will Be Using
On the Mash Acidification sheet in the Excel file:
- In cell D3, enter the volume of mash water you will be using.
- In cell F3, enter the batch size (wort volume) in gallons (for example – 5 gallons).
- In cell A5, enter the name/description for the first malt in your recipe (2-row in this example).
- Using the drop down in cell B5, select the Grain Type (Base Malt, Crystal Malt, Roast Malt, Acid Malt).
- In cell C5, enter the number of pounds for the malt. You can also use cell D5 to enter the number of ounces if the quantity is not a whole number or if the quantity is less than one pound.
- In cell E5, enter the color (L) of the malt. If you do not know what the color is you can usually look it up online (either on one of the homebrew store sites or on the manufacturer’s site).
- Continue adding the malts for your recipe on the additional rows.
The Mash Acidification sheet should now look something like this:
Notice that in the bottom right corner there is a cell for Estimated Room Temperature Mash pH. My value is currently 6.0 and there is a red warning telling me that Less Mash Water Alkalinity is Needed. I wanted my mash pH to be around 5.4 for this beer. What do I do next? There are multiple ways to adjust your mash pH, but I will focus on the methods I normally use.
First, let’s take a look at the Water Adjustment sheet.
There are several areas on the Water Adjustment sheet that you will need to enter values into:
- In cell J15, enter the water volume in gallons for your mash.
- In cell L15, enter the water volume in gallons for your sparge water.
- Use the drop down list in cell A4 to select your desired water profile. In this example I am brewing an IPA with light color malts so I have selected Yellow Bitter as my desired water profile. When you select one of the water profiles, the values in row 4 will be updated with the target values for Calcium, Magnesium, Sodium, etc.
On row 12 in the screenshot above, you will see that some of the values for my Finished Water Profile are pretty far off from what they should be (Sulfate, Bicarbonate, Alkalinity, etc.). The next step is to adjust your water profile so the finished water profile values are closer to the target values. Do not be too concerned with trying to get the values to exactly match. You just need to get them close to see a noticeable difference in your finished beer.
The first things I like to address for my light-colored beers are the high bicarbonate and alkalinity. The easiest way to lower these values is to dilute your mash and sparge water with either distilled or reverse osmosis water. I originally was using distilled water which I would purchase at Giant Foods for $.89/gallon. I later discovered that most Weis Markets have self-service stations outside where you can fill your own containers with reverse osmosis water for $.35/gallon. Much cheaper and you can fill containers from 1 gallon up to 5 gallons!
Use the drop down list in cell A7 to select the type of water you will be using. In this example, I have selected Reverse Osmosis (RO Water). In cell B8, you will have to enter the Dilution Percentage. When you first start, you will need to play with this to see what percentage you need based on your tap water. I have found that 65-70% dilution works well for most of my light colored beers. For our example, I have set the dilution percentage to 65%. In the screenshot below, you can see how this changed some of the values on row 12 (Finished Water Profile).
A side effect of diluting your tap water with distilled or reverse osmosis water is that it will drop the values for just about everything (Calcium, Sulfate, etc.). Notice that some of the cells on row 12 are now yellow instead of green. The cells will turn green when the value is within an acceptable range. The good news is that our bicarbonate and alkalinity are now much lower. Again – do not worry if they do not exactly match the target values. In some cases, it will just be impossible to get everything to exactly match and still achieve your desired water profile. For example, adding gypsum to increase the Sulfate level is also going to increase the value for Calcium.
We are now ready to determine what minerals we need to add to get our desired finished water profile. I generally only use Gypsum, Calcium Chloride, and Epsom Salt. There are a lot of different directions you can go here so I would encourage you to do your own experimenting. In this example, let’s say our goal is to raise the Calcium, Sulfate and Chloride values to get them closer to the desired values. In the screenshot below, you can see the values I entered and the finished water profile.
You may notice that some of my values are not exactly in line with the recommended values for the Yellow Bitter water profile (Sulfate and SO4/Cl Ratio for example). I will discuss this more in another post, but my preference for the IPAs I brew is to go with a more balanced Sulfate to Chloride ratio instead of going with a very high Sulfate level like you may see in some IPAs.
So – we have made some adjustments, but how have they effected our predicted mash pH? If you go to the Mash Acidification sheet, you will see that our Estimated Mash pH after our water adjustments is now 5.7 (down from 6.0). That is still too high. Remember, my goal for this batch was to have a mash pH around 5.4. There are different things you can do to lower your mash pH. One option would be to add some lactic acid or phosphoric acid to the mash to lower the pH. My preference is to add Acidulated Malt to the mash to lower the pH. Acidulated Malt is simply malted barley that has been sprayed/coated with lactic acid. I always keep a couple of pounds of crushed Acidulated Malt handy for lowering my mash pH. I generally need to add 4-5 ounces of Acidulated Malt to my light yellow colored beers to get my desired mash pH. In this example, I have added 5 ounces of Acidulated Malt to the Mash Acidification sheet on row 9. Make sure you select Acid Malt using the drop down list in column B. In the screenshot below, you can see the results of adding the 5 ounces of Acidulated Malt. Our Estimated Room-Temperature Mash pH in cell G26 is now 5.4 – exactly what we wanted for this beer.
At this point, I am satisfied with my water profile. If you click on the Adjustment Summary sheet, you will see a summary of the water profile as well as a list of the additions you need to make to your mash and sparge water. The summary sheet also shows the volume of distilled or reverse osmosis water you will need in cells F13 and I13. Cell G25 will contain the amount of acid that you will need to add to your sparge water to get the pH lowered to your desired value (5.8 in my example). I always print the Adjustment Summary sheet and attach it to my recipe sheet for each beer I brew.
Wow! This post got a little longer than I planned on and I know it may seem like a lot. However, with a little bit of studying and experimenting with your water profile you can see very noticeable improvements in your beers. I have helped several of my brewing friends create water profiles for their beers. None of them have told me that they got better results when they were just using their tap water with no adjustments. They are now on my water profile bandwagon and we all benefit from it when we drink each other’s beers.
Please feel free to post comments about your experiences with water profiles. As always, you can also contact me with any questions. I will do my best to answer them.