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Water: The Main Ingredient in Beer

Many brewers and lovers of beer love to muse over the ingredients. We ponder on the flavor profile of our favorite beers. We discuss the hop varietals and strains of yeast, how they balance, and how they don't. This tendency has only increased as craft brews have soared, giving us more opportunities to ponder what's in our favorite drinks. 

But, the real key ingredient in beer is one that will scarcely merit a mention, let alone a long satisfied ‘mmm' as we take our first, second, or 17th sip. That crucial element that doesn't elicit as much excitement is water.

Water is the most crucial ingredient in beer. And very few of us realize exactly how it affects our drinks. So, how much water is in beer, and what role does it play? Read on to find out more — we are going to break it down for you. 

How Much Water Is in Beer?

Brewing uses water very intensively. Many overlook the fact that H20 is the main ingredient in beer (sounds obvious, right?). It usually makes up between 90% and 95% of the contents, depending on the style of beer. 

But much more water plays into the brewing process than goes into a finished beer. The average brewhouse will use seven gallons of water to produce one gallon of beer, but the ratio can be much worse at less efficient sites. 

In fact, one study found it can take up to 300 liters (79.25 gallons) to make just one liter (0.26 gallons) of beer. Water is also crucial to ensuring the equipment is sanitary. 

In total, more H20 evaporates or gets discarded then goes into your beer. 

Does Water Affect the Finished Beer?

The answer to this is straightforward: Yes. 

Water is, in large part, the reason why certain countries have reputations for their brews. Irish stouts, German lagers, and Czech Pilsners: these beers are such prominent products from these countries because of each place's water content. The compounds in each react to create a different flavor profile and lend itself to different kinds of ales. 

For this reason, many breweries will test and even filter their water supply to ensure it suits their beer. Even subtle differences in the source can affect the final product — something brewers need to avoid. When a beer maker wants a brewery to produce some of their product, water is one of the main talking points. 

So, how does water affect beer?

The Chemistry of Brewing

At base, there are three main ways that water affects our favorite drink. 

  1. First, the water's nature will determine what the wort tastes like, and therefore how the beer tastes. Wort is the liquid produced by the mashing process in beer and whisky.
  2. The pH levels can affect the beer's bitterness, which is why master brewers are so selective about the H20 they use for their brews.
  3. Third, any foreign compounds can negatively affect the ale's taste. Indeed, contaminants or chlorine can result in an off-taste. For this reason, many brewers will never use tap water in their production process for fear of the compounds that may have ended up in there.

There are five ions present in H20 that you do want: Sodium, Magnesium, Calcium, Sulfate, and Chloride. These ions tend to affect your beer positively, so brewers must understand the role these ions play. 

Other compounds present that may play a role, too, such as trace amounts of microbes, fluoride, and zinc.

Calcium is the most important. It facilitates the mashing process and lowers pH levels by catalyzing with phosphates in malted barley. This process enables key enzymes to extract and break up sugars during extraction. Bicarbonate essentially does the opposite, which means it acts like a handy counter-balance to stop things from becoming too acidic. 

Beyond this, the rest of the compounds in water work to affect the beer's flavor profile, each causing subtle differences.

Getting It Right

You have worked out by now why water causes regional differences in beer production. Compounds in the actual supply vary from place to place, which in turn plays a large role in influencing which brews come from which location. 

Soft, hard, mineral water, and everything in between each lend themselves better to different beers. The crucial point is that brewers need to be wise to their local supply (you can request a water report from your municipality).

Pilsners — the prime beer export of the Czech Republic — need soft water, for instance, or a supply with a relatively low concentration of ions. In Ireland, where their supply is rich with minerals, produces stout — a product of the country's hard water. 

Today, when local supply doesn't match up with the beer producers want to make, they try to change the composition of the H20 before using it. Gypsum, baking soda, and even salt enable you to change the pH levels to something more to your — or your ale's — taste. 

Final Thoughts

It is easy to overlook how much water is in beer, but you shouldn't. If you are considering brewing at home, make sure you know what kind you have in your local area. Then, you know which is the best beer to make or how to change the H20 composition beforehand. 

Water plays a crucial and complex role in beer. It is vital you understand it and get it right. 


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