The Secret Source of a Beer’s Character

Water may make up more than 90 per cent of beer’s recipe, but its importance in brewing is often ignored. Malt, hops and yeast are all credited with providing beer with all of its flavour and aroma characteristics, but water has a much larger role than simply a delivery device.

As a brewer, if you want your beer to taste and smell good, your water has to exhibit the same qualities. Depending on the water source (not to mention the style of beer), the water must be tailored for the final product to meet its full potential. Pre-treating brewing water is a mixture of art and science, as are many of the other steps in the brewing process. Commercial brewers realize this and, as a result, become very familiar with the water they’re starting with, taking the time and spending the money to have it analyzed in a lab.

Once you know exactly what your water is made up of, you know if adjustments need to be made: whether it has to be filtered to remove particulates, disinfectants or harmful chemicals, whether brewing salts have to be added to increase levels of calcium, chloride, or sulfates (to name a few), or whether reverse osmosis water (completely devoid of minerals) has to be added to “dilute” the water, resulting in a decrease in mineral content.

Before technology enabled accurate water measurements, brewers noticed that their town’s waters favoured one style of beer over others. In the English town of Burton-on-Trent, the high sulfate level enhanced the hops in the popular pale ale style of beer to shine through, for a more pronounced bitterness than those brewed in London.

The high bicarbonate levels in Dublin water are excellent buffers, keeping the pH of the beer higher when using only pale malts, which left the flavour quite harsh. Using darker roast malts, which are better able to lower the beer’s pH, led to a smoother and more enjoyable beer and is the style for which the city is known the world over.

Halifax’s North Brewing is taking full advantage of the tools available these days, closely monitoring the water characteristics to precisely tune the final product.

“Dialing in the sulfate/chloride ratio in our beers has been really helpful with respect to achieving our target mash pH, as well as the mouth feel and finish we are looking for in a particular beer,” says Rozina Darvesh, co-owner and part of the brewing team.

In the latest version of their Gose beer, a historic sour wheat style from Germany brewed with the crew from Stillwell Beer Bar, they increased the sulfate ratio for a crisper finish and accentuated acidity. Staying true to tradition, Prince Edward Island harvested sea salt was also added to the beer, for a light salinity, “just enough salt to invite another sip!”

In Sydney, Breton Brewing sources its water from the Cape Breton Regional Municipality and will treat it depending on the style of beer. According to co-owner and brewer Bryan MacDonald, “This is a very drinkable water that allows us flexibility when brewing various beer styles.”

After filtering to remove some treatment chemicals, they add salts such as calcium chloride or calcium sulfate in different concentrations depending on whether they are brewing their Stirling Hefeweizen or Black Angus IPA.

Some local breweries, however, are so pleased with their water source that they feel there’s little tweaking to be done (if any), regardless of beer style.

“Our water comes from a very deep well,” explains Boxing Rock co-founder and co-brewer Henry Pedro, “and even though we take precautions to remove any excess iron, organics and odour, as well as UV treating to make sure that it’s sterile, we don’t add or takeaway anything from it. We’re making great Nova Scotian beers with our own unique signature.”

Water’s place in the brewing process, from adjusting the pH during the mash, to enhancing hop bitterness, to rounding out an otherwise harsh flavour, is critical to the final product. Nova Scotia breweries are putting their own spin on this ingredient and building on the province’s natural resource.


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