“What is the best way to treat water to brew beer?“
I get that question a lot, and while beer is 91 to 97% water, the answer is “It Depends!”
It depends upon a number of factors, such as (1) where you are geographically located; (2) whether you have well or city water; (3) whether your water source uses chloramine or chlorine; and (4) what type of beer you want to brew. Let me elaborate on these four factors:
GEOGRAPHIC LOCATION – Water quality varies dramatically depending upon where you are located. In some parts of the country the TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) levels are low and in other areas they are high. Depending upon your TDS level and what type of beer you are trying to brew would lead you to choose different technologies to treat your water. For example, if your TDS level was over 300 to 500 ppm, and depending upon what type of beer you were trying to brew, you might want to choose reverse osmosis to lower your TDS levels.
There are exceptional beers brewed with both High and Low TDS levels, but the TDS levels cannot be considered in a vacuum. pH and other contaminants also need to be considered. Consider this: RO removes about 97 percent of sodium nitrate from the water. Nitrates reduce to nitrites in solution, which are toxic to yeast. Also, pH in conjunction with TDS levels have to be considered, as “mash pH” is critical to the brewing process.
WATER SOURCE – Water typically comes from a municipality, a well or a surface source. How you treat each one varies depending upon the contaminants found. Therefore a water test is paramount when considering what type of treatment to apply, because the treatment regimen for surface water, well water and municipal water can be dramatically different. Total alkalinity, bicarbonate levels and other contaminants will also affect the brewing process.
CHLORINE OR CHLORAMINE – If you have municipal water, it may be high or low in TDS, but it also may have chlorine, which is toxic to yeast or chloramine, which is like “chlorine on steroids” because it is like the Energizer Bunny in that it keeps going and going and going. Chloramine is made with chlorine and ammonia which results in the chlorine lasting almost forever. Chlorine is bad enough for brewing beer, but can be overcome with intense heat which causes evaporation of the chemical. Chloramine is very resistant to evaporation, which means that it will kill your yeast… or at least maim it! Chlorine and Chloramine are both removed by “prolonged contact carbon filtration” but chloramine requires “catalytic carbon” to remove it. Should you use granular activated carbon (GAC) or Catalytic Carbon? Let me answer that question by saying that even if your municipality does not use chloramine today, the likelihood is that it will “tomorrow.” Use Catalytic Granular Activate Carbon or CGAC!
TYPE OF BEER – If you are brewing a stout or an IPA or a lager, you will likely need different levels of pH, bicarbonate, alkalinity and/or TDS. We don’t try and tell you what mixture works the best – we just supply equipment that enables you to achieve any level of water quality you desire.
So, what type of water treatment is best for brewing beer? There is no pat answer. In some cases, it may involve micron filtration followed by catalytic granular activated carbon prolonged contact filtration and ultraviolet (UV) disinfection. In other cases it may involve reverse osmosis with addition of pH acids and brewing salts, such as calcium carbonate, calcium sulfate, calcium chloride, magnesium sulfate and sodium bicarbonate. These are often called “Brewing Salts” and are essential to brewers who want the best possible product.
In conclusion, a 5 micron filter and a catalytic carbon filter are ideal in many areas, but the most sophisticated brewers use that followed by reverse osmosis and pH adjustment followed by the introduction of “brewing salts.” At any rate, US Water Systems offers a number of option for the Home Beer Brewer as well as the Professional Business Brewer.
Photo courtesy of Two Deep Brewing Company.