“Reinheitsgebot”, or the “German Beer Purity Law” if you don’t know the German language, was a law created in 1516 Bavaria which dictated that all beer production must only be produced using water, barley, and hops. Notice that nowhere yeast is mentioned? Well that’s because microorganisms used in fermentation weren’t discovered until the 1800s, so their roll in beer production wasn’t known. Over time the law was opened to allow for other forms of malt. And in modern day, the use of other flavor additives in craft brewing has become increasingly popular.
So over the course of the next few weeks, we’re going to examine each of the key ingredients to the beer making process (water, hops, barley & malts, yeast, and additives) to give you a better understanding of how these individual components affect the beer you drink and enjoy every day. This week, we take a look at water.
When thinking about drinking water nowadays, it is reserved to plastic bottles, cooler talk at the office, and filter-processed tap water off of the fridge door, but water plays a an incredibly important part in the brewing process. More often than not, the quality of the beer is uniquely attributed to the natural state of the water used to make it. In fact, the story of beer’s rise to common drinking beverage in many ways starts with the water.
Although there is evidence of beer existing back to at least the 5th millennium BC in Egypt and Mesopotamia, it is arguable that the waters role in beer and beer consumption first became a realization during the Middle Ages. The water used in the brewing process would undergo boiling where it would become purified and thus a “healthy” beverage for all meals. Therefore, these forms of beers were essentially homebrews since the making of beer was a daily family chore just like baking breads and harvesting vegetables. It is believed that the average person of this time drank an average of 60-70 gallons of beer per year.
Eventually, the brewing of beer moved away from the family activity when the first form of breweries started to appear in early modern Europe. These early breweries were pubs that made their own beer. And because giant tanker-trucks or public plumbing systems didn’t exist, these early brewers established their operations in close proximity to water sources like rivers and lakes so that they had a steady supply of water.
At that time, no one would have known the implications that these water sources would have had on beer. But in modern times, especially when trying to replicate tried and true styles of traditional beers, brewers came to realize that even if you have a recipe exact to what one brewer has done, there is a chemical nature to the water which will ultimately lead to a different result.
Two great examples of this are looking at the original Bass Ale produced in the UK and the Pilzen from the Czech Republic.
The Bass & Co Brewery was founded in 1777 by William Bass in Burton upon Trent, England. The water in this region of England is considered to be very “hard” as a result of there being a large amount of salt due to the surrounding hills. This ultimately is one of the key distinctions which had benefited the English Pale Ale style. The minerals in the “hard water” create a subtle bitter flavor profile which helps to compliment the hops in the beer.
Conversely, the water which is common to the Czech Republic is considered “soft”. As a result of the natural aquifers and the water’s lack of alkalinity and minerals, the water is smooth and doesn’t greatly alter the flavors of the other ingredients in a beer. This is what has given the Bohemian pilsner lager it’s very smooth, crisp, and clean finish that is characteristic to this day.
Some chemical components found in water can have dramatic effects. For example, a high level of magnesium can produce prominent bitter or sour characteristics. Sulfates can provide a dry and sharp flavor which compliments hops. And Carbonates can help extract tannins from hops and grains.
As a result of modern science, brewers no longer are stuck to geographical regions to achieve a perfect style of beer. Many brewers are scientists in themselves closely monitoring the chemical composition of the water used in their beer production and adjusting the chemical nature depending on the style their brewing.
So next time you’re at a bar, grab a Bass and a Pilsner so that you can sample them one at a time and side by side and you’ll clearly be able to appreciate the different the water makes.