Water Treatment for Brewing 2: Water Report

[Miniseries Part One, Two, Three, Three-point-Five, Three-point-Six, Four]

In part one of this mini-series, I went into why you might be interested in making water adjustments, what various important ions do to your brew, and what sort of water is good for what beers.  That’s all fine and dandy, but completely academic unless you can actually treat the water.  So, the first thing you’ll want to get is a water report to find your water’s baseline.  Otherwise, you’ll be adding some well measured and well controlled amount of brewing salts to god-knows-what.  And that adds up to god-knows-what.

Some municipalities post complete and helpful reports online or send them out annually.  Others… not so much.  I was able to find a water report for my area after quite a bit of digging around online on the page for my specific water treatment plant (there are multiple in my county).  The higher municipal page only had stats on water quality (bacterial loads, heavy metal levels, industrial contaminant testing, etc)- reassuring perhaps, but largely useless for brewing.  If its nowhere online, you can try calling your city or county, or even buy a test kit.  Just keep in mind, in many parts of the country, the entire water source will actually change at various times in the year.  Sometimes the change can be quite radical, from snow melt (soft) to underground aquifers (hard), for example.  If you are on a personal well, you can test for some things at aquarium or pool shops, or get a complete lab work-up done with some test kits available at various homebrew retailers.

So, you’ve searched, called, or begged on your hands and knees, and now you hold in your hands… a bunch of numbers.  Sweet.  These will be various impurities and ions, likely in parts per million (ppm, roughly equivalent to mg/L) or CaCO3 or other equivalents.  If in ppm, you need not do anything; if listed as equivalents, multiply by the specified value.  You’ll want to locate some key ions:

  • Calcium: This can be listed as calcium (Ca) or as Calcium Carbonate (CaCO3).  If listed only as hardness, or CaCO3, multiply this by 0.401 to get the Ca ions.
  • Magnesium: Mg is not particularly important for brewing directly (all the magnesium needed is present in the grain), but it does effect the residual alkalinity.  This can also be listed in units of CaCO3 hardness; multiply by 0.243 if that’s the case.
  • Sodium: Na should be kept low, at least less than 150ppm.
  • Iron: Fe can be tasted in extremely low concentrations in water and beer, specifically at concentrations above about 0.3ppm (or 300 parts per billion).  If you can taste it in your water, you will be able to taste it in the beer.  Otherwise, you’re probably good to go.
  • Bicarbonate: HCO3 can also be reported in units of CaCO3; multiply by 1.22 to get ppm.
  • Carbonate: CO3 is generally very low at normal drinking water pH.  It might be reported in units of CaCO3; multiply by 0.6 to get ppm or simply assume it is zero.
  • Sulfate: SO4 is extremely important.  Multiply by 3 if reported in units of SO4-S as is popular for farming applications.
  • Chloride: Cl is another important ion, but its not to be confused chlorine- they are the same atom but with a different electrical charge, and behave very differently.  Chlorine is generally a couple (1-3) ppm, while chloride is likely much higher.
water report

My water report.  I got lucky that everything is already in parts per million and not any sort of equivalents, so I could read directly from the report.

Now you have what you need to get started- this is your water’s baseline.  There may be other ions listed on the report, but these can generally be ignored.  From here you have a couple of options: you can add various ions to your water to get where you want it, or you may decide that something in your water is already far too high to deal with.  In this case, it can be cut with some distilled or reverse osmosis (RO) water to decrease the ion concentration, or you can even build up completely from distilled water (though this is generally not needed or recommended).  Bottled water is also an option; many manufacturers are willing to provide a water report for their products.

[2013.09.03 UPDATE: A quick note on filtering your water: there are some scattered reports that some filters (ie Brita) will strip out a significant portion of the carbonates from the water (well over half) since a filter redesign some years ago.  I can’t speak to this from personal experience, but a $5 aquarium test kit will tell you your carbonate levels if you either don’t trust the city report or if you filter your water.  But, the best tell is in the taste- no mater what the calculations tell you, the best tasting beer is always the goal.]

[2013.10.22 UPDATE: If you use Campden tablets to remove chlorine and chloramine, it will slightly alter some ion concentrations.  In the vast majority of cases, the change is less than: sulfate +8.1 ppm, chloride +3 ppm, and alkalinity -4.3 ppm.  See this post for a more complete explanation and a nice chart.]

Stay tuned- part three goes into how to transform your water to the desired profile.  Much of the information contained in this post is from a great spreadsheet for adjustment calculations, Bru’n Water.

Click here to read on in part three >>

[Miniseries Part One, Two, Three, Three-point-Five, Three-point-Six, Four]

– Dennis,
Life, Fermented

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About Dennis
Home brewer, home chef, garage tinkerer. Author of Life Fermented blog.

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