Water Treatment for Brewing 4: Lessons Learned

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

In previous parts of this miniseries, I have covered pretty much everything you need to get started on water treatment for brewing.  Here, I’ll cover a few miscellaneous things I have learned over the course of treating additional batches.  I’ll try to add on any additional lessons-learned as I go.

  • Add sparge calcium additions to the kettle: Most water calculators recommend splitting your water additions between the mash and sparge water.  While reading Palmer and Kaminski’s Water, I came upon a little one-line gem: add your sparge calcium additions right to the kettle before the boil.  This will help ensure enough calcium makes it through to your boil to help with the hot break, and to fermentation to aid in yeast health and flocculation.
  • Focus on mash pH: If you are an all-grain brewer, the single most important thing you can do when treating your water is to set the conditions for a proper mash pH.  If you have high bicarbonate levels like me, a fairly hefty dose of acid might be in order.  If not, and you are brewing a beer heavy in dark malts, additional alkalinity is called for.  When accounting for the acid contribution of particularly dark grains, many calculators will over-estimate the amount of alkalinity needed to balance things.  Chris Colby recommends entering these grains as no darker than 120L to keep things in check (though Bru’n Water seems to limit things for you).  So, enter a 300L chocolate malt as 120L or so for the purposes of calculation, for example.
  • Get the right water report: The water report I found online was only for one treatment facility in my area.  After calling the local water authority, it turns out that my water is drawn from a number of well pumping stations.  The treatment facility I had a report for is actually only used much in the winter.  By talking with the water engineer for my county, I was able to get a rough idea of what water sources are pulled from during different seasons.
  • Use different acids: I have high enough levels of bicarbonates in my water that for lighter beers, I run pretty close to the flavor threshold of about 2mL per gallon/ 0.5mL per L of lactic acid to bring the pH down.  If you’re too lazy to use the boil/decant trick, you can use multiple acids to remain below the flavor threshold of each.  Or, you can use an acid specifically to add a certain flavor.  Using citric or tartaric acid to drop the pH for a saison, for example, might add a light background fruitiness, while the crispness of phosphoric acid might find a home in a clean lager.
  • Adjust acid levels based on the beer (UPDATE 2014.07.06): Yeast will make a wort more acidic as they ferment.  So, higher alcohol beers will have a lower pH than a low alcohol beer, all else being equal.  So, if you brew a high alcohol light beer, like a tripel, you might find that you end up with something more acidic than you meant if you adjust as normal.  Frequently these beers are good with a bit more acidity and tartness, but if its too much for your liking, don’t acidify your sparge water as much (you should still ensure your mash pH is right).  Then, you’ll have a bit more alkalinity left to buffer against the pH change during fermentation.
  • Chloride to sulfide ratio: Some people (like John Palmer, Jamil Zainasheff) believe that the ratio of these two ions is responsible for either a malty or dry/hoppy beer.  Others (like Denny Conn) believe the absolute level of the ions is what’s important, not that they are balanced in some way relative to each other.  The jury is still out.  (For what it’s worth, I am a ratio guy, but I have never tested the absolute level theory.)
  • Ballpark it: RDWHAHB!  So long as you get things in the right ballpark, it will work out.  Avoid over-treating your water, a common mistake that can lead to an off-putting mineral taste.  When in doubt, go light, and add more to the next batch if needed.  The ultimate test is whether the beer tastes good, not whether the equations work out.
ions in water

Water molecules surrounding the charged ions of a brewing salt.  Sorry for the repeat image.  Work’s been crazy, and its getting late…

[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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