Photo courtesy of White Labs
Water testing at White Labs
“If George Harrison is hops (the wild, “out there” one), Paul McCartney is yeast (the most feminine—yeast are all female), and John Lennon is malt (the founder of the band that provides a solid foundation for the rest to build on), then Ringo Starr is most like water: crucial, but often overlooked.”
Of the four main elements in beer, water is certainly considered the least interesting. Brewers animatedly argue the finer points of alpha acids in hops and malt bills, but conversations about water treatment techniques or the alkalinity level of local water sources are rarely overheard outside laboratories.
However, what water lacks in pizazz, it makes up for in importance when it comes to brewing. Not only does it compose the bulk of all beer, but the minutiae of mineral content and pH levels affect different styles of suds in vastly different ways. Identical recipes can be considerably varied when brewed with different water sources.
San Diego’s water is sourced mainly from the mineral-rich Colorado River, which supplies the region with “hard” water full of calcium and magnesium. Other minor sources include desalination distributors, rainfall (which, thanks to the drought, is a drop in the bucket) and from the State Water Project, which San Diego hasn’t seen much of in the past decade.
“The Colorado River has fairly high alkalinity,” says Tim Suydam, senior water operations manager at Stone Brewing and a 25-year veteran of the wastewater industry. “At Stone, we have very specific mineral content that we try to brew with, so what we do is take some of the Colorado River water and blend it back in with reverse osmosis water to meet our objectives [since] reverse osmosis [RO] basically takes out everything.”
Breweries often use a blend of city and RO-treated water for a unique brewing profile, but Societe Brewing takes a more hands-on approach by treating 100 percent of their brewing water through reverse osmosis.
“We do this for several reasons,” says Travis Smith, brewmaster at Societe. “Unless you are testing the city water on a daily basis and then making adjustments on how much water is blended, there would not be a way to know what minerals are in the water. By using 100 percent RO water and then adding minerals, we maintain a consistent water profile year-round and complete control of what that profile is. We can add higher calcium sulfate concentrations to hoppy beers to accentuate the hoppiness, up the calcium chloride to give the beer a rounder, softer character, or add calcium carbonate to give it a harder, more mineral-rich composition.”
On a smaller level, many homebrewers are content to carbon filter chlorine out of tap water or wing it with a quick boil before mashing in, but these approaches only remove organics and tend not to noticeably alter taste. For hardcore brewing scientists, White Labs offers water testing kits as well as testing services for professional brewers.
While San Diego’s particular water profile supports our output of IPAs and other hop-heavy styles, it has a ways to go before becoming palatable on its own. Smith puts it a little more bluntly.
“I stand by my claim that San Diego water tastes like ass.”