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The main ingredient of each and every beer: water

You take some hops, malt, yeast and water … And with a little bit of expertise and skill, plus a healthy helping of brewing craftsmanship, these will turn into something delightfully delicious. At the moment, we are busy taking a closer look at this magical recipe for brewing beer, and as part of this undertaking we dedicate one specific blog to each of these four raw materials, and their respective significance for the brewing process. Now after we’ve already got to the bottom of things as far as the soul of beer and the green gold are concerned, I – being as I am an avowed amateur when it comes to brewing – took the plunge into the deep end – quite literally: I have dealt with the topic of “water as one of the raw materials for brewing” in more detail.

And since I was from the start downright inundated with information, I questioned Mr Birk from the Doemens Academy GmbH, who luckily rescued me from the maelstrom of ignorance and – being an expert in the fields of brewing and beverage technology – had the correct answer to each of my questions ready and waiting for me.

I started by asking in how far he comes across the four essential raw materials for beer in his everyday work routine. Easy: in his daily job as a lecturer when he communicates to the students how the constituents of the individual raw materials change during malting and brewing, what their effect is on the beer’s characteristics, and how they can be influenced for the better and for the worse with which process steps.

No two waters are alike

Even I as a layperson can imagine that there are certain differences in regard to water quality. Needless to say, however, that Mr Birk knows all there is to know when it comes to quality standards for mash liquor and the role played by drinking water in this context: “The (very good) drinking-water quality in Germany is due not least to the German Drinking Water Ordinance (TrinkwV), which consists of empirical standard values derived from experience gained over the past 175 years, and is basically intended to safeguard people against health hazards. Drinking water may contain beverage-spoilage organisms, for example, or natural substances, like iron, which in their turn would have a deleterious effect on the beer’s quality.” And that this is the reason why more stringent yardsticks apply for mash liquor than for drinking water is definitely logical and easily comprehensible, isn’t it?

So what exactly are the salient qualities of a good mash liquor?

Yes, good question that! It has to be pure, fit for human consumption, clear, colourless, taste-neutral, cool, odourless; it must not contain any organic contaminants, nor any pathogens and/or other micro-organisms – these are the salient qualities of the ideal mash liquor. And it should also contain only minimal amounts of gases and minerals.

Moreover, the water’s hardness and pH value likewise play an important role. Water hardness?! Stop – calm down, all of you who have been at loggerheads with chemistry ever since their school days: there will be no chemistry crash course right here! 🙂 To sum up briefly: the term “hardness” in general means minerals with cations from the second main group of the periodic table of the elements. Apart from Ca and Mg, you will only find traces of the other cations of this main group in natural water – if any at all – so these can ultimately be neglected. “But an aspect that is of at least equal importance is whether they form minerals with carbon dioxide. Carbonate hardness is bad for the mash liquor, non-carbonate hardness is good,” clarifies Mr Birk for me.

Hard and soft mash liquor, pH value and mineral content

To round off my small foray into the spheres of chemistry, Mr Birk then proceeds to explain to me the difference between hard and soft mash liquor: “Soft mash liquor contains small amounts of Ca and Mg minerals. Above all, the aim is for it to contain minimised carbonate hardness, whereas it may have generous amounts of non-carbonate hardness.” What then above all interests me as a consumer and hedonist, to whom chemistry, minerals and reactions is all Greek, is the effect the mash liquor’s hardness will later on have on the beer. “Carbonate hardness increases its pH value, which makes for a more pronounced bitterness, but reduces the bitterness quality, deepens the beer’s colour, and impairs both its taste and its fullbodiedness,” is how Mr Birk briefly summarises the effects involved for me.

pH-value, acid, alkalis … oh dear, if only I’d paid a bit more attention in the chemistry lessons back then. But since I didn’t, these terms are haunting my brain in cheerfully confused chaos, so that I have to get help from Mr Birk when it comes to the interrelationship of pH value and beer. The raw-materials expert promptly fills me in: any brewer depends like no other person on the effect of the malt enzymes formed during malting. And these in their turn have to have certain pH values for them to take effect; above all, they are responsible for decomposition processes in the brewhouse.

And as far as the mineral content is concerned, you have to be a bit cautious, by the way. The opinion used to prevail that hard water was favourable for dark beers (e.g. Münchner Bier), and that soft water was rather more suitable for pale, hop-intensive, slim beers like Pilsner beer, for example. This opinion is meanwhile well out of date. Some research has been done on this, and the brewing craft, too, has developed processes, techniques and technologies for using soft water in order to also produce distinctively delicious dark beers. But one hard fact – quite literally – has retained its validity over time: with a mash liquor of high carbonate hardness, you cannot make good beer.


As you can see, there’s a whole lot to report on water as one of the raw materials for brewing. And if you consider that the universally popular liquid gold consists of about 93 per cent water, that’s reason enough to scrutinise this ingredient in some more detail, isn’t it?? 🙂

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