Skip to content
Craft your water before crafting your beer

Craft your water before crafting your beer

Not only is water the most common ingredient in beer it is the most important one as well. It doesn’t matter if you have the best grain, hops and yeast in the entire world, if you have bad water you will make bad beer.

Mineral content of beer is important both today and historically. Brewers have known for centuries that good water makes good beer and therefore would typically seek to locate their brewery close to a good water source. Terroir (French. A word for the flavour something gains when it's nurtured by a certain plot of land) is a concept of place: ‘where the product is made will affect its flavour’. When a beer is made using local water it has as much local flavour as wine, coffee or whiskey. That means that the water source contributes greatly to the signature or stamp of a particular brewer and its beer.

The tale of two classic English beer cities

The two most famous cities for brewing beer in England are Burton-on-Trent and London. Historically speaking these two cities had very similar brewing industries. They are only about 200 km apart so the hops and grains and even yeast are all somewhat similar but they have vastly different water profiles. Let’s start with Burton-on-Trent which is famous for its water supply and became a brewing capital of England from 1700s onwards. In Burton-on-Trent the water comes from underground and filters up through natural gypsum and picks up a high concentration of calcium sulphate. Water with high concentrations of calcium sulphate is known as permanently hard water since boiling won’t remove the mineral content and is especially known to accent hop bitterness. Directly because of this Burton-on-Trent quickly became famous for its pale ales. These beers became so famous that it was common for English brewers to talk about Burtonizing their water - adding sulphates like gypsum in order to replicate the water supply in Burton-on-Trent.


Bass Brewery
Picture 1.

In contrast London is known as being the birthplace of porter which in turn led to the creation of stout. London’s geology features more limestone so its water has a high concentration of calcium carbonate. Water with calcium carbonate in it is known as temporarily hard water because boiling precipitates out and removes calcium carbonate.

Calcium carbonate contributes to water’s total alkalinity (Carbonate hardness) which is its ability to neutralize acids affecting its ph. Dark roasted malts are actually slightly acidic and so you need a little bit of alkalinity to make a dark beer. Directly because of this London became famous for its porters and dark beers as opposed to Burton-on-Trent which is famous for its light beers. Two different water profiles – two very different beers.

Other famous cities such as Pilsen in Czech Republic have an unusually soft water which helped create what is considered the original golden standard for pilsner beers.


Challenges when using a municipal water supply

For brewers using municipal supplies, water treatment makes a big difference in their operations. When contaminants are filtered out, so are minerals that brewers actually want in the water and when chemicals are added in, such as chlorine for killing microbes, they must come out to achieve a neutral taste in the brewing water.

The way a municipal water supply is treated has a lot to do with the quality of its source water to begin with. Drinking water has to meet specific health standards, meaning that the quality of water entering into public drinking water systems must be clean already or cleaned before distribution. Cleaner source water requires less treatment by local water utilities to make it safe for drinking. Less treatment means breweries may have to do less work to prepare water for brewing.


Calcium (mg/l)

Magnesium (mg/l)

Sodium (mg/l)

Sulphate (mg/l)

Chloride (mg/l)

Alkalinity (mg/l)

Antwerp, Belgium







Burton-On-Trent, UK







Dortmund, Germany







Dublin, Ireland







Edinburg, UK







London, UK







Los Angeles, (East), USA







Los Angeles, (West), USA







Munich, Germany







New York, USA







Pilsen, Czech Republic







Vienna, Austria







Table 1.


Replicating your beer water

Brewers can replicate the flavour of beers like the ones mentioned above or any other beer they desire by either finding water supplies with similar features, or starting with clean, neutral-tasting water and adding minerals and salts to match the characteristics of the original source waters. So how can you do this? What are the few important aspects in a particular beer’s source water that can make a difference?

Water impacts beer in three ways. Water ions are critical in the mashing process for all grain brewers, where the character of the water determines the efficiency and flavor of the extracted wort. Water also affects the perceived bitterness and hop utilization of finished beer. Finally, water adds flavor directly to the beer itself – as water is the largest single component in finished beer.

The effect of brewing water on beer can be characterized by six main water ions: Carbonate, Sodium, Chloride, Sulfate, Calcium and Magnesium.

You can get a water report from your local municipality that will contain the mineral content of your water supply. Each of the critical ions is described below:

Carbonate and Bicarbonate (CO3 and HCO3)

Carbonate is considered the most important ion for all grain brewing. Carbonate (or bicarbonate), expressed as “total alkalinity” on many water reports, is the ion that determines the acidity of the mash. It also is the primary determinant in the level of “temporary hardness” of the water. If carbonate levels are too low, the mash will be too acidic, especially when using darker malts (which have higher acidity). If carbonate is too high, mash efficiency will suffer. Recommended levels are 25-50 mg/l for pale beers and 100-300 mg/l for darker beers. Note that bicarbonates and temporary hardness can be reduced by pre-boiling the water – the precipitate that falls out after boiling is primarily bicarbonate.

Sodium (Na)

Sodium contributes body and mouthfeel to the beer, but if used in excess will result in salty seawater flavors. High sodium water often comes from household water softeners, which is why most brewers recommend against mashing with softened water. Sodium levels in the 10-70 mg/l range are normal, and levels of up to 150 mg/l can enhance malty body and fullness, but levels above 200 mg/l are undesirable.

Chloride (Cl)

Chloride, like sodium, also enhances the mouthfeel and complexity of the beer in low concentrations. Chlorine is often used in city water supplies to sanitize, and can also reach high concentrations from use of bleach as a brewing sanitizer. Heavily chlorinated water will result in mediciny or chlorine-like flavors that are undesirable in finished beer. Normal brewing levels should be below 150 mg/l and never exceed 200 mg/l. If you have heavily chlorinated city water you can reduce it using a carbon filter or by pre-boiling the water for 20-30 minutes before use.

Calcium Sulfate
Picture 2.

Sulfate (SO4)

Sulfate plays a major role in bringing out hop bitterness and adds a dry, sharp, hoppy profile to well hopped beers. It also plays a secondary role to lowering pH of the mash, but the effect is much less than with carbonates as sulfate is only weakly alkaline. High levels of sulfate will create an astringent profile that is not desirable. Normal levels are 10-50 mg/l for pilsners and light beers and 30-70mg for most ales. Levels from 100-130 mg/l are used in Vienna and Dortmunder styles to enhance bitterness, and Burton-on-Trent pale ales use concentrations as high as 500 mg/l or even 800 mg/l.

Calcium (Ca)

Calcium is the primary ion determining the “permanent hardness” of the water. Calcium plays multiple roles in the brewing process including lowering the pH during mashing, aiding in precipitation of proteins during the boil, enhancing beer stability and also acting as an important yeast nutrient. Calcium levels in the 100 mg/l range are highly desirable, and additives should be considered if your water profile has calcium levels below 50 mg/l. The range 50mg/l to 150 mg/l is preferred for brewing.

Magnesium (Mg)

Magnesium is a critical yeast nutrient if used in small amounts. It also behaves as calcium in contributing to water hardness, but this is a secondary role. Levels in the 10-30 mg/l range are desirable, primarily to aid yeast. Levels above 30 mg/l will give a dry, astringent or sour bitter taste to the beer.

You can get a profile of your local water supply from your city or water company. Also, often the local brewing club has already collected local water profiles for you to examine. In the water report, look for the 6 critical items listed above. Also, be aware that many local water suppliers will frequently flush their system periodically (often in the Spring) with highly chlorinated water, which can give you some very strange brewing results if you are unaware of their schedule.

Epsom Salts
Picture 3.


Adjusting your Water

Different styles of beer require different water profiles. Often a particular beer is associated with the water profile of the city in which the beer originated. For a listing of water profiles for some brewing cities of the world see table Nr.1. If you have a specific target profile in mind, you can adjust your water to match that profile.

You can dilute your local tap water with distilled water if some ion counts are too high for your target water profile. Similarly you can use additives to increase the level of key ions. Popular additives include table salt (NaCl), Gypsum (CaSO4), Calcium Chloride (CaCl), Epsom Salts (MgSO4), Baking Soda (NaHCO3), and Chalk (CaCO3).

Unfortunately the additives do not add a straightforward amount of ions to the water profile, so its best to use some kind of water testing equipment to check that your adjusted values meet the levels you are aiming for in the target profile. Wateriga has the Smart Brew™ Kit (made in USA) available that can detect all the essential water parameters discussed above with easy two-way smart phone connectivity over bluetooth for enhanced results for only EUR 368 including VAT (Picture Nr.4). See eXact® iDip® Smart Brew Starter Kit for more details. Other water testing kits are also available online.

eXact iDip Smart Brew Kit
Picture 4.


Clean, clean, clean

In the world where everything is cleaned, filtered and sterilized so much – in wine, beer and even food processing, the craft brewers and natural winemakers are the ones that are trying to bring back the real flavours of what it all started from. Because life is about enjoying yourself, so let us all enjoy a well crafted beer where the brewer has made the effort in making his most important component – the water – just right!



Part of the article featured in the BRAUWELT 4.Feb.2016 issue in German.

Previous article Newsletter March 2020
Next article Brauen sie Ihr Wasser, bevor sie Ihr Bier brauen!