Beer, while being comprised of malt and hops (and whatever special ingredients may be added), is mostly made of water. It should come as no surprise then that the water used in a given beer has an impact on the flavor profile. It’s for this reason that a local regions water supply has often played a big part in the taste of a beer.
“People have always thought about the water, because if you went back 100 years ago, when maybe you couldn’t do anything about the water — people put breweries where there were great water supplies,” Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver says. “The flavor of the beer would often be based upon the local water. And they would position the brewery in the right place to take advantage of that.”
The unique, local water characteristics are can sometimes be a the reason for success or reputation of a small beer.
For instance, consider the famed “Burton snatch” — a term for the sulfurous quality of certain beers, especially those made in Burton-on-Trent, England. As Oliver wrote in his Oxford Companion to Beer, “high levels of sulfate in Burton waters (up to 800 ppm) bring a hard dry mineral edge… and this makes the water ideal for the production of pale ales.”
What happens, however, when a small brewery gets bigger to the point that a second brewery is needed. One located in a separate geographic location as to take advantage of a wider distribution. For example, east coast and west coast breweries.
Matching flavors can be a long and painstaking process, even when you use the same water. Michael LaLonde, COO ofDeschutes Brewery in Bend, Ore., says his company ran into a flavor challenge when it added a new brewery in 2003.
“We actually took five years to flavor-match our old brewery to this new brewery, before we could actually sell that beer brewed in the new brewery,” LaLonde says.
After a batch of beer has been made, brewers then have specially trained staff taste it, to be sure it matches the flavors the brand is going for. LaLonde explains how the process works.
“The way we do it is, we actually have a triangle test,” he says. “So, we’ll have one beer that’s different than the other two. Our sensory panel tastes them all, and if they can identify the different beer, then we know we have an issue. If they can’t, then we know that we have a flavor match.
While a good clean water source may literally be located in the aquifers under a brewery, not all breweries are so lucky. Even so, could it be that with better filtration, and the ability to add minerals and other components back into the water, that local water characteristics are no longer a factor in a beer?
Craft beer expert Julia Herz, of the Brewers Association, says no.
“No, it’s not history,” she says. In fact, we’ve been drinking taste-manipulated beers a long time. “I think that you have to look at New World brewers making Old World styles… when they’re trying to make a classic Bohemian pilsner, or a U.S. small brewer is trying to make that German-style bock beer, they’re going to mimic the water mineral content from those regions.”
So why not just completely filter out the water and then build a water profile by adding needed elements back into to make the perfect water for beer?
But it’s not good to use completely neutral water to make beer, Herz says — the intense filtering “strips everything. And yeast need manganese, zinc, copper and iron to survive and thrive. So a lot of the time, what’s in the water is helpful for the yeast — it ensures a healthful fermentation.”
In the end, it comes down to consistency in flavor. Consumers want to know that when buying a certain beer it is going to taste the same as it did the previous time they purchased it.
Brewers’ manipulation of water might surprise some craft beer fans — especially those who feel a swell of local pride when they sip a brew made just down the road. But to brewers and beer fans alike, the only thing better than a great beer is a consistently great beer — no matter what the hops harvest was like last year, or where the water comes from.