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Water Profiling: Basics and Building Water for German Beers

German beer is delicious.  It’s just a fact that everybody knows.  Even if you aren’t a fan of hefeweizen, you’ll like a helles or a doppelbock.  It’s just science! A big part of making your best version of a German style is how you adjust your local water or build your beer water profile to accentuate hop characters, balance and overall flavors, and that’s what we’ll be talking about this week!

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Are Brewing Salts Included in the Reinheitsgebot?  

Decidedly not, so if you’re in Germany trying to brew under the Purity Laws, then this article is not for you.  If you’re trying to nail your favorite German style, though, and you’re willing to overlook a little purity in the name of science, then read on!

Brewing salts are how we measure the overall profile of any given water.  They are measured in parts per million or milligrams per milliliter, dependent upon where you’re located.  What we measure is:

  • Calcium (Ca)
  • Magnesium (Mg)
  • Sodium (Na)
  • Sulfate (SO4)
  • Chloride (Cl)
  • Bicarbonate (HCO3)

These are what you’re looking for when you pull up your local water report to see what your base water is like, and adjusting these and hitting your target Sulfate to Chloride Ratio is what helps determine how your beer tastes, and whether you accentuate malt or hop characters.

To adjust these, we as homebrewers use some commonly found “water salts”.  These are not all technically sodium based, but these additives are what we use to adjust all of these levels.  They are:

This is your water profile arsenal, hopefully to be used in conjunction with a handy water profile tool or calculator, many of which are available from the brewing software that you already use. 

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Making Adjustments Based on Your Sulfate to Chloride Ratio

Your brewing water isn’t the entire flavor of your beer, believe it or not.  Even if you don’t adjust your water, you can still make some pretty tasty beers and get reasonable efficiency.  Once you’re at the level where adjusting your water is the norm, you can take that tasty beer and turn it into incredible beer, but water profiling isn’t necessarily where you should start.  When you make the jump to all-grain, start with refining your process, proper yeast pitching rates and starters, and fermentation temperature before you start playing with your water. 

Don’t get me wrong, water is a very important aspect of your beer, but you can only make good beer after you’ve covered all of the basics, and these first steps will make a bigger overall difference in your homebrew vs refining your water chemistry.  Think of all of those things as your brewing infrastructure. You’ll need to have that on point before you start refining some of the smaller details.

That being said, let’s talk the basics of building your water!  One of the most basic and easiest things to adjust is your Sulfate to Chloride Ratio.  In the book Water:  A Comprehensive Guide for Brewers by John Palmer and Colin Kaminski, they go over all of the ins and outs of the ratios and levels, but John Palmer also published a brilliant and easy to use Water Worksheet with target Sulfate to Chloride Ratios, and what they do.  It is as follows:

  • 0 - 0.4:  Too Malty
  • 0.4 - 0.6:  Very Malty
  • 0.6 - 0.8:  Malty
  • 0.8 - 1.5:  Balanced
  • 1.5 - 2.0:  Slightly Bitter
  • 2.0 - 4.0:  Bitter
  • 4.0 - 9.0:  Very Bitter
  • 9.0+:  Too Bitter!

(courtesy of the Beersmith Blog)

This gives you an idea of where you want to be, and you can intuit based on your style what part of that chart you want to be on.  For example, a Pilsner is going to have distinctly more hop bitterness than a Helles, so even if you’re using the same grain bill, you can build your water slightly more towards the malt for your Helles, say putting your S to C Ratio in the 0.8 to 1.2 range, and adjust more towards bitter with your Pilsner, say in the 1.5 to 1.7 range to accentuate your hops properly for the style.  Keep in mind that this won’t raise your IBUs (International Bitterness Units) or your actual measured bitterness, but will instead give you more bang for your buck with the IBUs that you already have, pushing the bitter profile more towards the front.

Keep in mind, as well, that you will need a scale that measures grams to make these kinds of adjustments.  You won’t be adding a cup of Epsom Salt to your mash like you would in an epsom salt bath, but a few grams of each to hit your target profile.   

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Adjustments for Mash pH

Another HUGE factor with adjusting your water is the final pH of your mash, after you’ve added all of your hot water and grains and are set to mash.  Amylase enzymes work best in the mash from 5.2 to 5.8 pH, depending on who you read. This value is affected by your brewing water and your malt bill, something that you can see in practice historically by what regions make what kinds of beers.

Munich Dunkel is a fine example of this.  Their water was always ‘harder’, or higher in dissolved minerals like calcium, so the darker roasted malts that were used in the dunkel style beer added more acidity from the roasting process and helped them lower the mash pH into a range that yielded better mash efficiencies.  Alternatively, lighter German lagers were found in areas where softer water lent itself better to making lighter, more malt forward and less mineral-y beers.

Your mash pH is going to have a significant effect on your overall efficiency and conversion, so if you’re already playing with water chemistry, you might as well optimize for efficiency at the same time!

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Finding Classic Water Profiles

Finding water profiles for specific cities is as easy as a quick google search, and if you look a bit further, you can find classic and recommended water profiles for most, if not all of the German Beer Styles.  There is some conflicting information out there, so the best course of action is to start with a baseline, maybe the profile from your favorite city of origin for the beer that you’re trying to brew, and make adjustments based on the finished product.  Check with your local brewery as well! We were thrilled when Ben from Occidental Brewing happily gave us not only his Edel~Hell Recipe to make into a kit, but also his water profile and adjustments so that we could all make sure that we NAILED it when we brewed it!        

Thank you all for reading!  Hopefully this article gave you some insight into profiling your water and how to find and build profiles to homebrew your favorite German beer styles!  Let us know how you build your water in the comments below!

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R.J. - July 9, 2019

The information and insight that you get when you have your water tested will definitely be of use to brewing. This will tell you where your levels are for different salts, and give you the starting point you need for building your water profiles beer to beer. Depending on your levels, you will be able to adjust hardness, etc because you’ll know exactly where you are.

Dennis Flynn - July 8, 2019

At that being said… When you are dealing with a “well”… Living in the mountains, will the information you can get by “having your water tested” be of any use for brewing? If so, what factors will play into the water profile?

Mike - July 5, 2019

Just an FYI. pH is very temperature dependent. Unless you are at pH 7. Your pH probe should also be stored in either pH 4 buffer or saturated >3M KCl. Other wise the reading are meaningless. This is a tool that is worse than useless when used by a person that is not familiar with the device.

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