Water Chemistry’s Influence on my Oktoberfest Beer

Ok, so I just tapped the Fest beer I brewed about 2 months ago.  In case you missed the recipe :

33% Dark Munich Malt (German)

33% Vienna Malt (German)

33% German Pilsner Malt

9oz of Caramunich (German) – This is just a caramel malt mostly for color.

White Labs 833 German Bock Lager yeast

In case you missed the article : https://beaconhillsbrewhouse.wordpress.com/2011/07/22/impress-your-friends-with-brewing-a-fall-lager/

This is a recipe that I have won a few awards with in the past, although awards aren’t everything by any means. It could mean the judges were extra toasted when they tried my entry and thought it was great or it could have been just the best of the worst ,(if you know what I mean). None the less, this years Fest beer I feel has tasted better. Kinda disappointed with it as of yet. I feel it tastes a little flat and is missing that “pop” and depth that I really had last year. I feel this is due to the lack of water salts and minerals used in this batch. While the PH was correct for complete conversion, I think the great malty flavors were not brought out to the forefront like I would have hoped.  I attribute this to less-than-stellar mineral content in the final beer. In this article I will try to show what impact ions,minerals and salts have on the mash and the final beer.

This will show you which temp and PH level favors which enzyme. Pay close attention to the "Mash Target" box.

My local water is super soft which is great for brewing. It adds versatility to my brewing and every all-grain brewer prays for soft water, some would say blessed!  With soft water I can “harden” up the water and brew a dark beer (stout, porter) or I can brew a Bohemian Lager without having to add anything. When I say I have soft water I mean my water is low is some key brewing ions: Carbonates,Calcium, and to a lesser extent Magnesium.  Each of these (mostly the carbonates and the calcium) react a certain way when mixed with malt and hot water in a mash setting. Malt, when mixed with hot water, is naturally acidic, depending on how much of these ions are present in the water will determine how acidic the mash will be. Remember that mash enzymes like to work in a PH level of 5.5 to 5.2 +/-. If the mash is not somewhere between these levels, the enzymes will not convert the starches to simple sugars. Also the darker the roast of the grain the more naturally acidic the ph will be. In other words Roasted Barley which is used to make stouts, will drop the mash PH more than your typical pale 2-row malt . When mashing you must check and correct the ph  to bring it back into the 5.4 range by way of adding carbonates (basically an antacid) to raise PH or adding other salts to lower PH. So if you have soft water with a small amount of carbonates and you want to brew a stout, remember that the roasted barley will acidify you mash more than usual. This is where a PH meter is just as necessary as a thermometer for all grain brewing. As long as you remember a few key things when brewing : Where the mash PH needs to be, where the mash PH is presently, and how to correct a low or high PH using water salts. Calcium Carbonate and Baking Soda raise the PH. Calcium Sulfate, Calcium Chloride, and Magnesium Sulfate (Epsom Salts) will drop or acidify the mash. Also any acid lactic, sulfuric, phosphoric will also drop the PH. Remember to add these salts and minerals to the mash only when correcting PH. Also note that a mash does benefit in many ways with the presence of calcium.  It is considered a necessary mineral in the mash process.

Golden rule : It is not a good idea to mess with water chemistry without knowing what is already in you tap water or bottled water. You MUST get a water ion report from you local Water Dept. or have a lab test done if you are going to use you tap or well water. http://www.wardlab.com/FeeSchedule/WaterAnalysis.aspx is a great place to get a report from and they are cheap. If you use them use the W-6 test which is only $16.50! Not bad for some very much-needed info. They are quick and thorough and will even send you the results via e-mail and regular mail.  If you are using bottled water its usually easy to find out the mineral content.There is a saying: “If you do not know your beginning, how will you know where you are going to end up?”  The same holds true with chemistry.  Do your beer a favor,(and the drinker) don’t brew blind, meaning : don’t add water salts and minerals when you have no idea of the outcome.

  • Chlorides and Sulfates : Malty Sweetness Vs Hop Bitterness
When I brewed my Oktoberfest last year I added back a bunch of calcium chloride (which will accentuate the sweetness of the malt), some sulfates by way of food grade Gypsum (calcium sulfate), andEpsom Salts (magnesium sulfate) which will accentuate the bitterness of the hops and is said to add “crispness” or “assertiveness” to the hop bitterness. Magnesium Sulfate is also a yeast nutrient but don’t overdo it. In large amounts it is  used as a laxative!  If either one of these levels (chloride and sulfate) are higher than the other, it will to bring out the corresponding flavors. In maltier styles you would want a higher chloride to sulfate ratio favoring the chloride at a higher level, as it will favor  maltiness. In hoppier styles, it would be just the opposite : a higher sulfate level vs lower chloride level. Remember that the chloride and sulfate Ions only serve one purpose : flavor. It will not affect mash PH in any way by themselves *. The catch is  you cannot add either one of these unless its attached to a calcium Ion which in a mash setting will cause a drop in PH. Hence the name “Calcium Chloride” and Calcium Sulfate“. As you can see, water chemistry is a delicate balance that can influence your beer significantly. However, when its dead on : think of the most flavorful brew you have ever had…yep that’s it! But when its off….It will be flat and lifeless!  Using this spreadsheet http://www.ezwatercalculator.com/ will make it easy to calculate your chloride to sulfate ratio. Just make sure you put your water’s profile in the top row. I swear by this spreadsheet and  it is like it says…an “easy water calculator”!

If you have been on the fence about messing with water chemistry, I hope that little rant helps some. This is VERY abridged article on brewing and water chemistry and is by no means all encompassing.  Also check out http://www.howtobrew.com/section3/chapter15.html . This is a great article/book about water chemistry and its application in brewing beer. As always feel free to contact me for info, I’d be happy to help as best I can.

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