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More on Stouts and Water Chemistry

I received the November/Decemeber 2013 issue of Zymurgy to find an article by Martin Brungard on Irish water chemistry. His article aligns quite nicely with my recent ramblings on water chemistry and dark beers. Martin’s article reviews the typical rock formations encountered and finds that while Ireland does have a significant amount of limestone (consistent with highly alkaline water) much of Ireland is not limestone geology and therefore softer, less alkaline waters should be found. He presents water analysis data to suggest that the water in Ireland is, by and large, much softer and less alkaline than is often suggested.  The only potential hiccup in this data is that Dublin is in the limestone geology area of Ireland, and one of the rivers that supplies Dublin can have high levels of hardness and alkalinity, depending on the season. The “typical” Dublin water profile is presented (300+ppm of bicarbonate and a residual alkalinity of 170) but it is immediately discounted as being unsuitable for brewing good beer.  So what is the truth about Irish water?

Martin proposes how Irish brewers could get around this.  Boiling of the hard/alkaline water lowers both the calcium and bicarbonate levels of the water. The article suggests that boiling hard Dublin water would result in a water profile very similar to other areas of Ireland.  So if the brewing water is either relatively soft to begin with or boiled to achieve that end, how did Irish brewers use dark roasted grians successfully?  They mashed without the dark roasted grains, and instead cold steeped the roast barley or added at the very end of the mash.

So it is interesting this article popped up just as I was playing around with these techniques.  I am looking forward to trying the beers I made recently using both of those approaches along with the traditional mashing methods.

Going Dark

In the last post I discussed an experiment involving dark beers. I wanted to evaluate three mash methods involving the use of dark roasted grains, and how adding carbonates to the mash water might influence the flavor of the final beer. The recipe I chose was a dry stout, and the grain bill consisted of pale malt, flaked barley and about 12% roasted barley. The home of dry stout is Ireland, and Dublin in particular. Most references suggest that the Dublin water has a carbonate hardness level exceeding 200 ppm, compared to my water that is typically 60 to 70. Note the carbonate hardness does not tell the whole story, residual alkalinity is a better measure as it accounts for the impact of the calcium hardness on mash acidity (the more calcium, the more the pH pf the mash can drop). The RA value for Dublin is often shown to be over 100, up to 125 (the higher the RA, the more it balances the acidity of the dark grain). My RA usually hovers around 30. How much calcium carbonate do I need to add to my mash?

In order to make the best estimate, I surfed on over to the Water Chemistry Calculator at Brewer’s Friend.  This calculator was devised by Kai Troester and based on experiments he conducted on grain color and mash pH. It is a very detailed beast, but if you carefully enter your water chemistry and grist information, then it will nicely calculate your expected mash pH (which should be about 5.5).  And here is where I got my shock: my water was fine as it was, nothing need be added.

How’s that?

Well Kai’s work has shown that dark caramel/crystal grains have much more effect of water pH that dark roasted grains.  In fact if I had used 60 lovibond crystal in lieu of the roasted barley my pH would have been around 5.0, which is far below optimum.  I would love to have confirmed this with a pH meter, but those things are the devil’s work.  They fail more often than first love, and I cannot convince myself to shell out $50 or more on another one of them.

I should note that all of this is controversial.  Some water chemistry calculators work strictly off the expected beer color, and these are ones that, in my experience, tend to suggest some pretty high levels of carbonates.  For instance, John Palmer’s water spreadsheet on his website would recommend an RA of well over 200 for the beer I just made.  While his spreadsheet is quite useful in many ways, that high an RA seems a bit overboard.

Did I mention how easy it is to learn water chemistry?

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Brewery…

Recently I have been pontificating about water chemistry, and I was preparing a post about how I deal with my water when I brew dark beers.  It was all going to center around adjusting the carbonate levels to achieve the correct level of residual alkalinity.  Coincidentally, I had been planning a brewing experiment relating to brewing dark beers, namely, evaluating methods of mashing with dark grains.  It is funny how sometimes reality comes up, slaps you in the face, and proceeds to show you how ignorant you are.
Let’s talk about the experiment.  Mashing involves mixing the crushed grains with water in order to make magic happen, that is, enzymes breaking down long chains of sugar molecules (starch) into little munchy bits that your yeast can gobble up in the process of making ethanol and carbon dioxide. How efficiently this magic happens depends on many things, but the brewer is mostly concerned with the temperature and pH of the mash. Managing temperature is pretty easy, but the pH is a little more complicated, as the grain and the water chemistry both affect the pH. All things being the same (and when does THAT ever happen?), dark grains will tend to lower the pH of the mash. And depending on the nature of your water this may or may not be a problem. Consider Dublin, the home of the classic example of dark beer, the Dry Irish Stout. Dublin water has very high levels of alkalinity, which is to say it reacts with acids in order to prevent the pH from dropping too much. Now where I live the alkalinity of the water is maybe a third or less of Dublin, so in theory if I wish to make a good dark beer I should add something to the water to increase alkalinity. That something is carbonate, either in the form of calcium carbonate (chalk) or sodium bicarbonate (baking soda).
But there is another way. Dark roasted grains do not have any long chains of sugar left to break up, so having them in the mash is somewhat irrelevant. Some brewers choose to not add the dark grains until after the mashing of the base malts is done. Doing this removes the necessity of adding any minerals to your mash, because once the mash is done the pH is largely irrelevant (not to say that the pH of wort and subsequent beer is totally unimportant, but as pH affects mashing enzymes it is).
To take the experiment one step further, some brewers actually cold steep their grains. What is this? Well, you add the dark grains to cold water and let them sit and steep for a longer period of time than a normal mash (overnight?), and then remove the liquid and add it to the wort. Why? well, I have heard the claim that dark grains that are cold steeped have better flavor, such as less harshness.
So I was all prepared to do a three way experiment: brew a dry stout using the “normal” method of adding carbonates to the mash, brew a second adding the dark grains after mashing, and third batch, cold steeping the grains and adding the liquor from that to the wort. And so I set off to demonstrate my knowledge of water chemistry…

What’s on Tap?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt has been awhile since we talked about the business end of the brewery.  The far left beer is Gerst Monath (barley-month)- who knew that was Anglo-Saxon for the month of September? I ran across that definition just the other day and it brought me back to the many visits I made to Evansville, Indiana in the 1990s.  The Evansville Brewing Company has a Gerst Amber Lager that I enjoyed. That brewery was closed in 1997 and I think Iron City ended up with it.  At the time I had no idea Gerst=barley.

My Gerst Monath is a nice little porter – mostly Marris Otter but also some brown malt, kiln coffee and crystal 160. With an OG of 13.0 ºP and an FG of 3.8 ºP it is a sessionable beer with nice sweetness and a touch of roast.

The middle beer is easy, it is the saison I made for the craft beer tasting.  It is a bit of a coriander bomb, but at 7% ABV it will make you smile.

The far right is my Pennant ESB.  Unfortunately for the Buccos there will be no pennant (but it was a great year for baseball in Pittsburgh).  Pennant is slightly stronger that the porter with an OG of 14.1 ºP.  It is 94% Golden Promise malt, with the remainder being equal parts flaked wheat and pale chocolate.   However, fermented with the Wyeast 1469 West Yorkshire yeast you would never know it has no crystal malt.

My Water – Application #1

In an earlier post, I began discussing my local water and now I am talking about practical examples of how I treat it, depending on the style.

To recap, here is the typical Pittsburgh area water:

Calcium 30 ppm
Magnesium 10 ppm
Sodium 25 ppm
Chloride 30 ppm
Sulfate 75 ppm
Alkalinity 70 ppm

I like this water profile – the levels of all ions are fairly low.  It is easier to add than to take away!  The only potential problem with this water is the calcium level.  The generally recommended level is 50 to 150 ppm, so I am usually adding calcium in one of the three common ways: calcium carbonate, calcium chloride or calcium sulfate.

Recently I brewed a Kolsch-Style Ale – the beer is mostly pilsener malt and just a touch of wheat malt.  Because this recipe has no dark or roasted malts, and my water has low levels of calcium it is quite likely that the mash pH would end up being too high.  Adding calcium should help a bit, and if I add calcium chloride it helps bring up the chloride to sulfate balance.  Why is that important?  Allegedly, beers with a high sulfate to chloride ratio tend to favor hop expression, whereas the reverse brings out the malt.  I have not confirmed this through experiment, but for now I will extend provisional acceptance.

The other thing I did was a about 3% acidulated malt to the mash.  This malt has been kilned in such a way as to encourage the production of lactic acid.  Chew some – it is sour stuff.  Besides helping to drop the pH, adding acid to food generally brightens the flavor.  I think it works well here.

If you are looking for help in figuring out all of the maths I recommend two sources:  John Palmer’s How to Brew website chapter 15-3 has a nice spreadsheet for entering your water data and looking at the effects of various mineral additions.  John’s spreadsheet calculates a target residual alkalinity value based on beer color.  I have read criticism of this method as being unreliable, but in fairness this is all a bit of a guess.  If you are running a production brewery then you are making the same few beers most of the time and you can nail down your water treatment.  As a homebrewer always trying something new you have to make your best estimations

A more advance calculator designed by Kai Troister can be found at the Brewer’s Friend website.  Kai has done a tremendous amount of investigation and experimentation.  His calculator takes into account you entire grain bill (including the types of malts you choose, not just mash color).  His calculator is a thing of beauty, and if you can soldier through the tedium required to enter all of the information, you will be rewarded!

Mighty, Mighty Head

imageMy favorite saison yeast is Wyeast 3711, French Saison.  I have talked about it before: it has a nice spicy flavor and attenuates without much fuss.  My standing joke is that this yeast will ferment your concrete floor if you let it sit.  The thing is, the saisons I bottle almost always end up a bit over carbonated.  I do not know if this is just the 3711 continuing to work, or if I am picking up a slight infection. The bottles do not gush, but you can only pour about half of the beer before you run out of space.  The flavor is still OK, so if it is infected it is a pretty benign critter.  But when those beers are poured man do they end up with one whipped cream like head.  I am surprised the head is so big and long lasting, as I thought the continuing fermentation would tend to break down components in the beer which contribute to head formation.

My Water

Many words have been written about water in brewing.  Everything about water is pretty much known, how it behaves in the presence of malt, its impact of chemistry and flavor. Unfortunately water is one of those topics that many brewers struggle to understand. In this post I am going to talk about the local water (Southwest Pennsylvania) and how I approach its modification for brewing.

First I want to give credit to two sources that have taught me about 95% of what I know about water.  The first is John Palmer, whose website How to Brew is a fantastic resource and includes a free, simple, water chemistry spreadsheet.  The second in Kai Troester, whose even more detailed website and blog are full not just of information but experiments he has conducted.  My hats off to both, and thanks for the help.

The first thing about water is knowing what is in your brewing water.  When I became interested in the topic there were not many resources available to learn about the local water supply.  A few years back I called the local water company and found a very helpful person who sent me three or four years of local testing records.  While this was very useful, it was explained that some of the parameters were only tested once per year and for some measurement (sulfate, for example) there was some significant variation. But not having access to better information, I did my best with what I had.

Today, with the growing popularity of brewing, water test kits have become much more available.  A simple one that I use is made by API and is sold for use in keeping aquariums.  This kit is available for less than ten dollars and allows for quickly measuring two important parameters: water hardness and carbonate levels.  These two parameters are key to understanding and predicting your mash pH.  There are kits available which also measure sulfate, and places such as Ward Labs will test a sample of your water for a small fee. If you are a serious home brewer there is not much excuse for not knowing your water.

Here is a breakdown of the typical minerals and ions found it Pittsburgh area water:

Calcium 30 ppm
Magnesium 10 ppm
Sodium 25 ppm
Chloride 30 ppm
Sulfate 75 ppm
Alkalinity 70 ppm

This is really nice brewing water, as most of theses levels are at or below the minimum required (and it is always easier to add the required minerals, versus having to dilute with distilled water in order to reduce concentrations).  The other not so obvious but equally import factor is this water’s low residual alkalinity (in the range of 35).  What the heck is residual alkalinity and why should you care?  Here is my quick and dirty explanation:

For a number of reasons, the ideal mash pH is 5.3 to 5.7.  When water and malt are mixed, chemical reactions occur with the calcium and magnesium in the water. These reactions tend to lower the mash pH (make it more acidic, which is a good thing).  Darker roasted and crystal malts tend to lower the pH more than lightly kilned malts. This tendency to a lower pH is offset by the alkalinity of the water.  The residual alkalinity is the measure of a water’s tendency to lower mash pH.  It is calculated from the water’s calcium, magnesium, and alkalinity levels.  Grain bills with high levels of roasted/crystal malts tend to require water with higher residual alkalinity (RA =100 and up) whereas very pale beers needs a lower residual alkalinity to allow the pH to drop low enough (RA less than 0).

One can see that a RA of 35 is a very happy medium, very suitable for pale ales and other medium colored beers.  Only the most pale beers may require acid malt or an acid addition to bring their pH in line.  Compare this to two other extremes in brewing water: Dublin, the home of stout, has a RA >250.  Pilsen, the Czech home of the pilsner beer has a RA of probably about 10.

If there is a downside to this it is the fact that the mineral levels, especially sulfate, are on the low side for hoppier beer styles.  Note this consideration is only about beer flavor and not about mash pH.  Extract brewers should have low concern about residual alkalinity but should pay attention to sulfate, chloride, and sodium levels. Note that besides pH, the calcium can impact the yeast performance.  At 30 ppm the calcium in my water is a little low, and an extract brewer might still benefit from small calcium additions.

In the next post about water I will provide specific examples of how I went about treating my brewing water.

Uerige Sticke and Doppelsticke

imageI bought one bottle each of the Uerige Sticke and Doppelsticke during some recent travels back to Arkansas.  Both of these beers rate something like 92 on Beer Advocate, so I thought they might be worth a shot.  Besides, the narrow little flip top bottles are way too cool to pass up.

The aroma was sweet caramel with low hop notes and raisin like malt.  The beers seemed flat, not from lack of carbonation but from lack of flavor.  Besides a some raisin character like malt flavor and somewhat strong bitterness, nothing really stood out.  The flavor finished slightly bitter and sweet. These were old and potentially mistreated samples.  It is a long way from Europe to Arkansas.

The moral of the story is drink fresh beer!

Octoberfest Craft Beer Tasting

Octoberfest Craft Beer tastingMy recent brewing spree, as outlined in a series of posts, culminated in last Saturday’s tasting.  Thanks to friend of the brewer Dick, I had access to a nifty, homemade beer serving station as seen the photo above.  Three taps mounted into a chalk board stand provide for easy labeling.  The extra large trash can held ice and three kegs, plus a 5 pound bottle of carbon dioxide. Lastly a small drip tray on top.  It all worked pretty well, though my Kolsch style ale was a bit of a problem child – a little over carbonated and foamy.  But we muddled through.

There were somewhere near 300 people in attendance.  A number or breweries were represented: Southern Tier, Helltown, East End Brewing, Full Pint, Rivertowne, Penn Brewery and many others. In addition to the Little Boy Brewery, there two other home brewers in attendance. The guests were wonderful and very enthusiastic, but not all were completely aware of my status as a home brewer.  A number asked me where I made my beer (“my garage”) and a few wanted to know where they could buy it (“you can’t”).  But all were very enthusiastic.

I was overwhelmed with the response to the beers that I made.  As I has noted before, my Saison recipe has always proven to be very popular. I did double the amount of coriander from 15 grams to 30 grams, which when you add it to the wort looks like quite a slug.  In the past I have been surprised by how often people fail to note the coriander in a beer when I can smell it a mile away.  That is what expectations can do for you.  For this beer it seemed pretty strong but it did not to seem to put many people off.  Several tasters showed up with their glass in hand and said they were told they should come try my saison.  One lady came up to the booth and inquired about what beer she should try and so I pulled just a sip of the saison for her to try.  Her eyes lit up as she tasted it and, with a big smile, requested a full pour.  That reaction made my night.

I thought the wild card in my beer lineup would be the Russian Imperial Stout.  When planning for this I knew I wanted something that would stand up and stand out against all of the IPAs and other strong beers from the other participants.  I was happy enough with how this beer turned out, though it was a bit strong on the roast and light on the chocolate, at according to what I envisioned.  It did not seem to bother anyone on Saturday night.  In the end, this beer and the Saison ran neck and neck in popularity. And although this is a bit of a sexist observation, there were no shortage of the female sex coming up to try this beer.  This was a pretty intense beer, and I was surprised by the wide love it found.

The afterthought beer was the Kolsch. I brewed it partially as a backup beer but in the end I brought it along. Most of the people were not aware of the heritage of the style, so it gave me a chance to do some education. There were a few that were well aware of the style, though, and I am pleased to report they gave it a thumbs up.  Many other, more timid drinkers chose it as a safe alternative to other, stronger beers.  Unfortunately I spent the night fighting the carbonation level – it was foamy.  But we soldiered through.

It was a great night for craft beer.  it was a great night for home brewing. A couple of people told me they thought the home brews were better than the commercial ones.  While that might have been a bit of hyperbole, I was very happy I participated and really thrilled at the response.