Craft Beer is rapidly maturing. Brewing styles, conditions, yeast evolution and manipulation are excelling. Knowledge and experimentation of single hops, unique and regional grains are becoming increasingly common. But have we forgotten about the most important part?
Water is often more than 90% of the ingredient list. Shouldn’t we have some sort of focus on what the main ingredient in our beer is?
This was not always the case. My father told me how Coors was an exotic beer in his heyday. Practically an “import”*, Coors had pure rocky mountain water in it. Wow, it was made with true untouched fresh mountain water.**
No water and alcohol story can be written without a reference to the Greeks, who mixed their wine with sea water. They actually classified their salt waters in a ranking rather than the wine!
Whisky provides the best example of a true water source reality and fascination. Over time the different Scotch distilleries would find a particular water source, often referred to as Glens. These would impart special characteristics; it was the terroir of the Scotch. So much so, that the confusingly Burgundy-like classification system of many Scotches is based on creeks and streams.The debates on a lot of scotch is where a certain river actually begins and ends!
In the USA the origins of Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey are directly related to the water source of the region. Touted for the water passing through natural limestone and becoming iron free in the process. It is fact that led to settlers*** choosing that region and the later development of the existing industry.
The modern Craft Beer**** movement came from homebrewing. Our existing industry follows a path that started from inside American kitchens and garages. This often takes place in an urban setting where the source of water is the tap. If you go to your local homebrew supply store you can easily get advice on how to strip or adjust the water you have. We have been trained as brewers to take out the wrong things in our water, we have not been taught how to appreciate good water, let alone to go finding a place for a new brewery based upon that.
There have been craft beers focused on water, but often as a novelty. Such as with fog water or Boston (river) dirty water. I hope this idea doesn’t get taken too far because I think we could all think of a few brewers that might start importing Caspian Sea water or something. I have a friend, who after getting one of those 5-liter brew kits, became obsessed with making beer from glacier water. So far he has paid an arm and a leg for the water.
This idea started brewing in my head after trying a beer made from a thermal bath agriturismo in Emilia-Romagna. They have very interesting water. For anyone who is rolling their eyes, there is a tradition in some parts of Europe for specific water sources that truly taste different, often being recommended not to drink more than a glass due to adverse effects. I could tell they had not really figured out the whole brewing thing yet, like making a brown ale or something.
However the other night I got to try the Lurisia Birra Six. I have been a fan of their water and sodas for a while. I sold their Chinotto & Gazoza back in Boston. It is even a Slow Food Presidia. However, I had neglected to try the beers after that thermal beer experience. Luckily a friend brought a bottle. It was nice.
I was just listening to the Good Beer Hunting Podcast with EP-105 Robert Lobovsky of Pilsner Urquell.
In it they speak of how brewing experiments have shown that the best water for Pilsners ended up emulating those that came from Pilsen. Long before this, Lobovsky tells us of experiments during the Austro-Hungarian period where they took the exact recipe and process for Urquell done in Vienna and Bavaria. These however came out reddish and brownish respectively, both being the typical colors of the traditional beers of said regions.
This further pushes the point of the importance of water selection. Also it brings a very interesting point that some of the classic characteristics of benchmark beer styles is very much the water!
*A term that is barely a novelty anymore. At the time it was used in reference to Heineken and anything else new. There are still old timers, that just assume that all the new Craft Beers are “imports”. After getting frustrated, I started showing these guys how if they really wanted something patriotic, craft beer, not macro, is the way to go. Budweiser is Brazilians controlling a Belgian multinational. MillerCoors is run by South Africans. In an ironic twist, the classic working man’s beer Pabst, is owned by Russians. On the contrary, these fufu breweries are providing real jobs, supporting their neighborhoods and being part of the community. There is always Narragansett too though.
** this is not true for other Adjunct beers, Anheuser with different brewing locations across the country and abroad strips their water to leave no flavor profile.
***Many of these settlers coming from Scottish background.
****Modern craft beer meaning the trend since the 1970’s of new breweries that have sprung up. German and Belgian breweries have always been making good beer and the name can sometimes mean an overall term for non-Macro Beer.