How a broken water softener made me a better brewer

When most people start homebrewing, they typically start out simply – read a book on brewing, or the instructions that came with their first kit brew. Put some water in a pot, add some grains, steep, boil the liquid, cool, ferment with the yeast provided. It’s a simple process, overall. I was no different. I followed the directions, but didn’t bother to learn the “why and how” of the chemistry and biology that went into beer making. Particularly with the water.

After reading up a little on some brewing history, I concluded (erroneously) that I would use the water, direct from the tap because that’s how they did it in ye olde times. A knowledgeable brewer will cringe at this statement because different water profiles in different areas ended up with those areas specializing specific types of beer. For example, areas with lower mineral content in their water could make lighter beer. (Pilsen Germany and the Pilsener.) However, areas with heavy mineral content in their water would tend to make heavier or hoppier beer. (Dublin and the stout, London and the [traditional British] IPA.)

In 2007, my wife and I bought our current house and by then I’d made a few decent brews and impressed a few friends and family. But mostly, I think, I got lucky with a few batches and recipes that fit the Madison water profile well. (Very hard and very alkaline water.) After settling in for a couple of months, I returned to my hobby of brewing. But something wasn’t right. The beer tasted flat, strange, not right. Any foam head would fall very quickly. They were more “fizzy” and not smoothly carbonated. I was a failure. I made crap beer. In fact, I quit brewing for around a year.

As I was drinking my junk beer, I contemplated what changed. Equipment, process, recipes – all the same. The only difference was our house. Water? I went to the basement of our nearly 100 year old house and tried to make heads or tails of the spaghetti plate of water pipes. After tracing back from the kitchen faucet, where I got my water for brewing, I realized that the kitchen faucet, both hot and cold, went through the water softener. I was brewing with artificially softened water. Great for washing your clothes and taking a shower, but terrible for brewing, as I found out. Then our softener broke. I had it replaced and I had the plumber change the cold water tap in the kitchen to a hard (un-softened) water.

Then I brewed beer. Bingo. That was it. It was the water. So I decided to educate myself on water. I bought and read a book about it. (My favorite brewing book, by the way. Yep, 300 riveting pages on water). I bought a $180 water filter and installed it in under the sink. I got water testing equipment and treatment supplies. I read the city water reports. I experimented with different water profiles and different natural food grade additives to improve the water and adjust it properly for each style of beer. It took my beer from OK, or even (occasionally) pretty good, to clean, consistent, good beer. I won’t claim to make any type of ground breaking amazing beer, but in my opinion, the often overlooked key to going from, “meh” or even good beer to consistent and potentially great beer is the water.

Water Testing
Testing total dissolved solids and pH of brewing water.

This is still under emphasized in brewing, at both the professional and amateur level. Many brewers have developed a personal brewing philosophy on how to treat or filter water, but others may ignore it altogether which limits functional beer styles, and creates for an uncertainty and potential inconsistency.

I made a rookie mistake my first few years brewing by effectively ignoring water. Hopefully, by admitting that here I will encourage other brewers, professional and amateur, to pay closer attention to the biggest ingredient in beer.

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