Water chemistry is a topic that many homebrewers wait to tackle until they have been brewing for awhile. For those who don’t deal with chemistry on a regular basis, the learning curve can seem pretty steep. For those brewers, here is a quick guide to generating brewing liquor for amber colored beers (SRM 10–20), starting with distilled water. I’m using the word “amber” here fairly loosely, as 10 SRM is really a dark golden color and 20 SRM is almost into the brown range.
This rough guide can help you treat your brewing liquor, and improve your beer — without having to dig into much of the underlying chemistry.
Most beer recipes come with an estimated beer color (in SRM). This number is usually calculated from the amount and color of the malts in the beer, and the volume of the final beer. And, as you’ve probably seen, this number does not always match your final beer color to a “T.” One reason for this is that the calculation ignores anything — such as the volume of wort you collect from your grains, the length of your long boil, or if you decoction mash — which can add color to the beer. It also ignores the fact the color quoted for a type of malt is just an estimate. Malt labeled crystal malt (40 °L) at your homebrew shop is not necessarily 40 °L exactly. (The malt specification sheet will tell the results for individual batches of malt.)
However, the SRM estimate is usually in the ballpark of actual beer — and that’s all you really need. Nothing about the water chemistry of beer brewing needs to be calculated extremely precisely. In almost every case, getting the levels of minerals in your brewing liquor into the right ballpark is all you need. Further fine tuning is likely to do little.
As with everything in homebrewing, taking good notes will help you immensely. When using this water guide, record how you made your water. Record what your mash pH was (if you’re all-grain brewing). And most importantly, taste the final beer and record your impressions. (This is doubly true if you’re trying an amber beer you’ve brewed before and this is the first time you’ve treated your water.) If the water chemistry is in the right ballpark, the beer should taste crisp and flavorful. If paler beers taste a bit flabby or soapy, or darker beers taste a touch too tart, something is off.
Brewing Liquor For Amber Beers
Here is a guide to making 5.0 gallons (19 L) of brewing liquor, starting with 5.0 gallons (19 L) of distilled water. If you are a 5.0-gallon (19-L) extract brewer, you only need to make half this volume. Halve the volumes of water and the amounts of minerals added. Use the treated water (the brewing liquor) for steeping your grains or doing a partial mash and for some of the water in the boil. Use distilled water for the rest of the boil water, and for topping up to your full batch size.
All-grain brewers will need to estimate how much water they will need and mix up sufficient brewing liquor. You can use this guide to treat your strike water, then use very soft water for your sparge water. Or, you can make your entire brewing liquor (strike water plus sparge water) to the same specifications. (I usually do the latter, in part because I want to ensure I have enough calcium in the boil.)
Your first step in preparing your water would be to ensure it has sufficient calcium. Calcium has a number of benefits in the mash and in the boil, and you should have at least 100 ppm (roughly 100 mg/L) of calcium in your brewing liquor. So, no matter what your estimated beer color is, start by adding calcium to your 5.0 gallons (19 L) of distilled water. If you are brewing a beer with a nice malt and hop balance, add 1 tsp. (roughly 4 g) of gypsum (CaSO4) and 1 tsp. (roughly 3.4 g) of calcium chloride (CaCl2). If you are brewing a hoppy beer, such as an IPA, add 2 tsp. (roughly 8 g) of gypsum and no calcium chloride. In both cases, this will give you roughly 100 ppm calcium. In the case of the hoppy beer brewing liquor, you will also have 200 ppm sulfate in the water, which should accentuate the beer’s hop bitterness nicely.
The second, and final, step is to add an amount of carbonates to the water that is appropriate for the beer color. Darker beers taste better when brewed with water that is higher in carbonates. For a beer near 10 SRM, add 0.75 tsp. (roughly 3.3 g) of baking soda (NaHCO3). For a beer near 20 SRM, add 1.25 tsp. (roughly 5.6 g) of baking soda (NaHCO3). For beers between 10 and 20 SRM, add an intermediate amount. For example, 1 tsp. of baking soda (NaHCO3) in 5.0 gallons (19 L) of distilled water is the right amount for beers that are estimated to be around 15 SRM. As I mentioned before, getting into the right ballpark is all you need with regards to the amount of minerals you add to your water. Don’t sweat tiny fractions of a teaspoon. (Or, if you want to, get a good scale that measures in gram quantities and use that.)
You should taste the distilled water before treating it, and after the minerals are dissolved. At first, it shouldn’t taste like anything. With the minerals added, it should taste pleasant (as you would expect mineral water to taste). If you are an all-grain brewer, you should take the pH of your mash — and it should fall within the 5.2–5.6 range, with the lower half of this range being preferable.
During the boil, you should look for the presence of hot break. It should look like big, fluffy “snowflakes” floating in otherwise clear wort. If your wort looks muddy or each piece of break material is just a small speck, add another 50 ppm of calcium to the boil. For 5.0 gallons (19 L) of wort, this is 1 tsp. of either gypsum or calcium chloride, or a blend of the two. Whenever you are using brewing liquor made from distilled water, adding a dose of complete yeast nutrients to the boil is a good idea. This will ensure that any trace elements the yeast may need are present.
And finally, you should taste your beer critically. If you have brewed amber beers before, treating your brewing liquor should improve their flavor. If it didn’t, your local water is likely suitable for brewing beers in this color range and there is no reason to go to the extra hassle.