Treating Brooklyn Water for Brewing Purposes

Shipping a sample of your brewing water to an analysis (such as Ward Labs), is easy and cost effective.

Shipping a sample of your brewing water to an analysis lab, such as Ward Labs, is easy and cost effective.

Water chemistry can be a complicated and intimidating topic. Discussions often quickly turn very technical and jump into the deep end of chemistry. This tends to cause non-scientific brewers to either ignore it completely or apply a blanket approach to water treatment in their brewery.

Part of the difficulty with blanket approaches is that no two locations’ brewing waters are identical. The journey water takes from cloud, to watershed, and ultimately your faucet has an immense impact on the qualities inherent to the water. A personal pet peeve of mine is reading brewing recipes that dictate a blanket approach to water treatment. Instructions–such as adding a fixed amount of gypsum or the ubiquitous ‘Burton Salts’ to your boil or mash–are reckless and naive. These types of instruction must be taken in the context of the specific brewing water that the recipe was formulated with. The results with that specific water may produce a delicious beer, whereas a different brewing water would provide drastically different and often terrible results. These types of blanket approaches automatically raise flags as to the reputable nature of any published recipe.

Blanket approaches should be avoided; a little basic knowledge can go a long way towards improving your beers. The key for homebrewers is distilling the science into practical knowledge that can be applied in the brewery and used to achieve positive impacts on your final beer. With this article, my goal is to establish a pragmatic approach to water treatment, specifically as it relates to brewing with the water flowing through the taps of my Brooklyn apartment.

Water in Brooklyn – Not Just Great for Bagels

The water flowing to my Park Slope / Gowanus apartment originates in the Catskill/Delaware Water System found in Delaware, Greene, Schoharie, Sullivan, and Ulster Counties. The water is surface derived from a relatively pure watershed, so much so that New York City is one of only five large cities in the country with a surface drinking water supply not requiring filtration as a form of treatment. That said, the Department of Environmental Protection does treat our drinking water to prevent any microbial risk. This is typically done with a combination of chlorine and UV light treatment. I have noticed that in warmer months, the chlorine concentration in the tap water seems higher–making it a greater concern for brewers. All of my brewing water goes through a very basic activated charcoal water filter to remove chlorine. I have not seen or heard any evidence that our municipal water is treated with harder to remove chlorimines, which pose the risk of inflicting beer with chlorophenolic off-flavors (band-aid, medicinal).

Purity aside, NYC water is wonderful due to the inherent characteristic of being nearly devoid of the minerals that impact brewing. Our brewing water picks up very little mineral content along its journey from watershed to tap and is about as close to distilled as you can find from a municipal source. This is very beneficial for brewers as it allows you to easily build up your water using various brewing salts and match the ion and mineral concentrations found in nearly any brewing water across the world.

I know a number of brewers in NYC that brew great beer without doing anything to treat their water. This anecdotal evidence supports the fact that very good beer can be brewed with NYC water without any sort of treatment and implies that without having a clear understanding of what you’re adding, it’s probably best to not add anything. That said, there are a number of reasons that I always provide a minimal amount of treatment for my brewing water.

1) Mash pH

The extremely low calcium ion content in NYC water will typically cause the mash pH for lightly colored beers to fall well above the optimal pH range in which amylase enzymes convert starches into fermentable sugar. Almost all beers from straw to brown in color can benefit from some acidification that mineral additions can provide within the mash. For very dark beers (stouts, porter, etc) the mash will typically fall into appropriate mash pH ranges due to the acidic nature of darkly kilned grains. Calcium sulfate (gypsum) and calcium chloride are typically added to my mashes in order to help lower the mash pH into the 5.2-5.4 range.

2) Yeast Health / Flocculation

Various brewing publications cite calcium as an important nutrient for yeast health. Calcium is frequently credited with improving protein coagulation in the kettle and yeast flocculation once fermentation is complete.

3) Flavor

The so-called ‘flavor ions’ sulfate and chloride are a primary concern for brewers. The balance of sulfate to chloride is often cited as a tool for accentuating either hops or malt in a beer. Balancing towards sulfate tends to crisp up a beer and accentuate hops, whereas leaning heavier on chloride tends to round out a beer and accentuate the malt. I typically add calcium sulfate (gypsum) to increase sulfate levels in my water and calcium chloride to increase chloride levels.

Water Analysis

Before attempting to adjust your water, it is imperative to understand what the mineral content of your water is. Luckily, NYC’s Department of Environmental Protection provides an annual report which includes a very useful water analysis:

NYC Dept of Environmental Protection Water Report

Additionally, Ward Labs, can provide brewers with a low-cost water analysis report that includes all of the metrics brewers are interested in.

I’ve always been somewhat suspicious of municipal water reports so I went ahead and sent a sample of my tap water to Ward Labs for analysis. As you can see below, the two reports were nearly identical. For reference, I’ve uploaded the test results from Ward Labs here.

Comparing the nearly identical numbers from the NYC Water Report, and the test analysis completed be Ward Labs.

The nearly identical numbers from the NYC Water Report and the test analysis completed by Ward Labs.

Calculating Ion Concentration in Your Wort

It is important to understand and quantify the impact that adding a specific quantity of mineral salt has on your water. Luckily, there are many calculators out there that will provide you with ppm concentrations based on your beer ingredients, base water, and mineral additions. I, personally, use and recommend the free EZWaterCalculator spreadsheet. It is easy-to-use and reliably accurate. Additionally, most brewing software provides tools for managing water additions.

Basic Strategies

While not all strategies work for all beers in all locations, below is the basic process I use to brew beer with NYC tap water.

1. Establish a baseline for ion concentrations. For calcium, I typically shoot for 75-100 ppm. For chloride and sulfate, I tend to shoot for 75-100 ppm, balancing towards sulfate if I want to accentuate hops, and chloride if I’m looking to make a malty beer. For very hoppy beers, I’ll push the sulfate levels to 150-200 ppm.

2. In light beers, use a blend of gypsum and calcium chloride to achieve baseline mineral concentrations. The blend will depend on whether I’m looking to accentuate hops or malt. To accentuate hops, I lean more heavily towards sulfate; for malt, chloride. If further pH adjustment is needed to hit desired mash pHs after the mineral concentrations have been achieved, I’ll adjust the mash with lactic acid to hit the desired pH range (5.2-5.4 at room temp). Most light beers that I brew require small additions of lactic acid in addition to mineral salt additions in order to achieve desired pH levels.

3. Most dark beers that I brew tend to land close to the correct pH range without any salt additions. Because of this, I’ll typically create a pH neutral blend of chalk (calcium carbonate), gypsum (calcium sulfate), and calcium chloride to hit 75-100 ppm of calcium and then varying levels of sulfate and chloride depending on whether I’m trying to balance the beer more towards hops or malt. This allows me to hit the ion concentrations I am looking to achieve without pushing the mash outside of the desired pH range.

I’ve been lucky to brew in two locations that have great neutral brewing water (NYC and Seattle). This is certainly not the case in most areas. The overall key for any location is taking a critical look at the water you’re starting with, analyzing the types of beers you want to make, and then making adjustments to your brewing water so that you can achieve optimal brewing results.

Jam is my Jam

Recently I made jam. I love jam. Homemade jam is especially great because you can use the best possible ingredients — in the case of my latest batch, red plums and raspberries from the neighborhood green market._DSC1930Jams can be made from pretty much any fruit. The key is understanding that there are fruits both high and low in pectin. Low pectin fruits will generally require the addition of a commercial pectin additive in order to set up properly. In the case of my plum-raspberry jam, I combined a fruit high in pectin (plums) with a low-pectin fruit (raspberries) to create a jam that managed to set correctly.

Making jam is all about ratios. For this particular recipe I used the following:

1 part fruit
1 part table sugar
A splash of lime juice

Different fruits and tastes call for different levels of sugar. The 1:1 ratio will generally produce a very sweet jam. I tend to use my jam sparingly, so 1:1 works well for me. The sugar will not only impact the sweetness of the product, but also has an impact on how well the gel sets up. If deviating from the 1:1 ratio, some experimentation may be required.

The process for making jam is pretty simple. All ingredients are boiled with a minimal amount of water in a pan until the fruit has broken down. I like to monitor the temperature of my mixture. As the mixture reduces, it will become supersaturated with sugar allowing temperature far beyond that of boiling water. Once the mixture hits 220°F I pull a sample and cool it with ice water. If it forms a nice gel, it is ready to be poured into hot mason jars that have been sanitized in boiling water.

From there I generally put a lid on the jar and let it cool. A vacuum will be created as the mixture cools, effectively sealing the mason jar. I generally do not further process my jams due to the high acidity and sugar content of my jams. You should always however consult the National Center for Home Food Preservation’s Guide to Home Canning which is a wonderful resource for understanding best practices to safely process and store food.

Session Ale – Thoughts, Recipe, and Review

The original brewdog Zeus pondering the sessionabilty of my beer.

The original brewdog Zeus pondering the sessionabilty of my beer.

There is a lot of debate in the beer world about what exactly defines a true session beer. Alcohol levels typically weigh heavily in the debate. Alcohol is a quantifiable variable with very specific implications, especially as it relates to the length of a drinking session. The specifics off what ABV is truly considered ‘sessionable’ makes for a fun debate, but is one that I’ll defer to the experts. For the Brits, frequent pub visits are an important part of daily life and culture. Taking queue from the ordinary bitters that frequently flow in pubs across the Isles, I’d suggest that a true session beer should be kept somewhere in the range of 3.0-3.5% ABV. Whether these levels were consciously set, or simply a by-product of the taxes imposed upon beer, the effect is clear. This level of alcohol strikes a good balance between the pleasant alcohol induced euphoria beer can produce (AKA a buzz)  and running the risk of prematurely ending a drinking session in a drunken stupor. Until a couple of years ago, it was difficult to find a beer this low in alcohol at American brewpubs. Luckily, a trend towards more moderate alcohol levels has taken root, and homebrewers are able to find numerous wonderful examples of commercial session beers.

Aside from alcohol content, there are other very important factors which improve a beer’s sessionability. To me, session beers should be relatively dry in order to prevent too much fullness. That said, low-gravity beers can easily become watery or tea-like if the gravity drops too low. There is a hugely important distinction that must be understood when formulating a session beer, and that is the difference between sweetness and body. A beer can be round with a medium body and moderate amount of residual gravity without tasting sweet. The key is making sure that all fermentable sugars have been consumed by the yeast and that the gravity that remains are dextrins which provide ample body without perceivable sweetness. Balance is the key.

Another important factor in sessionablity is flavor and complexity. Session beers should be complex enough to remain interesting, while not overburdening your palate. The Brits do this well with the bready malt components and nuanced yeast character found in their bitters. Personally for me, the same end result can be accomplished using hops. There is something amazing about drinking a beer with the balance and hop intensity of some of the bigger more intense American Pale ales while doing so at a more moderate ABV.

Single Hop Huell Melon Session Pale Ale

Recipe Specs:
Size: 3.23 gal
Efficiency: 68%
Attenuation: 64%

Original Gravity: 1.043
Terminal Gravity: 1.015
Color: 8.25 SRM
Alcohol: 3.53% ABV
Bitterness: 39.5 IBUs
Mash Temp: 159 °F

Grain Bill:
4.75 lb (79.2%) Weyermann Pilsner Malt
.25 lb (4.2%) Briess Victory® Malt
.25 lb (4.2%) Weyermann Pale Wheat Malt
.5 lb (8.3%) Weyermann Carahell®
.25 lb (4.2%) Weyermann Carared®

0.75 oz Huell Melon (5.2% AA) – 60 m
1 oz Huell Melon (5.2% AA) – 20 m

3 oz Huell Melon – 180 degree hop stand (5.2% AA) – 20 m

2 oz Huell Melon (5.2% AA) – Dry Hop 3 Days

Kettle Additions:
0.5 ea Whirlfloc Tablets (Irish moss) – 15 m
0.5 tsp Wyeast Nutrient – 10 m

WYeast 1056 American Ale™ – Build appropriately sized starter
Pitch yeast once beer is at 62°F. Keep beer at 64°F during the start and peak of fermentation. Slowly raise to 70°F as signs of fermentation taper off.

Water Treatment:
Soft NYC municipal water with 2g Gypsum and 4g Calcium Chloride added to the mash.

Tasting Notes:

Judged as a BJCP Category 23 Specialty Beer

Aroma (7/12):
While not as much melon as I had anticipated given the hop’s name, there is a nice round fruity hoppy character on the nose. The fruitiness is somewhat non-descript, although it is definitely not the typical citrus found in American hops. If I really search, I can convince myself there is some honeydew-like melon aromas, but it is a stretch. The hops have a touch of grassiness which isn’t offensive. The malt is really nice. It is soft with a hint of sweetness complemented by biscuit and sourdough bread.

Appearance (2/3):
The beer is a rich golden color bordering on copper with a touch of haze. The glass is capped with a white, fluffy, persistent head.

Flavor (17/20):
The hops are much more subdued in the flavor than the aroma. The malt is wonderful. Lots of toast and biscuit. The bitterness is firm and balancing, while being quite clean. The beer goes through a great procession on the palate with malt up front, then some juicy hops, and ending with a toasty malt finish.

Mouthfeel (5/5):
Beer is medium to medium-low bodied. The mouthfeel exceeds what I would have expected given the low starting gravity. Soft carbonation enhances this impression. No perceptible alcohol heat.

Overall Impression (10/10):
This is a really crushable session beer that exceeds my expectations. The new German hop variety used is pretty tame, and much more nuanced than other varieties being grown in the New World. All in all, the beer hits all the right chords in terms of what I search for in a session beer. Wonderful beer.

Excellent (41/50)

Fermented Pepper Rings and Chili Paste

It’s easy to forget the magic that lactic fermentation imbues upon some of our favorite foods. In particular, a wide variety of condiments are transformed through the alchemy of fermentation. Sriracha hot sauce? Fermented. Tabasco? Fermented (for years). Soy sauce, fish sauce, many types of chili paste? All fermented. When you start looking at the various sauces and pickles we love, you soon realize that most have their roots firmly grounded in the world of preservation and fermentation.

Jalepeno slices and chili paste ready to be transformed through fermentation.

Jalapeno slices and chili paste ready to be transformed through fermentation. Modifying mason jars with rubber grommets and airlocks is a cheap and easy way to prevent any undesired growth in your ferment.

Chilies are an excellent candidate to preserve via fermentation. As summer starts to become a memory and fall begins to whisper in our ears, the local NYC farmers markets begin to be filled with a variety of locally grown chilies. I’m a major fan of hot food, so my natural inclination is to capture as many of these fresh chilies as possible and preserve them for use throughout the winter. Chili paste and fermented jalepeno slices are an excellent means to do this.

Fermented Chili Paste

My chili paste consists of a blend of jalepenos, serranos, poblanos, and habaneros. Striking the right blend is key to obtaining your preferred heat level.

My chili paste consists of a blend of jalapenos, serranos, poblanos, and habaneros. Striking the right blend is key to obtaining your preferred heat level.

Fermented chili paste is not only a great condiment, but also a versatile addition to many recipes. It’s great because you can make it with any blend of peppers you wish, resulting in either a fruity/tangy sauce, or one that will burn off your taste buds. I ended up shooting for something in between the two. Using a blend of sweet and hot peppers will strike a nice balance. There really is no right or wrong blend. I like to add an entire head of garlic to the mix for a nice garlicky kick. Really the only rule I stick to is to include 2% by weight kosher salt. For example, if I have 500 grams of raw chopped up peppers, I’ll include 10 grams of kosher salt in the mix. This level of salt is key to encouraging good bacteria growth while inhibiting molds or other undesired microbiological activity.

 Fermented Jalapeno Slices

Another great way to preserve chilies is fermenting slices in a brine solution. The recipe couldn’t be easier. For this batch I sliced enough jalapenos to pack a pint sized mason jar to the brim. I then topped the jar with a brine solution consisting of filtered water and 5-6% by weight kosher salt. The mason jar was fitted with a lid and airlock and allowed to ferment for approximately a week. Again, taste should be your guide. Once the peppers fit your taste, refrigerator to slow further fermentation.

The pepper rings will take on a lovely tart acidic quality as well as some earthy funk. Texturally they retain a nice snap and are a great topping to many dishes.

A Few Words About Safety

  1. Smell and looks should be your guide. I don’t eat anything that grows mold or smells off.
  2. Wear gloves when handling chilies. The oils can and will burn you.
  3. Be careful when sealing ferments. Fermentation can produce CO2 gas. If this builds up in a sealed container, it can result in dangerous levels of pressure, which can cause vessels to burst. Frequently vent any sealed ferments, or ferment with an airlock.

Funky Tap – Brett Trois IPA

The last batch of Single Tap IPA I brewed ended up producing an extra gallon of wort that wouldn’t fit into my fermenter. Rather than toss the excess, I racked it to a 1-gallon glass jug and fermented it out with standard WYeast 1056 American Ale yeast before inoculating it with a secondary Brettanomyces Trois strain (White Labs WLP644). There has been quite a few commercial brewers producing Brett IPAs, especially using Brett Trois, and there seems to be some pretty nice flavor synergies between hops and this particular Brett strain.

Funky Tap

Tasting Notes:

Judged as a BJCP Category 23 Specialty Beer

Aroma (5/12):
The are some obvious Brett aromas coming from this beer. Esters smell almost like over-ripe pineapple and blend nicely with the potent citrusy / mango-like American hops jumping from the glass. The synergies between yeast and hop derived aromas is quite evident. The Brett has a low phenolic component that is both peppery and features a low amount of plastic-like aroma which feels a bit out of place. There is a slightly skunky / light-struck component to the aroma which is off. A low, honey-like component to the malt makes me think the beer may be slightly oxidized.

Appearance (3/3):
Medium copper and clear. This beer has dropped quite bright with a bit of age and cold conditioning. Persistent white fluffy head.

Flavor (11/20):
Lots of round citrusy/fruity hops. I’m a bit surprised how hoppy this is given the age and lack of dry hopping. It is tough to tell where the Brett derived flavors and hops begin and end, but the sum of the parts is quite nice and juicy. Malt is soft, bready, and round, but a bit oxidized. Bitterness is gentle, but balancing.

Mouthfeel (5/5):
Dry yet round. Somewhat of a paradox, but the mouthfeel sensation is quite pleasant.

Overall Impression (5/10):
This is a pretty nice beer and dramatically different than the non-Brett version. The melding of Brett flavors and hops works quite well. The only exception being the hint of pepper/plastic phenol which is a bit clashing. Additionally, the skunky aroma and oxidation stick out like a sore thumb to my pallet. This beer was a bit of a bastardized experiment generated by leftover wort. My normal process and care in transferring and storing the beer were not followed, and appear to have resulted in some off-flavors. Regardless, this beer really does illustrate the synergies that can take place between Brett derived esters and hop character.

Good (29/50)