Testing: What's in a Beer?

Nov. 5, 2015
Onsite testing kits help breweries produce consistent flavors

About the author: Andrew Roberts is assistant sales manager for Industrial Test Systems Inc. Roberts can be reached at [email protected] or 803.329.9712.

For more than 5,000 years, ale has been a commodity enjoyed by many. Now, as a $295 billion industry, beer remains a key product of consumption in our economy. 

Beer is brewed on many different scales, from home brewers to microbreweries, from the domestic level to global industrial operations. Two key aspects every brewer wants to guarantee are quality and consistency. Quality comes from seeking the finest ingredients, perfecting recipes and ensuring that the brewing process is performed with the highest manner of attention and care. Many brewers do not realize, however, that consistency can be difficult to achieve. 

The Importance of Water Quality

In 2013, a California brewery decided to spread its roots to the East Coast. After exploring more than 200 sites, it settled on what it believed was a desirable location. The ales began to flow; however, employees soon realized that their beers did not have the same distinct notes as the ones they had brewed to perfection in California. They had used the same recipes, ingredients, brewing techniques and level of care for quality as in California. So what happened? The answer to that question is a key element that is seldom considered properly: water. 

Water makes up more than 90% of beer, and its properties can affect the taste and feel of every brew. Through trial and error, breweries have learned to include specific water matrices in their recipes to ensure a consistent product from batch to batch. Large filtration systems and mineral additives are used to recreate the same water for each brewing; however, onsite water quality testing is an often-overlooked key component. It is commonly limited to municipal water system or offsite laboratory reports. Many brewers do not conduct onsite water testing due to the complications and costs associated with acquiring an accurate testing kit, as well as the ability to properly interpret the results.

Onsite Testing

In recent years, developments in water testing technologies have helped onsite water testing become more cost-efficient and user friendly. The water quality parameters to be tested are determined by a beer manufacturer’s water source. Water acquired from municipal water systems often can contain chlorine or chloramines, which can give beer a plastic “Band-Aid” taste. As for well water, the hardness and mineral content vary from coast to coast. Based on these facts, anyone involved in the brewing of beer should consider which minerals are potentially being introduced to the brews. The most common water quality parameters checked are:

  • Chlorine;
  • pH;
  • Total alkalinity;
  • Residual alkalinity;
  • Total hardness;
  • Calcium hardness;
  • Magnesium hardness;
  • Chloride;
  • Sodium; and
  • Sulfate.

This may seem like a lot of parameters to consider, but software is now available that can input and calculate these known parameters in order to generate a full remediation report and instructions. Traditional test kits may only determine a few of these parameters; mathematics using known ratios of the secondary parameters associated with the primary indicated parameters must be used to determine the remaining undetected parameters. To complete the testing, the user must be versed in mathematics and water quality testing. Fortunately, new water quality testing products on the market use software to automatically interpret and calculate these parameters, making the entire process easier.

There are several benefits to conducting water testing on site. For municipal water quality reports, testing typically takes place somewhere other than the brewery. This produces a “good guess” report that may not indicate the quality of the actual water the brewer is using. For offsite water testing laboratories, water is collected at the brewer’s water source and shipped to the laboratory’s location. If samples are not properly transported, parameters may change due to transit time, heat exposure, aeration or contamination by the container used to transport the water, potentially causing an erroneous report to be delivered back to the brewery.

The beer brewing industry is one of the fastest growing industries to date, averaging one new brewery opening each day in the U.S. alone. The onsite testing option allows for quick, easy and cost-effective results that are accurate and up to date. The most innovative of these tests use automatic calculators and Bluetooth technology to interact with mobile apps specifically designed to test water. This allows a brewer to utilize his or her smartphone or tablet in conjunction with a testing meter to quickly evaluate the water, add testing notes, and save and share the information with colleagues. Most importantly, brewers can ensure that their water quality is on point every time. Water is the single most important ingredient in a brew, so keep that in mind the next time you enjoy a cold one.

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About the Author

Andrew Roberts

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