Water Treatment for New England IPAs

Water chemistry is a very complex topic and something I am still learning and experimenting with myself. Many experienced brewers will tell you that water treatment is critical in producing the best hazy beers. I’m still determining what exactly makes that true and what is 100% essential for the style. This post will touch on my personal experiences with NEIPA water treatment and everything I’ve researched up to this point. If you’re looking for a more in-depth overview of the style in general, check out this post.

Good tasting water makes good beer, right? Not exactly. While this logic may work with some styles, it doesn’t work for producing great NEIPAs. But why is this exactly? I think it comes down to a few things. 1. Hazy IPAs are very sensitive beers where off-flavors have NO PLACE TO HIDE. Yes, these beers are brewed with a crapload of hops but not in the same way a big malty bitter beer is. In fact, the delicate aroma-forward nature of the style can be easily overshadowed or clash with things that aren’t supposed to be there. At least that’s what I’ve found from my own personal failed trials and experiments.

NEIPAs are very light-colored beers with pretty basic grain profiles. I can’t say any combo of flaked oats, white wheat and 2-row are going to create an explosive beer on their own. They step aside to let the yeast and hops SHINE. A more malt-forward and bitter beer with crystal malt is going to do a better job at hiding imperfections. But we’re talking about water right? Yes, imperfections in water are going to have detrimental effects on your hazy IPA. This includes tap water that doesn’t taste right, has a distinct taste, or is treated with chlorine/chloramines (city water).

Treating for Chlorine/Chloramines

Chlorine is a NEIPA killer. Chlorine and chloramine can produce chlorophenols in beer that contribute plastic-like or medicinal off-flavors. More delicate styles, such as NEIPAs are more susceptible to these types of off-favors. If your water comes from a municipal source, it was likely treated with one or the other. I would strongly encourage you to always treat your brewing water with Campden at an absolute minimum. Chlorine can be removed from water by simply letting it sit out for 24 hours or by pre-boiling it. Chloramines MUST be treated with Campden to remove.

The good news is it’s really easy to take care of this step and one of the easiest variables to eliminate/troubleshoot right off the bat.

Get a Water Report

If you’re serious about brewing NEIPAs, you need to understand the mineral makeup of your tap water. Why? because we need to understand how we can dial in our water profile/minerals to the desired level. I’ll dive into this more later. Go to Ward Laboratories and get yourself a water report. Lucky brewers have access to very soft water. This means their water is naturally low in mineral content, allowing them to freely adjust upward as needed without too many constraints. It’s very easy to add minerals to water and more difficult to remove minerals.

Ward Laboratories Brewer's water report

Above is my water report I obtained from Ward Labs. The figures we really care about are highlighted in yellow. My water is naturally higher in chloride and low in sulfate. This works in my favor since I usually target higher chloride and lower sulfate in my NEIPA water profile. The “bad” news is I’m stuck with a minimum of 86ppm chloride for all styles unless I dilute my tap water with RO or distilled water. Brewing software (Bru’n Water, Brewfather, and BeerSmith) will help you input your starting water profile and allow you to calculate additional salts as needed.

Just as an FYI, your town/city may already have a public water report you can access. All of this is public information so if it’s not posted online you can try to call your townhall and get the information you need. I was able to get SOME information from my town’s water report but it was missing certain necessary figures. The other kicker is some towns may source water from different locations depending on where you live geographically. Two households in the same town could actually get their water from different facilities. I don’t live in a very large town, but from what I was told, there are three different sources.

If all of this seems overwhelming to you, start by brewing with 100% RO or distilled water and trust that you’re basically brewing with a completely blank slate. You’ll still need software to determine salt/pH adjustments but it eliminates the tap water component.

Water Adjustment Basics

The most common minerals/additions used to adjust water are calcium chloride, calcium sulfate (gypsum), Epsom salt, chalk, baking soda, lactic acid, and phosphoric acid. I honestly really only use calcium chloride, gypsum, and 88% lactic acid. This article here does a really good job of breaking down some of the basics. I’ve outlined what I typically use below along with general guidelines.

Calcium chloride: Raises both calcium and chloride levels. Enhances malt character, sweetness, and body/mouthfeel.

Calcium sulfate (gypsum): Raises both calcium and sulfate levels. Enhances hop character and bitterness.

Epsom salt: Raises both sulfate and magnesium levels. I really only use this if my gypsum/chloride additions are increasing calcium too much. Minimal magnesium is needed so I usually leave it alone. For calcium, I try to keep it around 100ppm and under 150ppm. Too much calcium is said to add a chalky flavor to beer. I’ve experienced something very similar however it could also be the plastic-like flavors associated with hop burn.

88% lactic acid: Most homebrewers use lactic acid to decrease the ph of wort/mash. Brewing salts will contribute to lowering pH as well, however usually some level of lactic acid is needed. My tap water pH is on the higher side, so I need to use more than when I brew with RO/distilled.

Chloride & Sulfate

Chloride and sulfate levels are the two most important minerals to focus on. This is where you will find a wide array of opinions and practices—so much that you could probably start a bar fight over it (which is reasonable to me).

I’ve done a lot of experimenting with chloride to sulfate ratios and typically target a 3-1 or 2-1 chloride to sulfate ratio. This will help really round out your beer to achieve a soft pillowy mouthfeel that compliments the hop character. If you were to inverse those numbers, you’d be left with a sharper, more hop-forward emphasis on your beer. I’ve done both extremes and can tell a difference.

I’ve done a lot of research on how commercial breweries are handling chloride/sulfate and it seems the trend is on par with the above advice. The more difficult information to obtain is the actual AMOUNT of salts (parts per million), breweries are using in their hazy beers. The typical ballpark figures I’ve gathered are 225-175 ppm chloride to 100-75 ppm sulfate. The highest number I’ve heard was around 300 ppm of either chloride or sulfate. I’ve never personally added this much salt but I’m tempted to push the envelope to see what happens.

One particular local brewery I really love actually uses the inverse of 1-2 chloride to sulfate. Being a huge proponent of their hazy IPAs, it makes me really question which ratio/amount I do actually prefer. Of course there are a number of other factors like mashing temps, grain bill, yeast, and final gravity that impact final beer character.

If you’re just starting out with water treatment, I would target a chloride to sulfate ratio of 2-1. A great starting point on the actual target amount is 200ppm chloride and 100ppm sulfate. Assuming many of the breweries I heard from aren’t lying to me, you’ll be replicating pretty typical practices for the style.

My typical water profile for a hazy IPA usually looks something like this.

Calcium (Ca2+119
Magnesium (Mg2+3
Sodium (Na+33
Choride (Cl)195
Sulfate (SO42-) 75
Bicarbonates (HCO3) 58

Minerals and Haze

This is a newer area to me but there is lots of discussion (and maybe even concrete proof) that minerals can actually contribute to haze stability. I’ve done some basic research on this but it seems to me that my higher sulfate beers tend to have better stable haze through the life of the keg. Not sure if this is true or if I’m biased based on what I’ve heard. Since I started treating my water in general, I started developing hazier final beers.

Water/Beer pH

Wort pH is another hot topic when it comes to water adjustment. There are actually two things to note here. Mash pH and boil pH. Mash pH helps promote mash conversion and better-tasting beer. This is no news to most seasoned homebrewers. Boil pH is another story and deals more with hop extraction and bitterness. Read this article here regarding boil pH and hop utilization. In short, this article suggests that hop bitterness extraction is greater with a higher boil pH. Lower boil pH may lead to smoother bitterness.

This is another area I’m currently experimenting with after hearing details on a few popular commercial breweries targeting a boil ph of about 4.9. This means you’ll likely have to adjust mash ph using lactic acid to hit your typical 5.1-5.4 target and then adjust down AGAIN at the start of the boil.

From what I’ve heard, you’ll get more hop character and less bitterness from hot side hops. I’m assuming this also pertains to the whirlpool, even though we aren’t technically boiling the hops. There is also evidence that heavy dry hopping can increase final beer pH. This is a massive topic and extensive research has been done. I would highly suggest you check out Scott Janish’s article on beer pH as he covers the topic in a lot more depth.

At this point, I don’t have a great method for calculating boil pH adjustments. As of now, I slowly adjust with lactic acid, a little at a time, and take digital pH readings in between until I hit my target. If anyone has a better idea, I’d love to hear it.

Wrapping Up

If you focus on gradually improving your water practices you’re going to get more refined results. At a minimum, your water won’t be what’s holding you back. To recap, start with RO or distilled water if you’re unsure of your tap water quality or want to eliminate that variable altogether. At a minimum, you should be treating your tap water with Campden tablets to eliminate chlorine/chloramines. If you have city/town water, you likely have one or the other.

Use brewing software to build your desired water profile based on the guide above. It’s something that’s worth experimenting with and trying something new each time. I’d love to do an inversed split batch one of these days. Lactic acid will help you dial in mash pH and ensure you’re getting the most out of your mash in terms of conversion. Try experimenting with adjusting boil pH once you’ve mastered all of the above. It can be overwhelming at first but once you get the hang of it it just becomes another brew day step that becomes second nature.

References:

http://braukaiser.com/wiki/index.php/How_pH_affects_brewing#Hop_utilization

A Look at pH in Hoppy Beers

3 thoughts on “Water Treatment for New England IPAs

  1. Hey Shawn! Thanks for the tips here. I did have a question regarding Campden Tablets. If I plan to use Distilled Water, do I still need to add Campden Tablets or can I just proceed to build out the water profile?

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