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YOLO COUNTY NEWS
99 CENTS

Point of Brew: well water or river water?

MichaelLewisW

By
June 21, 2011 |

Everyone knows about water and beer, because for some reason brewers once thought it clever to advertise the water rather than the beer. Most of us, I suppose, remember Hamms’ “From the land of sky-blue waters,” or Olympia’s “It’s the water!” and Coors’ “Pure Rocky Mountain spring water.”

Beer is better than 90 percent water by weight and 95 percent by volume, so water quality is undoubtedly important, but drawing attention to the high water content of beer might be unwise at these six-pack prices.

You notice brewers no longer use the “we have good water” strategy and focus on other things such as ingredients, or flavor or drinkability; brewers do not want to remind consumers that the bulk of the money paid for a six-pack goes for packaging, advertising, transportation and taxes and so on.

In fact, if brewers packaged plain water, the price of a six-pack would not go down by very much.

Generally, brewers prefer well water or bore hole or ground water for brewing, at least as long as the well delivers brewing quality water in terms of the salts dissolved in it (see below). Such water is generally cleaner, purer, more consistent in composition and temperature, less contaminated, and safer than river water.

River water has ample opportunity to be contaminated by run-off from agriculture, from mining and industry and from city streets and likely contains human and animal sewage. It is less consistent in composition and less reliable in volume (at least in the short term) than bore-hole water.

Therefore, I am somewhat bemused by the rush to change our supply of water in the city of Davis from our present bore-hole water to a supply from the Sacramento River. The Sacramento drains some 27,000 square miles of Northern California and in its 400-mile journey from the Klamath Mountains to Suisun Bay, is heavily used for irrigation/agriculture, mining, industry and by cities along its length and, because it is still a drain, it is “chronically polluted.”

Although the water will taste better, I am told, I shall wonder, in the future, how many times the water I shall drink has already been used by another person. Recycled, you might say.

Bore-hole water is pristine because it is fossil water, a mined, never-before-used commodity. That is the problem, of course: The supply is eventually exhaustible because natural systems cannot replace ground water as quickly as we abstract it.

By contrast, river water depends on rainfall and snow melt and in record wet years, such as we have enjoyed this winter season, the rivers rush full and mighty and the reservoirs are gorged with water; we might even see again the “glory hole” at Lake Berryessa.

In times of drought, of course, it’s a bit different, and I do seem to remember, not so long ago, that we saw the bottom of Berryessa.

Maybe we should keep our wells working for those times when the river is low or too polluted.

Brewers are already taking the hint that water is an increasingly precious commodity, and are aggressively seeking to reduce water use. The usual way efficiency is measured is by the volume of water used per volume of beer produced. In times gone by, that number might have been 10 to 12 hectoliters of water used per hectoliter of beer produced; these days that is down to maybe 3.5:1.

Curiously, brewers are rather less affected by water quality than most, because modern technology such as reverse osmosis, used these days at even small breweries such as Sudwerk, allows brewers to take almost any source of raw water and process it so that it meets the most stringent standards and qualities of traditional brewing waters from such famous centers of brewing excellence as Burton-upon-Trent (for ales) and Pilsen (for lagers).

This has meant, among other things, that brewers can move away from the primary source of water available to them at their original locations and still make beer with water identical to that at the home brewery.

So, for example, Coors, a quintessential light American lager beer, is now made in Burton-upon-Trent where the unique water has made Burton the world’s most famous center for ale-brewing.

Water composition can affect beer flavor directly because of the salts dissolved in it and also indirectly by influencing extraction of flavor compounds from the grains; this it does primarily by affecting the acid/alkaline balance of brewing processes. For this reason, brewers cannot tolerate water that contains excess bicarbonates (waters that cause “fur” inside a tea kettle).

Ale brewers like water with a lot of calcium and lager brewers like water that contains very little dissolved salts. It just works better that way and has done for millennia.

Many brewers would look askance at replacing perfectly good water from a well with water from a river, and they would find a three-fold increase in the price of that water the daftest idea on the planet. Most would leave town.

— Reach Michael Lewis at cymro@sbcglobal.net. Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com

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