Monday, May 14, 2012

Water in Zymurgy: the Hard, the Soft, and the Nasty


(by my son Christopher Palm, 3rd quarter Honors Chemistry essay)

In the Middle Ages, many European towns had their own brewery, each with its own particular style of beer. Over time certain locations became famous for their unique brew. For example, Dublin became distinguished for its dark Guinness stouts, Pilsen was noted for its pale lagers, and Burton-on-Trent was renowned for its pale ales. Brewers did not know then what we know now — that the mineral content of the water used in zymurgy greatly affects the outcome of the beer. Today, brewers take these chemicals into account when they brew beer.

Several ions, including calcium, magnesium, carbonate, sulfate, and chloride, typically found in water affect beer in important ways. Metal ions tend to aid enzyme activity, while anions directly influence the flavor. Water either naturally has a lot of these ions in it – this is considered hard water – or it has few minerals dissolved in it – this is considered soft water

Calcium ions (Ca2+) and magnesium ions (Mg2+) ions protect the enzyme amylase (also found in human saliva) that breaks down the starches into simple sugars. Without these, the yeasts would not be able to break down enough starches to eat and the flavor of the beer would be substantially different. This enzyme is all-important for this reason, as the malts used in beer are roasted specifically to obtain certain sugars in them. “High levels [of Mg2+] taste sour/bitter” (Palmer 38), however. Besides these useful metallic ions, there can also be dissolved iron in the water, which has no useful purpose. It must be removed, or it will give the beer a bad taste.

The carbonate ion (CO32-), which is frequently coupled with Ca2+ to form the basic compound calcium carbonate, is an important and common ion found in hard water all over the country. It is sparingly soluble in water, and generally is found there dissolved from the limestone with which ground water is in contact. Carbonate ions do not give beer a specific pleasant flavor, but they help neutralize the rather low pH of certain malts, especially dark beer malts. An excess of CO32-, however, can create an unpleasant bitter or harsh flavor. If the water used for a beer is too high in CO32-, rendering it highly basic, applying an acidic substance (such as a sulfate) or brewing a dark beer containing the more acidic dark malts will mitigate this.

Sulfate ions (SO42-), which are also often paired with Ca2+ in calcium sulfate, are a third important ion present in water in some locations. This compound, gypsum, is often added to hard water (water that has carbonates in it) to cancel some of the basicity of the water. It also enhances the hops' bitterness, so it is a perfect ion to include in hoppy, light beers. But, as Donald Gajewski, former assistant brewmaster at City Brewery in La Crosse, Wisconsin, warns, “Too low a pH gives a beer an astringent, harsh taste” (Gajewski 3/07/12). This happens if too many sulfate ions are added. 

Another fairly common ion is the chloride (Cl-) ion. (This is not the chlorine added to water to disinfect it – that chlorine has a bad taste and must be removed if present.) It can be added as either NaCl or CaCl2. If calcium chloride is added, it boosts the calcium level (which is not necessarily needed if the calcium level is already adequate). If sodium chloride is added, the sodium does not have quite the same effect: it “acts like salt to accentuate the malt flavor at moderate levels” (Palmer 38) – or in too large a quantity, it imparts a salty flavor to the brew (not too surprisingly). The Cl- ion has similar effects, and it also helps give a beer a smoother taste. Some people actually use a salt shaker when they drink highly bitter beers! 

The most prominent ingredient in any glass of beer is water, yet few people consider the great impact this ingredient has on the quality of the draft. Hard water is best for dark beers, soft water (with a few sulfate ions) is best for light beers, but too much of any of these chemicals can make any beer taste bad. It takes a chemist to understand why the chemical makeup of water – whether hard, soft, or nasty – makes all the difference in the taste of the beer.



Works Cited
Foster, Terry. Pale Ale. Brewers Publications. 1999.  Print
Gajewski, Donald. Former Assistant Brewmaster at the City Brewing Company, La Crosse. Interview.
Palmer, John J. How to Brew. Brewers Publications. 2006. Print.
The Practical Brewer. Edited by Broderick, Harold M. Master Brewers Association of the Americas. Madison, Wisconsin. 1977. Print.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Original Pilsner

When most people think of the pilsner style of beer (if they even know what that means) they think of wimpy, flacid American mass-produced brews. What a shame. Those of you who don't know about the original example of this style of beer, which is widely available, let me tell you about it.

I've posted before on the distinction between lagers and ales. And I'm an ale man myself. Almost all of the styles I like to drink and pretty much 100% of what I brew are ales. But there is one lager that really stands out for me and it happens to be the original pilsner-style beer: Pilsner Urquell, first brewed in 1842. The difference between this pilsner and a BudCoorsMiller is like the difference between a fine artisanal loaf baked in a wood-fired oven and Wonder Bread, between morels delicately sauteed in butter and canned button 'shrooms, between fine prime rib and Salisbury "steak".

Pilsner Urquell pours a rich straw color and is dominated by an impressive hop character, derived from 100% Saaz hops. The bittering is solid, the hop flavor decidedly spicy, the aroma prickly and enticing. The beer is highly carbonated, which brings a sharpness to both nose and palate that is rousing and engaging. While most ales are better served at just below room temperature, in my opinion this beer does better started out quite a bit colder. It goes beautifully with many foods, but I consider it best paired with spicy Thai stir fry, a hearty steak, or barbecued ribs.

Even though it comes in those evil green bottles, I have had pretty good success getting it fresh. Its price has come down recently too, so it competes nicely even with good domestic beer. And hey, the Czech Republic is (or at least was, when this beer was first created) a Catholic country. So there's your Catholic angle!

Highly recommended.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Beer for the Holy Days

If you are a homebrewer, one great gift you can give is your own brews. I've done this several years now. It takes some forethought, since you really need to brew the beers a month or more before Christmas, for them to be ready to bottle and give. But at least in our circles the effort and thought has been much appreciated. Here's what I made this year for our friends and relatives:

Holyday Brews from the Palm Family Brewery


Fuller’s 1845 Small-scale Edition (1845)—Fuller’s is my favorite English brewery, hands down. Their London Pride Pale Ale, London Porter, and Fuller’s ESB are absolute classic British ales. But my favorite of their line-up is the Fuller’s 1845 Celebration Ale. Here’s what they say about it:


1845 Celebration Ale is a true landmark in British beer history. Although brewing dates back to 1654 at Griffin Brewery on the banks of the River Thames, the partnership of Fuller, Smith And Turner was formed in 1845. In 1995, to commemorate the company's 150th anniversary, Fuller's commissioned special, celebration bottled ale. 1845 was the result. A more auspicious beginning the brew could not have had; the inaugural beer's hops were added to the copper by none other than HRH Prince of Wales, during a royal visit to Fuller's!

Now the brewmaster of Fuller’s has given out the exact recipe for the 1845 ale on the podcast, Can You Brew It? Starting with a base of Maris Otter pale malt, this brew also calls for medium British caramel malt and Simpson’s amber malt. The last ingredient is available in only one homebrew shop in the United States, Northern Brewer in St. Paul, MN. But yours truly made that arduous trek to obtain it just for you (well, actually I was on a business trip and providentially passed within ten minutes of the shop.) Liberally hopped with East Kent Goldings and fermented with the wonderful Fuller’s London ESB yeast, this beer exudes loads of authentic British ale character.

I cannot promise that my version will be anywhere near as good as Fuller’s, but I hope you will enjoy it. I recommend letting it sit at cellar temp for another month or two before trying it, as it is a bit young and should improve with some aging.


Maison de Bourbon Porter (BVP) —This porter starts with a complex robust porter base consisting of American 2-row pale malt, Munich malt, medium caramel malt, chocolate malt, and black patent malt. It is hopped with British East Kent Goldings hops and allowed to ferment. After the primary fermentation has subsided, whole vanilla beans are added to the brew and allowed to steep for a month. Then at kegging, fine Kentucky bourbon is added for a special touch.


Denny Conn’s RyePA (RyePA)—Denny Conn is a great and generous homebrewer. Indeed, if it were not for Denny’s “cheap and easy” batch sparging method, I would not be brewing from all-grain malt and may have abandoned the hobby altogether. He is a great and patient teacher. His RyePA recipe is well-known in homebrewing circles. It is an IPA (Imperial Pale Ale) by style. Starting with a base of American 2-row pale malt, this brew builds on that base with a liberal addition of rye malt, which lends the beer a distinctive, spicy character. Medium caramel malt, carapils malt, and a dash of wheat malt round out the grain bill and the brew is liberally hopped with Columbus, Mount Hood, and Cascade hops.


St. Nicholas, patron of brewers, pray for us.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Blessing of the Beer, Assumption Feast 2010

Finally, we had the traditional Blessing of the Beer, from the Rituale Romanum at our annual Feast of the Assumption Mass, procession, and picnic. Every year at our apostolate we celebrate this great feast of our Lady with a special Mass, followed by a Eucharistic procession and then a huge feast. I supply the beer. This year the line-up consisted of three brews by yours truly. The first was a Southern English Brown and the recipe I used was taken from Jamil Zainasheff's Brewing Classic Styles: 80 Winning Recipes Anyone Can Brew, which is truly a great resource. All of the recipes I've brewed from that book have been marvelous and this caramelly English Brown was no exception. Then I had a Honey Blond Ale, brewed from a recipe I got over at the TastyBrew forum, posted by a guy who goes by the online moniker of CLB (now chaselakebeer). Look at this thread and scroll down to the second recipe he posted. I changed the hops in this one (I used East Kent Goldings for bittering and Hallertau for flavor and aroma), but I've brewed it twice and it's really a crowd-pleaser. I made 10 gallons and fermented one half with American ale yeast (US-05 dry yeast) and the other half with a Belgian yeast (T-58 dry yeast) and called it a Belgian Blonde. The only difference between the beers is the yeast and they are radically different. I like them both, but the nod actually goes to the regular Honey Blond half with the neutral yeast. Very yummy. This is a super beer for those who aren't really into beer, lean toward the CoorsBudMiller end of the spectrum, and are hesitant to try new beers. But believe me, even if you're really into special beers this is a nice one.

I don't know if the traditional blessing makes the beer taste any better, but it was enjoyed by all and that is a great satisfaction. If you are ever in the vicinity of southwestern Wisconsin near the Feast of the Assumption (August 15, ya know), then by all means come out and join us for the great time to honor our Lady and have a wonderful time together.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Tower of London Porter, Recipe

As promised (well, a little later than promised), here's the recipe for the Tower of London Porter which won Best of Show at the Between the Bluffs Beer, Cheese, and Wine Festival 2010.

I have mentioned before on this blog that Fuller's London Porter is one of my all-time favorite beers. Just fabulous. So I have wanted for a while to try a homebrewed version of it. I found one on the 'Net, ostensibly adapted from the recipe provided by the Real Ale Almanac, by Roger Protz.

I actually brewed 11 gallons of this, but the recipe below is proportioned for the more common 5.5 gallon batch (accounting for some loss in the kettle and the fermenter, with 5 full gallons in the keg):

8 lbs. British 2-row pale malt (I used Crisp Maris Otter)
1 1/2 lbs. Brown malt (this is the essential ingredient for this beer)
1 1/4 lbs. 40L crystal malt
4 oz. Chocolate malt

1 1/2 oz. Fuggles hops, 4.5% aa at 60 minutes
1/2 oz. Fuggles hops, 4.5% aa at 15 minutes

Starting gravity is 1.056. Bittering is 30 IBUs.
Mash at 154 deg F for one hour.

I split this batch into two fermenters. I pitched Safale S04 dry yeast into one half. Into the other half I pitched some WYeast 1968 London ESB slurry I had saved from a previous batch. The S04 half took off right away. I don't know what happened, but after three days the London ESB half showed no activity, so I pitched a packet of Munton and Fison dry yeast. Then it took off within a few hours. I thought this part of the batch was going to suffer from the lengthy lag time before fermentation started, but it turned out that this was the award-winning beer. I really think that the WYeast 1968 did contribute to the final flavor and I think it's the right yeast for this recipe.

The final beer was lucious--rich caramel, slightly roasted, and with a subtle smokey flavor which really surprised me since there is no smoked malt in the recipe.

I will definitely be brewing this again.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Between the Bluffs 2010, Best of Show!

I have been brewing for about ten years and have had to work very hard to make good beer. My early batches were—not to put too fine a point on it—horrible. Several of them were literally fed to the pigs. I had to study and practice, finding out what I was doing wrong, correcting it, trying again, failing, correcting, trying again.

Some batches started out okay, but turned nasty within a few weeks (I was oxidating the beer as I bottled it, by not siphoning carefully enough.) Others got infected through careless sanitation. Others—especially those featuring Cascades hops—had a distinctively soapy taste. This, I finally determined by way of a professional water analysis, was caused by my extremely hard well water. And even when I had things more or less figured out using malt extract and switched to all-grain brewing, I encountered harsh bittering in my pale ales, which was also caused by the very hard water.

Several of my friends thought for sure I would give up. But it just seemed to me that making beer was not rocket science, that others were successful and that there was no reason why I could not be successful as well. So I kept at it, correcting one problem at a time.

I have gotten to the point where I can pretty consistently make beer that I enjoy and that my friends tell me they enjoy (and some of them would indeed tell me straight up if it wasn't good.) But there's nothing like a homebrew competition, judged by certified judges, to see if your own perceptions are accurate.

I recently entered four brews in the Between the Bluffs Beer, Wine, and Cheese Festival in La Crosse, WI to compete against a total of 80 other entries. And one of them, which I called Tower of London Porter, won first place in the Dark Ales and went on to win Best of Show out of the other first place category winners.

I won a very nice prize package, including brewing grains and malted milk balls from Briess Malting Company, two beautiful stained glass picture frames from a local artisan, a giant planter, two VIP tickets to next year's event (a $100 value), and a very (ahem) interesting crown and sceptre as La Crosse brewmaster. But mostly, I took great satisfaction in having my beer evaluated and appreciated in such a venue.

So thanks to the judges, my fellow brewers, and to the intrepid martyrs who were held in that dark Tower, to whom this brew was dedicated. Sancti Ioannes Fisher et Thoma More, orate pro nobis.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Now That's Penance!

A friend to whom I sent some of my Holyday Brown and Icicle IPA sent me an e-mail reminding me of former days, when some of my fermented beverages didn't work out quite so well:




Thanks for the nice ale. Last Saturday after a long week, I consumed the IPA you made. You’re in the big leagues now. The hop taste had a bit of a pine flavor, my favorite. I haven’t tasted the brown yet. All of a sudden Lent came; that great time of suffering with no ale. (what a wimp I am) . . . .

I hope you will try your hand at Russian Imperial Stout one of these years. I’m aware of how difficult good brew making is. I know you're busy enough. Don’t worry about a few early mistakes like the Palm's vintage apple wine that had a clear vinegar start with a hint of chlorine after taste. My Dad never knew the difference. I tolerated it too, during Lent a few years ago.

Hoo boy, apple wine with a vinegar start and chlorine finish. Now that's a Lenten sacrifice!