Water for Brewing In Israel
Water is your beer's main ingredient and can greatly affect the flavor of the beer, its appearance, and other characteristics. Water is not just H2O. It is also minerals, metals and other materials dissolved into the H2O. These affect the water and make the difference between one water source and another. Together they affect the water's pH (i.e. the measure of the acidity or basicity of the water), and beer is all about pH.
When brewing beer from malt extract, the source of your water is not that important. Water mostly effects the beer during the mashing process, and malt extract has already undergone this process at the factory.
When brewing beer from grains (i.e. all-grain brewing), it is you who needs to perform the mash, and so your choice of brewing water is crucial to your success.
When I moved from extract brewing to all-grain brewing, I did not yet understand the importance of the water. I tried tap water, spring water and mineral water, and was not satisfied with the results. I could not make light-colored beers, my beers would not clear, and there was always some unpleasant bitterness that cannot be attributed to hops, the herbs that lend beer its desired bitterness.
It was only after I learned about mash pH that I found the problem. Most water sources in Israel are "hard". That is, they have a large mineral content, and thus a high pH above 7, which makes them basic. Beer, however, is an acidic fluid, and mashing with basic water will pose exactly the problems I've been facing. For most beer styles, mashing with acidic water (that is, a pH below 7) is necessary. Some beer styles (mostly dark, flavorful beers) will not suffer much from a high pH, flavor-wise, but it is always desirable to start with acidic water, as it helps to avoid infection. After fermentation, beer should reach a pH between 3.5 and 4.5. This low pH protects beer from potentially harmful microbes (either to your health or to the beer's flavor). In fact, no known pathogens (i.e. microorganisms that can make you sick) can live in such a pH. However, brewing with basic water (pH above 7) makes it harder for the beer to reach that wanted low pH, and makes it more susceptible to infection.
I researched all water sources I could find, and was dismayed that only one water source is acidic. All spring and mineral waters in Israel, such as Ein Gedi, Mei Eden and Neviot have a pH above 7, and so are not very suitable for brewing. Tap water is also basic, and it doesn't taste good too (at least in Tel-Aviv), so that's off as well. The only suitable bottled water I've found in Israel is Aqua Nova, with a pH of 6.8 which makes it just slightly acidic. Aqua Nova are water purified with a reverse osmosis process. They seem to have a "bad rep" in Israel, because they're not spring water, but who said spring water are so superior? There are only two downsides to brewing with Aqua Nova: the amount of Sulfate (SO4) in the water is below the recommended level, so I need to add Gypsum to them; and they have Flouride for its supposed dental benefits, but that is completely unnecessary in my opinion.
The first time I brewed an all-grain beer with Aqua Nova, I was thrilled with the results. It was the best beer I ever brewed at the time. It was as light-colored as I wanted it, had absolutely no bitter off-flavors, and it cleared wonderfully after a few days in the fridge. It was fantastic. I stuck with Aqua Nova since then and my beers have improved significantly.
There are other options if you want to "soften" your brewing water. For one, you could dilute your hard water (be it tap water, spring water or mineral water) with distilled water, but you need to calculate the rate of dilution. Personally, I find it a bother.
Another option is to use home purification systems. This can be as small and simple as a Brita filter (but they're so slow I don't have the patience for them), or more "serious" options like below-the-sink filters (e.g. Tami 4) and domestic reverse osmosis systems. If you have the ability to purchase such a system, good for you. Renting an apartment with a roommate makes this impossible for me, so bottled water is still my preferred/only choice.
Recommended Links About Brewing Water
- EZ Water Calculator
- This simple spreadsheet will help you estimate the pH of your mash by the mineral content of your brewing water and the beer's recipe, and will help you find out how to increase or decrease the mash pH towards the recommended range.
- Understanding the Mash pH
- An entire chapter about brewing water from John Palmer's book "How to Brew", free for reading online.