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Brewing a good glass of water

Too much snow or not enough rain can have a marked effect on our beer and whisky, says Michael Jackson

The oft-repeated legends about magical water sources used by certain famous brewers and whisky distillers are beginning to gain new credibility.

Originally, wells and springs were prized simply because they guaranteed production in the days before mains water. Only with the development of brewing science was it realised that the soft water of Pilsen and Munich suited the delicacy of their lagers; that the calcium sulphate beneath Burton and Tadcaster drew out the hop oils that gave the distinctively firm bitterness to their pale ales; and that the calcium carbonate of London and Dublin was best suited to the production of dark textured porters and stouts.

Even today, when water can be adjusted to the required chemical composition, the difference between the calcium carbonate in London and Dublin - the first chalky, the latter limestone - may partly explain the difference that some drinkers feel they perceive in the Guinness brewed in the two cities.

The chemical adjustment of brewing water started when lagers, pale ales and stouts began to be produced far from their native cities. Brewers far beyond Burton add calcium sulphate to their water when they make pale ales. They call the calcium sulphate "Burton salts," or say they are "Burtonising" their water.

Most whisky distilleries take their water from the same spring or burn that fed them at their foundation, perhaps 50 years ago. They regard their untreated water as an important element in the character of their product. Each combination of stone and vegetation imparts its own character to the whisky.

But circumstances may be changing both for brewers and distillers. In some parts of England, brewers are worried about there being too much rain. Heavy rain on flat, open countryside can wash farmers' fertilisers into the water table. Because of this, some brewers have over the past decade stopped using their own wells, preferring to take town water from a reservoir, removing the chlorine and adding calcium sulphate where necessary.

Water has several waves of influence upon beers and whiskies.

Water has several waves of influence upon beers and whiskies. First the barley has to be soaked to start its metamorphosis into malt. Then the malt itself is infused in water to extract the fermentable sugars. At both of these stages, the taste of the water enters the product, but this is not the end of its influence. The make-up of the water will affect the rate of extraction and subsequent fermentation.

In the matter of water, the whisky distillers are more concerned about possible shortages. One or two warm winters in recent years have left a shortage of snow on the Grampians. The snows are thought to be a principal source of water for the distillers.

One distillery hired a diviner to see whether its water emerged from other springs in the area. It did. Others believe that snow and rain in the mountains seep through so many fissures in the rock that the precious liquid takes decades, perhaps centuries, to charge the springs that feed the burns. These distilleries may seem to be whistling in the dark, but geologists are inclined to support their beliefs.

Geologists Stephen Cobb and Julie Davison, a married couple, have taken these studies a stage further. They live among the wells and spas of the Peak District and are devotees of Scotch whisky. Their work on the subject, first published in The Mining Journal, has aroused considerable interest among distillers.

They found that distilleries in areas with a a distinctive geology tended to produce whiskies with an unusual character.

They mapped the geology of the Scottish distilling districts, then looked at the characteristics of the whiskies and used taste notes from writers such as Derek Cooper, Wallace Milroy and myself. They found that distilleries in areas with a a distinctive geology tended to produce whiskies with an unusual character. Distilleries with a shared geology made malts with some shared common characteristics.

I have always wondered why the otherwise delicate lowland malt Bladnoch has such a firm body and long finish. It turns out that this is the only whisky whose water rises from Silurian strata. The answer, apparently, is that dark, graptolitic, Llandoverian shale. Could the hint of ginger in the Lowlanders Rosebank (from Falkirk) and Glenkinchie (east of Edinburgh) be projected by the shared carboniferous strata south of the Forth? Yes, suggest Cribb and Davison.

In the famous Highland district of Speyside, malts like Glenfiddich and Craigellachie may share their fruitiness because they are in the Dalradian supergroup; others, like Knockando and Macallan, may owe some of their fruit-and-nut character to the Moinian metasediments. Further north, the rather full, mustardy Clynelish is the sole Jurassic malt.

Across in the west, Talisker's peppery "hotness" probably derives from the volcanic nature of Skye. Ah, yes, I have always suspected that. This is the whisky of the youngest rocks; they are a mere 50 million years old. To the south, the great distilling island of Islay has the oldest whisky rock, 600-800 million years old, providing water for two of the island's distillers: Bruichladdich and Bowmore. Both produce whiskies notable for their complexity of flavour development.

The rock - and the water - are of course, only the beginning. Then come the vegetation; the choice of barley variety; the way in which it is malted (on a floor, in a box or drum?); the extent to which peat (and of what consistency?) is used in the drying of the malt; the strains of yeast employed in fermentation; the material from which the fermenting vessels are made (Oregon pine, larch, stainless steel?); the copper and shape of the stills; the oak of the casks (were they last used for Scotch, bourbon or sherry?); the site of the maturation warehouses (in a sheltered glen, or on a briny, seaweedy shore?).

After all this, you add tap water...?

Published Online: OCT 1, 1997
Published in Print: OCT 19, 1991
In: The Independent


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