Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Drinking Beer Prevents Cholera

Books are dangerous. And they are even more dangerous when they are read.  A single book can change the life of the reader forever. That happened to me once (and no, it was not as a result of reading Fox in Sox, which is the best book ever).

Farenheit 451, anyone?
The book that changed my life was on the cleanliness of water.  I never thought about how, over the history of mankind, the water which a society had access to determined the ability of a culture to progress and survive and how, even in modern times, people can contract cholera or be infected with cryptosporidium from tainted water. After reading that book, it was all I was able to think about (it also made me realize that there are many people who still do not have access to clean water).  For over a YEAR, I refused to drink anything that was not boiled first (sometimes, I feel really bad for my Mom).

Upon entering the brewing world, water has once again taken an important place in my life.  Outside of bacteria, I had never given much thought to what else might be present in water. Believe it or not, many brewers have to alter the chemical composition of the water that they use to correctly create the style of beer they are brewing. Prepare to get knowledged based on my limited knowledge (I feel the need to establish that this is based on my understanding of the BJCP style guidelines and is not a scientific dissertation).

More than anything else in history, the styles of beer produced was based on geography.  Initially, any beer was the result of the type of water, grains, ingredients, and technology indigenous to an area. The ancient brewers did not intend to create specific styles of beer, they were merely using the supplies that they had on hand.  (Styles did not remain static. Over time, as technology developed, access to ingredients increased, and consumer demand altered, more stylistic options became available.)  Interestingly, the type of water that they had access to influenced the flavor and brewing process of the beer. Water makes up 85-90% of the composition this libation.

I wonder what sorts of flavors Nile crocodile adds to a beer.

Now, for a little chemistry lesson on some of the chemicals present in water.  The concentration of hydrogen ions in water determines the pH level.  A low pH (below 7) is indicative of high hydrogen ion concentration. This means the water is acidic. Higher pHs (above 7) contain greater hydroxide concentrations and create alkaline water.  The pH of the water in brewing, which is determined by the hardness, alkalinity, and buffering salts of the ingredients, affects the finished product greatly.

Likewise, the cations and anions contained within certain waters are vitally important.  The two most common cations are calcium, magnesium and sodium. Calcium aids in protein coagulation during the hot and cold breaks of brewing.  Magnesium also participates in the same chemical reactions as calcium, although to a lesser extent, and also provides nutrients for yeast.  Sodium accents sweetness in low levels, but is salty at higher levels.

In terms of anions, brewers deal most with bicarbonate, sulfate,  and chloride. Bicarbonate works with the acids of dark and roasted malts to neutralize them and reacts with calcium to reduce hardness in the water.  The presence of sulfate accents hop bitterness and dryness when present in large concentrations.  Finally, chloride enhances sweetness.


Certain bodies of water are famed for the styles of beer they helped created.  For example, the water of Burton on the Trent is renowned for creating drier flavors that accentuate hop bitterness in ales, a result of high sulfide levels in the water.  Likewise, the soft water in Plzen helped to produce lagers that were bitter, but still retained a soft palate.

Because we got scienced, we now know that this will have a drier flavor, with accentuated hop bitterness
Here at the brewery, we have to be very careful that our pH levels align properly with the style of beer we are brewing.  The water used in our Dortmunder Lager has a very specifically dictated chemical composition, as does the water for our Munich Lager.

In case you are still stuck on the paragraph about water with cholera in it, just know this:  when there were epidemics of cholera, the people who drank beer did not contract it.  The boiling process killed any vibrio cholera that were present. So, drinking beer will prevent you from catching it too.

Think of this as your cholera prevention kit


  1. "The two most common cations are calcium, magnesium and sodium."

    I told you I read your blog.