Waiting weeks or months for your beer to finish, only to realize that your homebrew tastes salty, can be frustrating. As far as off-flavors go, salty definitely isn’t the worst thing to have to deal with, but it is one of the more interesting ones as it is related to water chemistry, recipe, and brewing techniques!
Homebrew beer could taste salty if you used brewing water that has a high sodium content, made additions that changed the water chemistry, used hot water to fill your sparge and mash, or added fats or oil to your recipe.
While most people wouldn’t necessarily consider a salty flavor to be a bad thing, it can wreck the flavor profile of a beer and it highlights potentially significant issues with your water. Let’s dive deeper into this topic to find out what could be causing your issue and what to check or change for your next batch!
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Why would beer taste salty?
Lots of casual drinkers love putting salt into their Bud Lights or Coronas to give them a different flavor and to, uhh, help them hydrate you at the beach I guess. I’ll admit that I’ve done it before myself and I won’t apologize for my behavior.
All that to say, as far as off-flavors go, you could do much worse than salty. Still, this flavor could absolutely ruin many styles of beer, especially lighter ones that don’t have a heavy flavor to mask the saltiness.
Unless you are brewing a style of beer that traditionally uses salt as part of the recipe and flavor profile, such as a Gose, there really isn’t a good reason for your homebrew to taste salty at all. If you taste salt in your homebrew, it almost certainly originated in your recipe, water, or brewing process. It’s highly unlikely that it is a byproduct of a fermentation or bottling error.
Since we know WHEN the flavor was caused, it makes it much easier for us to figure out the HOW. Let’s check the most likely sources.
Check your tap water report
If this batch is one of your first and you never checked your water out beforehand, this is a likely culprit. If you have many brews under your belt and you are suddenly experiencing this issue, then your problem might lie elsewhere. Still, it’s always a good idea for homebrewers to check out their local water supply.
Depending on where you live and how your local water treatment plant handles processing, it’s highly possible that your tap water is simply coming out of the faucet containing more than the average level of salt.
Many municipalities, especially those that have a lot of minerals in their water source, have a heavy treatment process that removes all of the ‘hard’ material in the water, such as calcium and magnesium, and leaves only sodium ions. If you were paying attention in chemistry, you’ll remember that sodium is salt.
To check this, check with your local water authority and see if they have water reports available on their website. While some do, it’s more likely that you’ll need to call someone or otherwise request this report to find out what’s going on. Even better than this, draw a sample of water directly out of your faucet and send it somewhere to be tested. They will likely be able to tell you a lot more about your water plus it will be more accurate because it will have been exposed to all of the pipes etc. between the water treatment plant and your house – this can be a huge contributing factor.
There are six main factors to worry about which I’ll list below along with what you should look for to get a ‘balanced’ flavor profile. You also want to avoid chloramine like the plague.
Calcium (Ca2+) – 80 ppm
Magnesium (Mg2+) – 5 ppm
Sodium – (Na+) – 25 ppm
Chlorine (Cl–) – 75 ppm or LESS
Sulfate (SO42-) – 80 ppm
Carbon (HCO3–) – 100 ppm
Did you use mineral water?
Many homebrewers ditch their tap water and head straight to bottled water for their brew day.
Using bottled water can be a great way to avoid any water-related issues that you might find when using tap water, but it can also create new ones. This is because not all bottled water is created equally and the packaging doesn’t always explain things clearly.
Think about the last time you walked through the water aisle at your local grocery store. Yes, there is usually a whole aisle and that’s because there are so many different types to choose from. Briefly, you’ll find:
- Spring water
- Purified water
- Distilled water
- RO (Reverse osmosis) water
- Mineral water
- pH water
And the list goes on and on.
Unfortunately, some of these types of water are treated the same way as soft water and include more sodium than average. Some water even specifically has salt added for workout recovery or some other reason.
As a result, you’ll need to be careful when selecting your brew water. When in doubt, just used purified water or RO water as it has the least chance to cause problems. With that said, it also likely won’t have anything in the water that could HELP your flavor profile. But, changing your water chemistry is more of an intermediate or advanced technique.
Did you add anything to change your water chemistry?
I’ve talked about water chemistry a little already with regards to tap water and bottled water but what about those of you that mucked about with your water by adding things to it.
While it’s actually super common for brewers to make additions to their water to reach more of an ideal chemistry for the style of beer they are brewing, you have to be careful. Typically, these additions are very small for a 5-gallon batch and it’s very easy to add too much of something if you aren’t careful. Eyeballing a gram is not how to do it – you need a calibrated scale that can accurately measure the small amounts you’ll be using.
Before adding anything to change your water chemistry, you should be sure that you know the baseline water profile of your water at the faucet and use a trusted calculator to tell you which additions to make.
If you added something, check your notes and double-check that you actually added the right amount of the right stuff.
Did you use hot water for your sparge and mash water?
This is something that many people have probably never thought about or realized.
At this point, we’ll assume that you’ve checked your water report and made sure that the water you are using is good. Unfortunately, if you are pulling hot water from your faucet for your sparge or mash water to save time heating it up, you might be causing yourself a problem.
Hot water from the faucet makes an additional trip through the hot water heater and it often sits in the tank for a while before it is used. This exposes the water to all of the sediment and other junk that has accumulated in your hot water heater over the years. Also, hot water running through your pipes on the way out of the faucet will also pick up more heavy metals (such as lead) from the inside of your pipes. All of this will find its way into your beer and the heavy metals can impart a flavor that some describe as salty.
If you think this is the problem, don’t freak out too much, but don’t take shortcuts next time!
Did you add any fats or oils to your recipe?
This is another potentially overlooked cause. I say overlooked because you might not realize that certain additions to your beer recipe could include fat or oils.
For instance, Certain styles of beer benefit from flavors of chocolate and adding some form of it to beer is fairly common. If you want to add chocolate, however, you’ll want to be sure that you aren’t adding a form that contains a lot of fat or oil.
Unfortunately, fats don’t work well in beer because of how they are handled during fermentation. Long story short, fat and oil in the fermenter can lead to excess salty flavor due to the chemical process involved (basically the oil turns into soap and soap is really just the alkali salt of a fatty acid).
Will the salty flavor go away over time?
While some off-flavors will usually become less noticeable over time, saltiness is normally not one of them.
Since the salty flavor is usually due to water chemistry or an addition to the beer, it isn’t likely that the flavor will go away with extra aging or conditioning.
If you are trying to cover the flavor after the beer is already finished, you don’t have a lot of options. If you keg, and depending on the style, you could try dry-hopping inside the keg to provide some extra hop flavor and bitterness. It’s possible that this could cover up the saltiness enough to make the beer drinkable!
Your brew is salty today but tomorrow it could be sour! Check out all my articles on off-flavors here!