In the United States alone, there are more than 15 million homes that use a private well for their drinking, cooking, and cleaning water. For homebrewers who rely on a private well, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Brewing beer with well water is possible but requires more work than using municipal or distilled water. Homebrewers must test their well at least yearly, determine their water profile, and take the necessary next steps to ensure safe and tasty beer.
Continue reading for more about how well water differs from city or packaged water, how to determine the well water’s viability, and any adjustments that may need to be made, as well as what to do when brewing with well water.
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Is well water good for brewing beer?
Water is one of the four basic ingredients in beer, so it’s crucial for the water to be both safe and palatable when brewing.
Public water is supplied and treated by the city or municipality. Well water, however, is private to the property it’s on; therefore its safety and treatment is the responsibility of the property owner. All well water is different, so it is important to get it tested before brewing.
According the Centers for Disease Control, it’s critical to test for the following water quality indicators:
- Total coliforms – high counts can indicate the presence of viruses, parasites, and harmful bacteria in the water.
- Fecal coliforms – probably best known as E. coli and can cause diarrhea, dysentery, and hepatitis.
- pH – how base or acidic the water is can determine its taste and smell.
- Contaminants – heavy metals, nitrates, pesticides, etc. can all make their way into the water system following construction, toxic spills, or flooding, not to mention simple proximity to waste disposal sites or industrial farms.
Whether you intend to homebrew or not, this testing is essentially required maintenance for a well owner. Through testing, you will be apprised of the quality and content of your well water and can determine its viability for day-to-day activities, as well as homebrewing.
This testing opens up opportunities for customization and better clarity on what’s going on in your pipes, but it also means a lot of calculations and management. While some homebrewers will enjoy total control and experimentation, others may find it too much of a hassle.
How to use well water for homebrewing beer
Using well water to brew isn’t as simple as just turning on the tap.
First, you need to ensure the safety of your water through testing before even deciding if you like the taste of the water. If you do not like how your water tastes as-is, you won’t like it when it’s turned into beer. In addition, you may have to adjust certain minerals for best results when brewing.
You’ll want to ensure safety throughout the entirety of the brewing process, which will mean pre-boiling water before adding it to the cooled wort.
Get your well water tested
For general testing, use this resource provided by the Environmental Protection Agency to find information on certified laboratory testing in your state. The site also provides information on concerns specific to your area. Test your well water yearly as well as after disruptions or accidents that could contaminate the water, regardless of whether you’re brewing beer with that water.
Some labs, such as Ward Laboratories, have testing kits specifically for brewing. The Ward W-501 Brewer’s test and kit automatically provide analysis for a dozen minerals and components of drinking water with the option to add on examination of properties like arsenic, copper, and fluoride.
These test kits, whether supplied by your town or a private lab, are usually inexpensive (the baseline War Labs brewing kit is currently $45).
Determine the water profile of your well water
Not only will testing your water inform you of any potentially harmful germs or contaminants, it will also let you know the water’s profile. The profile includes the levels of various components in water, so you can adjust as needed.
Line items in your water profile include among others:
- Total hardness
By knowing these existing levels, you can both determine the safety of the water as well as adjust levels of various minerals accordingly.
Users on homebrew message boards were quick to remind each other that water profiles can change seasonally. Temperature fluctuations and water table rise and fall may cause you to have to test the profile more than once a year.
Decide whether or not your water is usable
Testing well water informs you of any harmful or dangerous elements in the water. If the water tests safely but tastes bad, you may need to install a softener or a filtration system, such as nano-filtration or a negative ion-exchanger to remedy bad tastes/smells.
Purchase any necessary minerals or additives needed
Homeowners who have installed a water softener in order to adjust their well water to their liking may need to add back certain minerals the softener removes, such as:
- Calcium sulfate (gypsum)
- Calcium chloride
- Magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts)
You want to ensure proper calcium levels in water in order to improve yeast growth and preserve mash enzymes. Magnesium is responsible for clarity and final stability in beer.
When adjusting your well water, you’ll need a quality pH meter in addition to the minerals you’ll be adding back. For assistance in determining appropriate levels of various components in water relative to the style of beer you’re making, consult Water: A Comprehensive Guide for Brewers by John Palmer and Colin Kaminski.
Pre-boil any well water that you will add to cooled wort
You’ve determined the safety of the water, made adjustments as necessary, and now you’re just about finished brewing your first batch of beer.
A lot of homebrewers add water to their cooled wort to bring up the total volume. Pre-boiling any well water that you add to cooled wort will kill off all bacteria and parasites that could contaminate your wort.
The CDC specifies that boiling water is the surest way to kill any bacteria, viruses, or parasites in water that could cause disease. The wort was already boiled and therefore killed off all these nasty risks, so it would be a shame (and potentially dangerous!) to add potentially contaminated well water right at the finish line.
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