Much has been made of the history of the Pilsner style of beer and the regions from which it originated. Some homebrewers wonder if achieving a specific water profile is necessary to brew a true-to-form Pilsner.
Water used to brew Pilsners should be relatively soft – 50 ppm Calcium, 5 ppm Magnesium, 60 ppm Sulfate, and 60 ppm Chloride can be added to RO water and the final pH should be 5.2-5.5, which is common for lagers and many other beer styles.
Read on to find out all about water chemistry, the role each mineral plays, and a water profile to use as a good starting point to brew your next Pilsner.
What is the ideal water profile for Pilsners?
The ideal Pilsner water profile is subject to debate in the homebrewing world and can vary slightly between German and Czech-style Pilsners.
It’s most important that Pilsners are brewed with relatively soft water with well-balanced mineral content. It should be free of any strong odors which can present themself in the finished product.
How much does the water profile really matter for this style, and do you really have to go through the trouble of mimicking German or Czech water profiles to brew a good Pilsner?
Should you use a certain city’s water profile for a Pilsner?
Many dedicated homebrewers try to replicate the pH and mineral content of Plzeň when brewing Pilsners, and others have even painstakingly documented the details of this region for exactly this purpose.
Though it can be fun to explore, it’s important to remember that brewers have tweaked and adjusted the mineral profile in their brew water for centuries. So just because a beer is brewed in a certain place, that doesn’t mean it’s brewed with pure tap water.
Basically, it can be a fun exercise to try and mimic the particular water of a brewing region, but it doesn’t guarantee you’re using the same water your favorite beer was originally brewed with.
What is the ideal pH?
The starting pH of your water is important because the pH of the mash affects both the flavor and clarity of the final product. Most beers have an ideal mash pH that is slightly acidic – around 5.4.
Pilsners should generally have a pH of 5.2 to 5.5. This is a common range for lagers and many other beer styles.
If the pH is too acidic, it can lead to off-flavors and a cloudy brew. Though less likely, water that is too alkalinic is more likely to spoil.
What’s the ideal mineral content?
The optimal mineral content varies greatly between styles of beer and even among different types of Pilsners.
Here are some general rules of thumb about the role the most common water minerals play:
- Lowers pH
- Clarifies beer by helping proteins precipitate
- Promotes yeast health
- Promotes yeast health
- Can accentuate the flavor of beer
- Promotes a rich and sweet malty finish
- Highlight hoppy bitterness
- Metals like iron and manganese
- Promote undesirable metallic flavors
Use a brewing software like Bru’n Water to determine the right mineral profile for the particular style of Pilsner you’re looking to brew.
What’s the difference between Czech (Bohemian) Pilsner and German-style Pilsner water?
If you typically drink American Pilsners – beers so far from the style that they can’t even be referred to as “pilsners” in Europe – you’re probably wondering what the difference is between Czech and German-style Pilsners, and how the water profile affects the final result.
Both Czech and German-style Pilsners are light and crisp beers that demand a simple, clean water profile.
Though they originated with slightly different water profiles, the differences are subtle, and you should be able to brew either style with the same water.
How do you find your water profile?
Before you get started, the first thing you should do is get a sense of the profile of your tap water.
There are three main ways to do this:
- Asking your town’s water department for the most recent water quality report.
- Sending a sample to a professional to have it tested and sent back to you with a full report.
- Using an at-home testing kit, like this one from LaMotte BrewLab.
How important is the water profile in brewing?
A beer’s water profile heavily impacts the final product.
Beer is 90-95% water, so the water you use has a significant impact on the finished product of your beer. Any imbalance in minerals, pH, or other contaminants can lead to off-flavors at best, and contamination at worst.
Consider the following when measuring your brew water:
- Mineral Content – The minerals naturally found in water can greatly affect the flavor profile of beer. Free ions are sometimes desirable and can highlight certain aromas but can also ruin beer with unwanted metallic or bitter flavors.
- pH – Too high of a pH can lead to harsh flavors and too low a pH can lead to spoilage. For IPAs, the pH should be ever so slightly acidic for the best flavor.
- Chemical or biological contamination – The most rare but also most dangerous aspect of water quality is the possibility of contaminants. Always use potable water to brew beer.
How do you adjust your brew water profile?
Once you’ve got your water profile in hand, you can start adjusting your water to the optimal brewing profile for your chosen beer style – but how?
Though it may seem simple, the easiest way to adjust your water profile is by simply adding minerals to your water until it matches your desired profile.
Adding minerals to your water is a safe and easy way to adjust the mineral content of your tap water. Minerals are available in tablets, powders, and liquid tinctures, all of which can be easily added to your water. Tablets should be crushed into a powder before being mixed in; pre-ground powders and tinctures can be added directly.
To increase pH levels, add gypsum or calcium chloride. For example, in a five-gallon batch, about a teaspoon and a half will suffice in increasing the pH levels. To decrease pH levels, add organic acids, such as lactic acid.
What is the best water to start with for Pilsners?
Pilsners are a relatively mild beer style, so it’s important that the starting water has relatively soft water and no strong odors that could affect the taste of the final product.
To have the most control over the mineral content of your water, it’s best to start with distilled or reverse osmosis water. This way, you have a blank slate upon which to add the optimal amounts of each desired mineral.
If reverse osmosis water is not available to you, your next best bet is to use filtered tap water. Store-bought home filtration systems will not filter out as many minerals as reverse osmosis, but they’ll do in a pinch.
What to add to RO or distilled water to make a Pilsner
Depending on if you’re brewing a German- or Czech-style Pilsner, you may want to experiment with the mineral profile of your water. The area of Plzeň has relatively soft water, with minimal mineral content.
Here is a good starting place for a simple, light Czech-style Pilsner:
The target pH for your adjusted water is 5.4.
What makes a good Pilsner?
Pilsners are a type of pale lager with roots in the German city of Plzeň. In addition to the right water profile, Pilsners are defined by the qualities of their other ingredients.
When brewing a Pilsners, you should pay attention to these elements (in addition to the water profile):
- Hops – The best hops for traditional Pilsners have low bitterness, and a light, floral aroma. Hops like Hallertau and Tetnanger work well with most Pilsner styles, and Saaz are a traditional choice for the lighter Czech-style Pilsner.
- Malts – A classic Pilsner can be brewed with 100% Pilsner malts. Pilsners are defined by their grainy flavor, so in lieu of official Pilsner-style malt, you can try an American 6-row malt. Some brewers find that these malts need to be boiled a bit longer to bring out that grain flavor – closer to 90 minutes than 60 minutes.
- Yeast – Any German, Czech, or Pilsner lager yeast will usually work well when brewing a Pilsner. Lager yeasts require careful temperature control during fermentation to allow them to thrive.