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Healthy Water is Essential to Great Tasting Beer

Nicholas Mandros, August 1, 2018

Are you a beer drinker? Think about the last time you ordered a draft or opened a can of beer. You may have noticed the beer’s color, the aroma, the taste of the malt and hop profile; but did you think about the water? The quality of water used to make the beer you drink plays a key role in the quality of the final product. Whether it’s malting, mashing, laudering, boiling, fermenting, conditioning, or even cleaning the equipment, water is essential for each part in the brewing process.

What happens when the sustainability of that water is called into question? This is exactly what happened to Maumee Bay Brewing Co. on August 2, 2014, when a toxic algal bloom in Lake Erie contaminated drinking water supplied by the the City of Toledo. Heavy rains and high temperatures created the perfect conditions for a massive bloom, which was so bad, it’s cartoonish green color could be seen from satellite images hundreds of miles above the Earth’s surface.

In total, nearly half-a-million people were unable to use their water for three days. Local health officials were alerted in the middle of the night that the city’s water was no longer safe. Massive alerts went out across the region. Community leaders went door-to-door alerting neighbors. Hospitals, schools, and businesses had to shut down, and bottled water was shipped to the area by the National Guard. Maumee Bay Brewing Co. was forced to close its three restaurants and halt all beer production during the crisis.

The Brewery, like everyone else in Toledo, didn’t know exactly what was going on with the water, only that it was unsafe. Once the water was turned back on, local and state leaders ensured residents that the water was safe and not to worry. Many folks in the community assumed that the people in charge knew how to fix it. But summer after summer, the algae has returned to the shores of Lake Erie, bringing into question the security and safety of drinking water in the City of Toledo.

Maumee Bay Brewing Co., named after Lake Erie’s Maumee Bay, sits at the confluence of the Maumee River and Swan Creek in Downtown Toledo. Maumee Bay Brewing Co. was established in 1995, operating out of the historic Oliver House. Though best known for brewing Toledo’s own Buckeye Beer, brewers at Maumee Bay Brewing Co. are always concocting new ales, lagers, porters, and stouts at their production brewery across the street.

The brewers at Maumee Bay Brewing Co. spend a lot of time thinking about water. The typical beer consists of about 90 to 95 percent water. But, simply just tasting the water and giving it the thumbs up or thumbs down doesn’t quite do the job. Brewers break down the water chemistry and then build it back up to create the perfect tasting brew.

Water quality can impact beer in a few different ways. Yeast converts sugar from malted grain into alcohol, fermenting the beer. Changes in the water’s chemistry impact the activity of the yeast, impacting the taste. Next, the acidity of the water can also affect the final flavor. A beer brewed with alkaline-rich water can make the beer taste minerally or metallic, while acidic water causes beer to lose its complexity. The chlorine added from municipal water treatment systems to eliminate harmful bacteria also impacts the flavor and aroma of the beer.

Before brewing a batch of beer, brewers read the water report provided by the City of Toledo Water water plant. Water from the tap is then treated again by running it through a series of charcoal filters in order to remove chlorine and other chemicals added from municipal water treatment. Once purified, brewers add desired elements like calcium, potassium, bicarbonate, or sulfate to the water to change the water’s pH and maintain the flavor, crispness, or hop-bitterness of the beer.

Throughout the history of beer making, brewers have been careful to build breweries in the places with the highest quality water — the health of a brewery’s home watershed has always been a prime importance to brewers. Something as simple as a change in the treatment process at the local drinking water plant can have an impact.  

The toxic algal blooms impacting Toledo’s water are caused mainly by the runoff of chemical fertilizer and manure from agricultural fields and a small amount coming from urban sources. Chemical fertilizer and manure are often referred to as nutrients as they contain phosphorus and nitrogen which are important components to growing crops, but like most things, too much of anything is a not a good thing. Northwest Ohio is dominated by agriculture; 4.3 million acres of farmland in northwest Ohio drain into the Maumee River, carrying over 3 million pounds of excess fertilizer and manure into Lake Erie every year.

Last summer, after days of smelling putrid rotting algae on Swan Creek just 25 feet away from their production brewery, enough was enough. Maumee Bay Brewing Co. brewers quickly schemed up an idea for an algae-colored green brew to amplify awareness around Lake Erie’s algae pollution and the Alegae Bloom beer was born.  

To recognize the connection of good beer with good water, Maumee Bay Brewing Co. has partnered with the Ohio Environmental Council to raise awareness around Lake Erie’s toxic algae and defend the quality of the water they use for their beer. Alegae Bloom is a sour double India Pale Ale made green with matcha powder and kiwi fruit.

This summer, the special beer will be canned and made available for purchase throughout Ohio to educate all Ohioans about the health of our drinking water, and the need to protect our drinking water and natural waterways from pollution, so that small businesses, like Maumee Bay Brewing Co., can continue to thrive in the Toledo area.