Business

Cedar Rapids water ideal for ale, local brewmasters say

With 'a pretty balanced flavor profile,' local water gives a good starting point for beer

Brewmaster Mike Wing boxes newly-filled bottles of Maple Fest lager as he and other workers bottle and box the limited edition brew at Iowa Brewing Company, 708 Third St. SE, in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Tuesday, March 20, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Brewmaster Mike Wing boxes newly-filled bottles of Maple Fest lager as he and other workers bottle and box the limited edition brew at Iowa Brewing Company, 708 Third St. SE, in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Tuesday, March 20, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
/

Water, barley, and hops were the only ingredients allowed to make beer in the 16th century Bavarian purity law. Fortunately for some relatively new local businesses, Cedar Rapids has the first of those needs covered.

“We’re really lucky in Cedar Rapids in that we have really terrific water,” said Mike Wing, brewmaster at Iowa Brewing Company.

“It’s great, having decent water to work with,” said Chris Ellis, owner and brewmaster at Quarter Barrel Arcade and Brewery.

There are as many personal preferences as there are brewers, but craft brewers agree the city’s water is a good start.

“For the majority of the beers we’re going to do the water supply is going to be perfect, or at least within the range where you can make a lot of different beers,” said Quinton McClain, co-owner and head brewer at Lion Bridge Brewing.

“The water we have is pretty amazing for most ales,” according to Jim Johnston, head brewer at Third Base Brewing, the city’s oldest craft brewery. He added it’s “not so good for the lagers and Kolsch of the world.”

The chemical composition local water led to the development of hoppy pale ales (Burton-on-Trent, England), stouts (Dublin), and lighter lagers (Pilsen, Czech Republic).

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Modern treatment practices and filtration systems allow brewers to make about any type of beer anywhere, but Cedar Rapids’ water makes it easier for the craft brewers who have sprung up in the city over the past five years.

“The consensus is that our water is some of the best-tasting,” said Steve Hershner, the city’s utilities director.

The city’s water has been recognized as among the nation’s best by the American Water Works Association.

“It seems a good way to make sure you’re going to get good beer is to start out with good water,” Hershner said.

“It has a pretty balanced flavor profile,” Ellis said. “It’s just the chloramines” — a derivative of ammonia used as a treatment alternative to chlorine. — that may turn up.

The city’s water comes from five horizontal collector wells, and 45 vertical wells, along the river roughly between Seminole Valley and Ellis parks.

Hershner said the water as it comes from the ground usually has few high-dissolved solids, typically sulfates, because it’s filtered through about 60 feet of sand and gravel. The city hasn’t drawn water directly from the river since the mid-1960s.

The city’s two plants along J Avenue NE and Ellis Road NW treat about 37 million gallons a day.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Thank you for signing up for our e-newsletter!

You should start receiving the e-newsletters within a couple days.

“Our treatment program is consistent, basically, every minute of the day,” said water plant manager Tariq Baloch.

“The numbers are very consistent,” Wing said. “There are some slight variations, but we we’re talking about parts per billion.”

Most small brewers have charcoal filters — “not much bigger than what you would have at a house,” said Ellis. Many also have reverse osmosis systems that can strip out unwanted minerals and other elements.

Lion Bridge puts all its brewing water through a filter, but it doesn’t have reverse osmosis, which McClain said can be inefficient.

“For every gallon you make you have a few gallons of wastewater,” he said.

Most brewers can tweak the water’s chemical makeup for specific styles of beer.

“We adjust our water profile to make it a little harder, a little softer, vary the salt content,” Wing said. “Calcium carbonate is going to make the beer drier, to accentuate the hop bitterness.

“For a stout you want to kind of round out the palate a bit more, so we’re going to add calcium chloride.”

Ellis first used his reverse osmosis filter to brew Quarter Barrel’s Burke Beer, an American lager. When he makes his German Dortmund-style lager, “I try to harden it up.”

Still, the city’s water is easier to brew with than Amana’s, where Ellis worked at Millstream Brewing.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“All their water was limestone aquifer,” he said. “Very hard.” He said the water’s chemical profile could shift depending on which well was operating.

“You’d notice it on brewing days. Here, it’s definitely more consistent.”

McClain said local water compares favorably to that in Colorado, where he brewed before moving home to start Lion Bridge.

“It’s essentially snowmelt so it’s very soft water,” McClain said of Colorado water.

That’s perfect for lighter beers such as pilsners, but salts can be added to brew English styles.

“It’s a lot easier to add salts than to take them away,” he said. “You work with what you have. I’m very happy with the water we have.”

City water is delivered to about 44,500 residences and 3,500 commercial accounts via about 650 miles of water mains.

“It doesn’t do any good to turn it out safe and not maintain that throughout the delivery system,” Hershner said.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Johnston, at Third Base, said its water from the J Avenue treatment plant “seems to be a tad bit harder” than that from Ellis Road plant.

Any variations would be due to the characteristics of the well water supplied to either plant, according to city utilities spokesman Phillip Platz.

Johnston lets water sit overnight before brewing, heated to evaporate chlorides to give the resulting beer a “more round” flavor. The brewery opened as Cedar Brewing in 1996 — it became Third Base in 2007 — without a filter system and it still doesn’t have one.

“That is the fun part,” Johnston wrote in an email. “It gets tricky for all those lovely, light-colored German/Czech style lagers and ales that people crave. To get the soft water profile that benefits them, reverse osmosis or distilled water is ideal, and elements will be added to slightly build up the mineral content of the water.”

While city water’s consistency makes life easier for craft brewers, amateur brewers in rural areas rely on filter systems to ensure quality.

Home brewer Randy Carris said water from Eastern Iowa wells tends to be “harder” due to mineral content.

“My water has quite a lot of calcium and magnesium among other issues,” Carris, of rural Stone City, wrote in an email.

“I have a water softener to help with that, but that adds a fair amount of sodium as a result. So for me, the best option was to install a reverse osmosis filter system for drinking and brewing water.

“That lets me start with a pretty blank slate.”

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

CONTINUE READING

MORE Business ARTICLES TO READ NEXT ...

Many U.S. businesses may be surprised to learn that the European Union's new data privacy rules could impact them, too. The EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will take effect May 25 and imposes strict new rules about ...

Chinese investors are pumping money into U.S. drug start-ups as Beijing seeks to become a global leader in new medicines, adding to a flood of cash flowing to groundbreaking health businesses.Venture-capital funds based in China p ...

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.