What to Know About Water Softeners for Brewing

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Can you use softened water for brewing beer? What should you know about water softeners for this purpose?

Here, we’ve outlined the basic facts about water softeners for brewing.

📌 Key Takeaways:

  • Water is softened in an ion exchange water softener, which removes the calcium and magnesium minerals and replaces them with sodium ions.
  • Different beers have different concentrations of sodium and minerals.
  • Softened water typically isn’t recommended for beer brewing because the additional sodium may impact the beer’s flavor.

🚰 How Is Water Softened?

To understand soft water’s effects when brewing beer, we need to know how the softening process works.

Water softener systems use a process called ion exchange, which removes dissolved minerals (namely calcium and magnesium) and replaces them with small amounts of sodium (salt).

Soft water has more desirable properties than hard water: it can’t form scale deposits, so it helps extend the lifespan of plumbing systems, fixtures, and appliances, and it lathers better with soap, without forming soap scum. It also has several known skin and hair benefits.

But is softened water more desirable for brewing beer? Find out below.

Illustration of the ion exchange process
How the Ion Exchange Process Works

🤔 How Softened Water May Affect Beer Taste

Sodium is considered a desirable impurity in beer, as long as it’s only present in small amounts. It contributes mouthfeel and body to beer, which is pleasant and adds extra depth.

However, if too much salt is used in brewing water, the beer will take on a salty, seawater taste.

Water softeners don’t add high levels of sodium into water, so you can in theory use softened water for brewing beer – and, in fact, some beers are better when made with water that’s low in calcium.

However, many expert brewers recommend against using softened water for brewing, since soft water contains higher sodium levels than a normal drinking water supply.

Brewing beer with soft water

🆚 Soft Vs Softened Water For Brewing

Later in this guide, we’ve shared examples of the types of beers that are often made with soft water.

However, soft water and softened water have slightly different compositions, which is why soft water is sometimes recommended to brew beer, while softened water is generally not.

Let’s take a look at the difference between these two water types:

  • Soft water – This is water with low concentrations of dissolved minerals. Water might be naturally soft, or it may have been treated with a process that removes minerals, such as distillation or filtration in a reverse osmosis system. Distilled water and RO water have a very low mineral content because they have been purified, which removes minerals, salts, and other impurities.
  • Softened water – This is water that has been softened in an ion exchange softener. The water chemistry is similar to the untreated tap water source, except that its water hardness mineral content is reduced, and it contains low concentrations of sodium ions in place of these minerals. Depending on the level of sodium concentrations present, softened water used in brewing could alter the taste profile of the beer.
Brewing beer with salt-softened water

🔎 The Importance Of Calcium Carbonate In The Brewing Process

Water softeners remove calcium carbonates (or temporary hardness) from a water supply, as well as permanent hardness. You can also remove temporary hardness by boiling the water before using it for brewing.

Let’s focus on temporary hardness, and how this affects the brewing process.

💡 Carbonate is an essential ion for all methods of grain brewing. The acidity of the mash is determined by this ion. Excess carbonate levels may reduce the mash efficiency, while low levels of carbonate may cause the mash to be too acidic, especially if you’re using malts that are already higher in acidity.

Pale beers need around 25-50 mg/l of carbonates in the brewing process, while darker beers need between 100 and 300 mg/l.

⚗️ How Calcium And Magnesium Affect The Brewing Process

As we know, water softener systems remove calcium and magnesium minerals from a water supply. So, let’s look at how these minerals – and a lack of them – may affect brewing.

Calcium, or permanent hardness, has several important roles in brewing, including enhancing the stability of the beer, providing nutritional value to the yeast, lowering mash pH, and enabling proteins to precipitate during boiling.

The ideal calcium level for brewing is 100 mg/l. A water softener will reduce calcium levels to below 50 mg/l, so if you plan to use soft water for brewing, you’ll need to consider using additives in your brewing water to bring its calcium levels up to the 50-150 mg/l range.

Magnesium, another hardness mineral, is also essential as a nutrient for yeast, but only small amounts of this mineral are required. Around 10-30 mg/l of magnesium is optimal for brewing, so again, soft water might not be best for your application if it contains less magnesium than this.

Salt-softened water for brewing lacks calcium and magnesium

💧 Should You Use A Water Softener For Brewing?

In most cases, brewing experts recommend against using a water softener to provide brewing water.

It’s true that different beer styles require different water types – and there are some beers that are made with softer water. Clean lagers and pilsners are often made with soft water that has a low calcium concentration. Soft water is the best water type for producing a crisper, lighter beer.

However, this water is typically distilled or reverse osmosis water, which means it has been treated with a process that reduces its mineral content without the addition of sodium. The sodium in bottled water may affect the taste profile of beer, which is why treating water in a water softener before brewing is typically not recommended.

A complete lack of minerals is also not the desired intended result for all brewing situations – it depends on the exact brewing process and the beer that’s being produced.

Water with high concentrations of hardness minerals has its place in the brewing industry. It’s a good choice for beers with darker profiles, and can make beer taste fuller and richer, with hop bitterness.

So, there’s no real benefit to using a water softener to treat water for brewing beer. Certain types of beers taste best when produced with hard mineral water, and those that require soft water with low-to-moderate alkalinity are typically made with purified water types.

📑 Final Word

Brewers today are able to alter the composition of their brewing water, and water hardness is one of the variables that affect the taste and quality of the end result.

Water composition varies from one source to the next, and whether beer brewing requires hard or soft water depends on the type of beer in question.

Some beers require soft water, and some require very soft water – but brewers typically won’t recommend using a water softener to achieve this reduced mineral content. In most cases, distilled water or RO water is used. These water types have low concentrations of minerals, without the addition of sodium.

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