Crafting beer with carefully crafted water

July 12, 2017

Louisville Water Company gave out free pure tap at the first ever Kentucky Craft Bash, which was held earlier this year at Louisville Waterfront Park. The event featured more than 70 types of beer from more than 30 Kentucky breweries. But even though the festival and our participation in it are new, partnerships between Louisville Water and local breweries date back to our founding.

In fact, Louisville Water began operations in 1860, and the 1861 annual report listed six breweries connected to the water system, which consisted of 26 miles of cast-iron pipe. A newspaper article published in 1891 noted that locally brewed beer had a good reputation both here and abroad, and the article explicitly noted that the water used in the production process was “found to possess qualities favorable to the manufacture of beer.”  

For the past few years, business in the craft beer industry in many cities has been hopping (bad pun intended), and Louisville is no exception. Mayor Greg Fischer stood alongside local beer representatives in August of 2015 to introduce Lou’s Brews, a map of Kentuckiana breweries that highlights the area’s craft beer scene.

There are now about a dozen brewers in the city, but there is still room for growth, said Derek Selznick, Executive Director of the Kentucky Guild of Brewers. “Compared to a lot of other cities — say, Asheville, North Carolina, or Portland — we have a fairly immature brewery scene in Louisville,” he said, “but it is one that’s dynamic and that’s growing exponentially. We have craft brewers throughout the city, and it’s one of the driving factors in tourism right now.”

Louisville Water is committed to helping the industry grow. The company has joined the guild as an associate member. Louisville Water also is working with individual breweries through partnerships, and it’s exploring and enhancing the science behind the crafting of both high quality water and great tasting beer.

The water science includes “a mineral profile ideal for the flavors we’re looking for most of the time,” said Adam Watson, Managing Member and Brewer at Against the Grain Brewery and Smokehouse (401 East Main Street). Against the Grain has a 15-barrel brewhouse on site and another 30-barrel facility in Portland.

The high quality of Louisville’s water “saves us a lot of investment dollars because we don’t have to buy the equipment to strip water down and start from scratch,” Watson said. “The mineral profile is good. The yeast really like the calcium that we have in water here. The chloride count is nice and low. We’re known for our smoked beers at Against the Grain, and I attribute that at least in part to the quality of the water that comes in from Louisville Water.”

According to Selznick, all of the brewers in Louisville Water's service area benefit from both the volume and quality of water that the company provides. He pointed out that brewers can import yeast, hops and malt from all over the world, but they always have to depend on water from their local utility because of the volume they use. Typically, it takes three to seven gallons of water to make one gallon of beer, which means that easy access to high quality water gives Louisville brewers an edge over those in cities where the water supply is not so reliable.

“With Louisville Water, we know we’re always going to get clear and aromaless water,” Selznick added, “so we know the malt, yeast and hops are going to create the aroma and the taste. We know we can let the magic happen in the tanks, and our breweries are deciding what that product is going to taste like, not the water. That’s a competitive advantage we get.”

Mark Campbell, a scientist in the Water Quality Treatment & Research Department at Louisville Water, offers additional information on why the chemistry of our water is good for brewers: “There are many technologies available to remove undesirable elements from the source water, but these processes can ‘over-treat’ the water. This strips the local attributes of the water and creates the need for additional steps to attempt to recreate a ‘natural’ water quality profile.

“At Louisville Water, we maintain a profile that is a good starting point for brewers and distillers. This profile includes moderate hardness and alkalinity and low levels of chloride, sulfate and sodium as well as very low levels of metals. The water is specifically good for making beer due to its stable sulfate-to-chloride ratio, which is important in terms of flavor and ‘mouthfeel.’ Additionally, the calcium content and alkalinity provide a favorable foundation for brewing many types of beer.”

Selznick noted that “Louisville Water helps support our industry by giving us chemistry reports, so we can look at the exact chemical composition of the water, and that’s a way for our brewers to know whether they’re getting a consistent profile. Consistency is one of the biggest things we need, and that’s something that happens here with Louisville Water. It’s a huge benefit for our industry.”

And growth in the craft beer industry, Selznick pointed out, provides significant growth for the local economy. “We are a good employer,” he said. “We added 25 percent to our workforce in 2016 alone. These are good paying jobs, and we’ve seen people move up in the industry. Maybe they’re working as a cellarman or an assistant brewer and within two years they’re opening their own breweries. 

“So it’s like we’re able to have a brewer’s university at all these different breweries, inspiring people to take a chance on themselves. One difference between our industry and others is we support each other. We believe in collaborative competition. We believe in always having a hand up and a hand down. We’re more afraid of bad beer than we are of competition.”