DRAFT PICKS: The lifeblood of beer in the clear

“A fine beer may be judged with only one sip, but it’s better to be thoroughly sure.” 

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We’ve talked hops, and we’ve discussed malt.

We have not, however, even considered one of the most important ingredients in the production of quality beer: Water.

Water is so important in brewing beer it is more often than not mentioned in beer commercials.

“Cold spring water.” “Pure mountain streams.” “Sparkling, clear water.”

It’s only logical.

Most folks may not realize the complex chemistry that goes into brewing a quality beer.

Few understand the role of hops, malts, yeasts and the variety of grains and other ingredients that make a fine brew what it is.

But everyone knows that beer is made of water.

(Let me qualify that statement — “Almost everyone knows ...” I’m sure there are folks out there who think beer just comes from ... somewhere.)

Water.

The quality of the water determines the quality of the beer.

But as any serious aficionado will admit, the brewing process simply improves the water — by leaps and bounds.

So, here we go ...

Before any brewer, either commercial or home-based, can settle down to whipping up a batch of beer, he or she needs a good source of water.

Water is the key.

Water in the brewing process immediately affects beer in three ways.

First: Certainly at the most basic level, the taste of water carries over into the taste of beer. It’s that simple.

Second: Water is a key to a successful mashing process for all brews using grains of any kind. The quality of water determines the ultimate flavor of the mash product — the wort.

Third: A bit simpler, but no less important, the quality of water interacting with hops can influence the bitterness — or hoppiness — of a beer.

Now, most home brewers simply head for the kitchen sink, turn on the tap and voila! start cooking. That’s usually OK.

For more serious brewmasters, the task of finding good water is a much more earnest and no-nonsense undertaking.

Poor tasting water, or water with heavy mineral content in the “wrong direction,” can really mess up a pot of beer.

Your “grain bill” may be just right (the “grain bill” indicates the amount of starchy material being used in a specific brew); the hops may be the best quality and just right for the level of “bite” the brewer is hoping for; the malts used may be just “smoky” or “caramely” enough to a slightly sweet yield; but if the water is skunky or kinda dull tasting, the beer will be dull ... at best.

It’s as simple as that.

Again, water is key.

For that reason, areas with rich, healthy water reserves — such as Michigan, upstate New York, Montana, Colorado and others — have a much larger per capita brewing population than do other states.

Beer is mostly water.

Heck. Humans are mostly water.

Maybe that’s why we get along so well with beer!

But, back to the point.

The subtle differences in water composition and taste often are translated into less subtle differences in the brewing of beer and ales.

It’s pretty obvious to anyone understanding that if there are differences in the taste and quality of water, there would be differences in the taste and quality of anything created out of water — from beer, to Kool-Aid, to bread.

The Big Rapids area has water that is often heavy in an iron, mineral taste. This surely affected the quality of beer brewed in Big Rapids back in the day.

The Marion area was famous for it’s crystal clear artesian wells. Great tasting water. The brewery once located in that community probably turned out some excellent beers.

Regional differences in the quality of water have affected the development of world famous brews as well.

Dublin, Ireland, is known for having exceptionally hard water, but working with what they had, brewers created and continue to produce some incredible Irish stouts (such as the famous Guinness).

Pale ales often developed in areas in which there was a lot of gypsum in the water and surrounding soils.

In central Europe, much softer waters made it possible to brew much paler lagers which came to be known as Pilsners (taking the name from Pilsen which has very, very soft water).

With a nod to this week’s topic of discussion, we will evaluate a couple of beers that, at least in history, were heavily influenced by the water that was so important in the brewing process.

(Please note, each of the brews evaluated in this column are tasted and reviewed on separate days so as not to skew the experience.)

Pontius Road Pilsner

Shorts Brewing

Company

Bellaire/Elk Rapids

First a disclaimer of sorts. Shorts is by far and away one of my favorite Michigan breweries. These folks are inventive and enthusiastic, which makes for innovative brewing and inspiring beers.

Having said that, I make note of the fact that I have not previously sampled the Pontius Road Pilsner.

With Pouring Pontius Road, one is rewarded with a clear, bright, light-honey colored beer.

This pilsner creates a good head when poured. It is well persistent and hangs around a while.

The beer has a welcome, clean, see-through quality. Sharp and clear.

There are no notes of malt or yeast, but the first sniff brings a well defined, slightly fruity, soft scent to the nose. Fruity, but not citrusy.

There is no acidic or minerally smell. It is clean and mildly sweet.

From first sip, Pontius Road is light, slightly hoppy, without an antiseptic kick. This brew has just the blend that makes pilsner so popular, with somewhat more heft and muscle than most lagers.

It is robust. Taste develops quickly but remains balanced with nothing overwhelming.

To my taste, this is a delicate brew. Others may find it a bit assertive, (especially those who have spent their lives drinking Bud Light!)

Pontius Road finishes drier than it starts. It evolves with a persistent tingle.

This is a great thirst-quencher for the discerning mouth. A great summer brew. Something to share with friends around a well-planned grill.

Bell’s Special

Double Cream Stout

Bell’s Brewery

Comstock

Wow! This is a black stout. And if not black, than very, very dark red. (Stick with black.)

Bell’s Special pours with a hearty, substantial head that is demonstrative and long-lasting. The head is dark beige, or light brown with delicate lacing.

This stout is completely opaque. I seriously doubt you could shoot a laser through this stuff.

At first whiff, this is typically very malty, with a hint of burnt grains. There are no fruity scents here. This is a businesslike stout. No game playing.

There is a slight hint of yeastiness — in the very best way. Like fresh-baked bread.

The Double Cream (which has, by the way, no cream in it) is wonderful, dark and sweet in flavor. This is definitely high in quality malts with a follow up — at the close — of subtle hops.

This is a stout that isn’t trying to be something it isn’t.

There is no attempt to be a brown ale that may be more acceptable to the American market.

Bell’s has created a stout that is distinguished, smoldering and smooth. Like its name it settles in the mouth in creamy, sweet (but not cloying) elegance.

I haven’t had this particular stout before, but I will again.

This is a philosophical brew, demanding comparison and discussion with good friends looking for a deeper malt experience.

Very rich in taste, body, and presentation.