March 4, 2014

Water: The Book Review

Courtesy of Brewers Publications
I know I'm a little behind the curve here because Water has been out on the market for about six months. I finished it a month or so ago but for whatever reason I didn't get around to reviewing it before. Water is obviously about...water. It's part of the brewing ingredient series published by the Brewers Association along with Yeast and For the Love of Hops. (Will there be a grain book coming out?) Most homebrewers probably first interacted with the Brewers Association's publishing arm (Brewers Publications) through the style books published in the 1990s like Scotch Ale, Altbier and Barleywine. Their publications through the 2000s have been more in-depth and focused more on brewing technique over particular styles, such as Yeast, For the Love of Hops and Gordon Strong's book. The style-oriented books like Wild Brews, Brewing with Wheat, IPA and Brew Like a Monk have all been more in-depth and technique-focused than the smaller 1990s publications. Water follows suit.

Water is a highly technical book, at least as far as something that might be included as a homebrewing text. These Brewing Association books are written with an aim to reach both pro brewers and homebrewers as an audience. Increasingly, the books are turning more towards commercial brewing and Water spends a great deal of space dealing with issues homebrewers have little or no need to apply, such as dealing with caustic cleaners in waste water. The text is extremely technical and packed full of chemistry discussions and equations. For somebody like myself who enjoys understanding the science without an interest in performing the chemical equations by hand, I found myself glossing over a lot of the book. This book is a good read for somebody who has a greater love or professional familiarity with this level of scientific writing. I feel like this is a book I will come back to and digest slowly over years to come as I start looking into tweaking the finest points of water chemistry. I'm just not there yet.

I suspect most homebrewers will find the material in the first few chapters, introducing water chemistry concepts, useful but then get bogged down in the overly scientific discourse. It is less useful to have access to that kind of information when there are so many solid brewing water calculators (like the free and paid versions of Bru'n water) that explain the concepts more succinctly and do all the equations for us. Honestly I think the information is so technical it is more likely to turn off homebrewers from trying to deal with their water. A better use of money for many would be picking up the paid version of Bru'n water or another piece of software with water chemistry calculators included. I know there are some of you out there who digest science at a higher level than me and if that's you then the book will probably be a very interesting read.

I would have liked to see more discussion applying the water chemistry concepts to help guide us to produce better beer through water chemistry. The book does a great job of explaining why certain water conditions are important for producing good beer on a technical level, such as adjusting ph for mash and sparging conditions, how water relates to fermentation conditions and how water profiles affect beer color and clarity. What's largely missing is greater depth of information about how creating a water profile affects flavor/aroma attributes and how adjusting the water makes particular changes. There is a very small amount of application on the flavor aspect but it's a small amount of content and it didn't bring anything new to the discussion. Sure, it's well known that a higher chloride to sulfide ratio makes a beer more malty but what ratios produce what kind of results?

I think this gap in the content is well reflected by the issues raised across forums and podcasts discussing water after the book was released trying to figure out to make precise changes to water to produce certain results. I think the issue here, at least in part, is that the widespread focus on water is too new to have enough data to publish meaningful data. Even among commercial brewers there are many who at most filter their water and add calcium with little or no other adjustment.

The short version of the review: very technical discussion but adds little new ideas or information to the existing discourse on water chemistry. A good read for people who appreciate scientific texts but likely lacks the information about applying water chemistry concepts that most homebrewers seek. Not a bad way to spend $11 but probably money that could be better spent on quality water chemistry software.

2 comments:

  1. Great review on the book, I couldn't agree more. I actually ended up putting it down because it got a little too deep and looking forward in the book I didn't see anything that I would need to apply. Like you though, I will probably continue to digest the info for years to come, good reference on the book shelf.

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  2. Thank you for this review. I had been considered whether I should pick this book up but it looks like it is indeed a little deeper than what I need for my current home brewing needs. Maybe I'll take a look at it a little later down the road when I want to get more sophisticated with my water chemistry.

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