Without water, there would be no beer. Each tasty brew can contain up to 97 percent of the stuff, and Summit County brewers, and its distiller, are thankful that our local water is just about the best you can find.
To celebrate this life-giving — and beer-furnishing — liquid, Breckenridge Brewery, Dillon Dam Brewery, Broken Compass Brewing, Pug Ryan’s Brewing Co. and the Breckenridge Distillery are converging upon the Island Grill at the Frisco Bay Marina on Wednesday, Aug. 20, for the Headwater Hops Fest.
The event is a chance for the local guys to show off the fruits of their bounty of fresh, clean mountain water, and it’s also an opportunity to learn about how the nonprofit Blue River Watershed Group helps to preserve and protect that resource.
Chemistry and composition
At Breckenridge Distillery, head distiller Jordan Via gives his water a light carbon filtration to remove chlorine added by the town for sanitation — and that’s about it.
“Being this close, this high up in the mountains, we have the main reservoirs and tarns up here, so it’s direct snowmelt water,” Via said. “It has to be processed more and more as it goes downstream. It has good minerality — the calcium and magnesium numbers are extremely high up here — and it’s low in heavy metals. Iron is the one we have to avoid.
“It’s all around great water for beverage production. There’s minimal handling. In the case of fermentation, all we do is just strip off the municipal additives that are required by law for them to add.”
The carbon-filtered water is used to proof down Breckenridge’s signature bourbon. When the distillery was still in its infancy, Via took some of the product that hadn’t been proofed down with him when visiting family and attempted to add their local water. The result was not quite what he was expecting.
“The water really does have a huge impact on the final flavor profile, and it’s different everywhere you go,” he said.
Jason Ford, of Broken Compass in Breckenridge, said the water from the tap at his brewery travels through a particulate filter and spends time in the hot liquor tank to drive off the chlorine before it’s turned into beer.
“One of the coolest things is the composition here is so good, you don’t have to treat it if you don’t want to,” he said. “Hardness affects the taste and chemistry of the beer, and one of the nice things about the water here is you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to, and your beer would be just fine, with minimal side effects.”
Beer tied to water source
Not all of Colorado’s brewers are so lucky, Ford said, as there are some water basins that aren’t so great. Mike Bennett, with Dillon Dam Brewery, said the quality of the water is crucial because you need good, clean water to make good, clean beer.
“Mineral content is going to be different everywhere,” Bennett said. “Some breweries make additions to alter their water, and some places have to treat their water more. Like some places in Florida, where the water is not as good, you might have to do more treatment to the water.”
Certain regions around the world, such as Burton on Trent, in Staffordshire, England, have very distinctive water sources that are reflected in their beers, and some individual beer styles, such as Germany’s Dortmunder lager, can only be brewed with water of a particular origin, Bennett said. The composition of Summit County’s snowmelt water also lends itself better to individual styles.
“Harder water like we have up here is better for hoppier ales,” Bennett said. “It brings out the sharp, distinct taste, just from the minerals that are in the hard water.”
Pug Ryan’s Brewing Co. foregoes the filtration completely due to the excellent mineral content of the water in Dillon, said Ed Canty, assistant brewer.
“We brew lagers, and you want to replicate the water from Germany, and it’s almost perfect here in Summit County, so we don’t have to do anything to it,” he said. “It’s one of the most important ingredients in beer. Without good water, it’s hard to make good beer, and we’re fortunate here in Summit County to have such great water.”
Reduce and reuse
The Blue River Watershed Group’s mission is to protect, restore and promote a healthy watershed through community education, stewardship and resource management. Because water is such a vital element in beer, local brewers are also doing what they can to reduce water waste within their brewing processes.
“We use a lot of water during the brew process,” Bennett said. “When we are running our wort through a heat exchanger to rapid chill it — we run cold water into that — it takes heat away from the wort as it’s being transferred, and that goes into the hot liquor tank to refill it. It saves a couple thousand gallons with every brew.”
The practice is a common one at local breweries and also saves energy by heating the approximately 48-degree water up to 150 or 160 degrees to ready it for the next batch of beer. Water can also be conserved when cleaning tanks, Ford said.
“You’ll use cleaning solutions for two vessels instead of just one,” Ford said. “If you’re using a decent amount of water to clean your vessels, you’re recapturing your heat exchanger water and throwing it back into the hot liquor tank instead of just down the drain. Those are a couple of the easy things you can do to help conserve water.”
Breweries aim to be good water stewards because without water, there would be no brewing.
“You’re just starting to see it pop up more and more on beer forums,” Ford said. “It’s a concern because the entire process is based on water, and people are concerned about the quality and cost of water as water becomes a more and more contentious topic.”
So do your local brewers a favor on Wednesday, Aug. 20, and support the Blue River Watershed Group and its efforts to preserve beer’s most important ingredient.