Some years ago a baker who was setting up shop outside of the city asked me to provide a summary of everything that is in Philadelphia’s water. He said that Philadelphia’s water makes really good bread, and he wanted to replicate our chemistry down south. Philly does have good bread and soft pretzels. And good beer, too! It turns out that one of the keys to Philadelphia’s tasty bread, pretzels and beer is keeping the yeast happy and enabling their enzymes to work their magic.
So how is that related to our water? The only thing I knew about the beer-making process was that brewers had to remove the chlorine residual from the water before using it, so in a quest to find out more, I bought a book titled Water – A Comprehensive Guide for Brewers (John Palmer and Colin Kaminski, 2013, Brewers Publications).
The book confirmed that the natural ingredients in water are important to brewing. One way to get water that’s good for brewing is to remove everything from it and then add back the minerals and salts at just the right levels. The other way is to establish a brewery where the water is naturally good—lucky for us, Philadelphia’s breweries fall in this category. The most important characteristics of water, besides it not having any off flavors or contaminants, are the pH, hardness with calcium and magnesium, and alkalinity. The process of making a flavorful beer is affected by these characteristics and different beers, lighter or darker for example, have different needs. The water's composition affects the yeast, their enzymes, the beer’s clarity and flavor, and its stability. Sodium, chloride, sulfate and other ingredients in water at the right levels are also helpful.
According to the book, Philadelphia’s water stacks up well when it comes the most important ingredients in water. These ingredients largely come from the rivers, naturally. Although considered moderately hard, Philly water is on the lower end for hardness, especially for calcium, but that can be added during the brewing process.
Our water may explain, in part, why there are so many fantastic breweries and bakeries in our city. And since we’re on the subject of Philly beer, it is worth noting that Yards Brewery recently won a Good Food Award for being eco- friendly and delicious. Yards is powered completely off the grid by 100% wind power, their packaging is certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, they send their used grain to local farms to be used as feed and the brewhouse collects and reuses 2 million gallons of water per year! So the next time you reach for a beer, drink responsibly and consider the environment and the flavor.