Water is more important to beer than we often give it credit for. We are more focused on hops, malt, yeast, and all the other goodies that make our favorite beer taste the way it does. Brewers refer to water as “hot liquor” or “brewing liquor” and use water throughout the brewing process for things like cooling wort and cleaning equipment. When it comes beer itself, different types of minerals present in the water provide various characteristics: sodium can add fullness and a subtle sweetness, sulfate gives beer dryness, iron can provide an off-putting metallic flavor, and chloride also increases a beer’s fullness. Today, brewers can alter water to have the mineral content to create the perfect brewing liquor, but in the past breweries would build their breweries next to fresh sources of water that best suited the style they wished to brew. Burton-upon-Trent, in the English Midlands, is situated on a large limestone deposit, giving the water of this region a sulfuric whiff—which is fantastic for brewing English style IPAs. Plzn, in the Czech Republic, is home to Pilsner Urquell—a brewery renowned for its upstanding pilsner, thanks in part to the fresh water spring near by. It’s also important to note that beer is 85-95% water, so, basically you’re just hydrating, right? Exactly. Drink up!
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Well into the 1900's beer was still being transported, stored, and served from wooden barrels. Brewers tried to avoid any flavors the wood may lend to the beer by soaking the barrels in boiling water or hydrochloric acid, then they would line the barrels with pitch, which is basically tree sap, to prevent leakage. Today, we turn to barrels for a different reason: flavor. The two most common wooden vessels being used today are bourbon and wine barrels, but any barrel that once held a flavorful liquid (or even new oak barrels)
Brewers must carefully select which barrel will match best with the beer they tuck away inside. Bourbon whisk(e)y barrels provide boozy notes from its previous occupant with notes of vanillin, toast, smoke, and spice from the charring process of the wood. Wine barrels work much the same way, providing another layer of vinous flavor to the finished beer. Certain barrels can also have loads of microflora living in the wood itself, providing funk (brettanomyces) and sour (lactobacillus).
Which barrels are paired up with a style is really up to the brewer, but often darker beers find their mate in bourbon/whisk(e)y or red wine barrels, while lighter styles lounge away in oaky chardonnay barrels. Keep an eye out for gin, rum, tequila, and vermouth barrel-aged treats too. Barrel aged goodies are the perfect fall and winter warmer. Sorry, pumpkin beers. But, not really.