For Northwest Brewers, 'It's (Still) The Water'

Feb 22, 2013

Across the Northwest, home brewers and microbreweries enjoy the best local ingredients. Hops from the Willamette Valley. Barley from Washington. But there’s one ingredient that is often overlooked: the water. 

Lots of breweries make the claim that they’re using the finest natural spring water. If you grew up in the Northwest, you might remember this beer ad: 

“Olympia, it’s the water and a lot more.”

Olympia’s claim may have been just marketing shtick.

But home brewer Steven Wyatt really does go straight to the source when he brews beer.

On a warm October day, Wyatt set off down a poorly marked trail in the southern Oregon Cascades. His backpack is full of empty gallon jugs.

“We’re about a quarter of a mile away from the headwaters of the Rogue River, Boundary Springs. We’re going to hike in all these gallons of empty containers and hike out full containers of the water. The sun’s poking through the tree line. It’s beautiful.”

The goal is to carry out about fifteen gallons. 
That’s enough to brew a batch of beer. 
Wyatt’s father in law, Robert Coffan, has come along to help. 
He’s wheeling a five-gallon cooler -- the kind you’d see at a soccer game.

“The real definition, if somebody said something is pristine. That’s what I think the Boundary Springs headwaters of the Rogue tastes like.”

A faint trail weaves through the forest. The men reach the headwaters of the Rogue.

Water rushes up out of the ground and spills out from under the roots of fir trees.

Most rivers begin with a faint trickle of snowmelt.

But the Rogue begins as powerful spring.

Coffan is a hydrologist; he studies the movement of water.

He says all this groundwater was trapped under a layer of basalt rock.

“If you look at a geological map right here, this is a basalt area where the basalt ends. The underground ground water is just bursting out right here at Boundary Springs.” 
Wyatt and Coffan fill their bottles and hike the 2 miles back to their car. 
They’re carrying about 50 pounds of water each.

Wyatt swears that starting with this pure water helps him brew a better beer.

“If you speak to any beer connoisseur, they will tell you their favorite beer comes from a region because of the water.”

Now, I’m embarrassed to say, I’m not a beer connoisseur, so I asked a local expert. 
“It definitely matters, what water you use,” explains Larry Chase, the brewer at Standing Stone Brewing Company in Ashland.

Water is 90-95 percent of the beer for most all beer, with the other percentage being alcohol. “

Upstairs, carbon dioxide bubbles out of steel tanks that hold amber ale Chase brewed a couple days ago.

Chase says Standing Stone gets its water from the city of Ashland.

Heating the water in an open tank helps get rid of the added chlorine.

“If somebody was to not take out any of the chlorine, you get a very phenolic -- what does phenolic mean -- a medicinal, Band-Aid like flavor. “

Chase says that differences in water quality helped shape the history of brewing and the different styles of beer that become popular in Europe.

“Pilsner comes out of Pilzen, Czechoslovakia, and that area of the world has extremely soft water. And that soft water lent itself to really brewing beers with that very pale yellow color. Light and crisp on the palate.” 

Breweries can be huge water users, Chase says. And so some microbreweries in the Northwest are trying to make water conservation part of their trademark.

Full Sail Brewery In Hood River is one of the leaders.

Jamie Emerson is the Brew master there. He says as a large brewery operating a small town, Full Sail has to be thoughtful about its water use. 
So it built its own wastewater treatment plant.

“As an industrial water user we don’t want to overwhelm the city’s wastewater treatment system, if we would do that, they would have to dump in the Columbia, and that’s not acceptable.” 
Full Sail also invested in equipment that conserves water during the brewing process.

The company bought a mash filter that helps squeeze more water out of grain husks before they’re discarded.

“An average brewery uses between six and ten gallons of water to brew a gallon of beer. Last year we averaged about two and a half.”

Other breweries are embracing water conservation, too. Deschutes Brewery in Bend is helping the Deschutes River Conservancy buy back water rights that will keep a billion extra gallons of water in the river every year. That’s a billion with a B.

Back in Medford, Steven Wyatt’s home brewed spring water beer is ready to taste and on tap in his garage. He used Pilsner style yeast and lots of hops, and added his own twist: quince from a tree in his father-in-law’s backyard.

“What I taste in this beer is the tart, slash sour of the quince. And then more of a grainy and then a hoppy taste to it,” he says.

It’s bright and refreshing. Just the kind of thing you might want to sip after a hike in the Cascades.


Steven Wyatt uses the spring water to brew two styles of beer: a San Fransiscan Lager and an overhopped Pilsner with quince.
Credit Amelia Templeton / EarthFix