Gear­head: Re­v­erseOs­mo­sis Wa­ter Sys­tems

Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine - - Contents - By John M. Verive

When Green Cheek Beer Com­pany opened in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, the founders needed to nav­i­gate var­i­ous wa­ter trou­bles that even­tu­ally helped them dial in recipes and get a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of their beer.


what’s in the beer glass, wa­ter’s unique chem­istry has tremen­dous ef­fects on the brew­ing process and the fla­vor of the re­sult­ing bev­er­age. His­tor­i­cal cen­ters of brew­ing cul­ture such as Dublin, Mu­nich, and Pilsen grew to promi­nence largely be­cause of the lo­cal wa­ter sources that brew­ers learned to har­ness even be­fore they learned the chem­istry be­hind the dry stout, the dunkel, and the Pil­sner.

Mod­ern brew­ers know all about resid­ual al­ka­lin­ity, tem­po­rary hard­ness, and how to craft a wa­ter pro­file to sup­port the beer they imag­ine, but wa­ter chem­istry rarely in­spires the same pas­sion­ate dis­cus­sions that you hear about hops va­ri­eties, yeast strains, or even bar­ley cul­ti­vars. It’s un­der­stand­able; wa­ter chem­istry can be, if you’ll par­don the pun, kind of dry. But one brewer in wa­ter-con­scious South­ern Cal­i­for­nia is putting his years of pro­fes­sional ex­pe­ri­ence with wa­ter into play at his new brew­ery, and Green Cheek Beer Com­pany’s Evan Price is just as happy to geek out about chlo­ride-to-sul­fate ra­tios and gyp­sum’s place in New Eng­land–style IPAS as he is about malt bills or dry-hop­ping tech­niques.

“Wa­ter chem­istry is com­pli­cated,” Price says. He strug­gled with the va­garies of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s mu­nic­i­pal wa­ter and fine-tun­ing wa­ter pro­files for years. “I’m thank­ful for those trou­bles,” he says. “It was a bless­ing in dis­guise.”

When Price and his part­ner, Brian Rauso, launched Green Cheek Beer Com­pany in 2017, they found a shortcut to the years of con­struc­tion and per­mit­ting that build­ing a brew­ery takes: they took over an ex­ist­ing brew­ery in­stead of build­ing one from scratch. Valiant Brew­ing Com­pany in Or­ange, Cal­i­for­nia, shut­tered in March 2017, and be­sides the 15-bar­rel Premier Stain­less Sys­tems brew­house, a cel­lar full of fer­men­ta­tion ves­sels, and an on­site tast­ing room, Green Cheek ac­quired an Am­pac AP2200 re­verse-os­mo­sis wa­ter-treat­ment sys­tem from the de­funct brew­ery. Re­verse-os­mo­sis (RO) sys­tems pu­rify wa­ter rel­a­tively ef­fi­ciently and have ap­pli­ca­tions from the in­dus­trial (de­sali­na­tion) to the com­mer­cial (food pro­duc­tion, brew­ing) to res­i­den­tial. Price’s mid-ca­reer strug­gles with wa­ter chem­istry gave him the con­fi­dence and skills to con­trol his brew­ing wa­ter, and the RO setup gave him the tech­ni­cal ca­pa­bil­ity to build spe­cific wa­ter pro­files from the ground up.

Trou­ble­some Wa­ter

Price’s road to wa­ter-chem­istry pro­fi­ciency be­gan in 2012 when he took the head brewer po­si­tion at the then-strug­gling No­ble Ale Works brew­ery in Ana­heim, Cal­i­for­nia. Prior to the gig at No­ble, Price brewed un­der his men­tor, Vic­tor Novak, at the lauded Or­ange County, Cal­i­for­nia, brew­pub, TAPS Fish House & Brew­ery. Novak, now the brew­mas­ter at Golden Road Brew­ing, is a mas­ter at re­pro­duc­ing clas­sic styles, and he re­lied on an RO wa­ter-treat­ment sys­tem at TAPS to zero out the of­ten trou­ble­some wa­ter sup­ply.

“At TAPS, I never had to learn why you do what you do to wa­ter,” Price says. Novak cal­cu­lated all the wa­ter ad­just­ments. “No­ble just had a char­coal fil­ter, and I had to learn how to work with a whole new wa­ter pro­file.”

Char­coal fil­tra­tion re­moves or­ganic com­pounds and the chlo­rine added by mu­nic­i­pal wa­ter pro­cess­ing, but it doesn’t much af­fect the min­eral con­tent of the

wa­ter. In drought-stricken South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, the mu­nic­i­pal wa­ter sup­plies can change month to month as the treat­ment plants change sources or blend­ing ra­tios be­tween the min­eral-rich ground­wa­ter and softer snowmelt and runoff. “The wa­ter in Ana­heim is al­most like a sea­sonal in­gre­di­ent,” Prices says. While strug­gling with get­ting con­sis­tent re­sults from wa­ter ad­di­tives in the shift­ing-source wa­ter, Price found an in­valu­able tool for di­al­ing in the wa­ter pro­file for No­ble’s brews: a spread­sheet called Bru’n Wa­ter.

De­vel­oped by vet­eran home­brewer and wa­ter-qual­ity spe­cial­ist Martin Brun­gard (who also served as tech­ni­cal edi­tor for the Brew­ers Pub­li­ca­tions’ Wa­ter: A Com­pre­hen­sive Guide for Brew­ers), the Bru’n Wa­ter spread­sheet is avail­able for down­load and is ac­com­pa­nied by a wealth of de­tailed in­for­ma­tion about wa­ter chem­istry from a brewer’s per­spec­tive. It was the key that un­locked an un­der­stand­ing of wa­ter chem­istry for Price, and he says years of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with wa­ter at No­ble forged a con­nec­tion be­tween his palate and his brain that wasn’t there be­fore— he’s de­vel­oped an in­tu­itive sense of how changes to wa­ter will al­ter the fla­vor pro­file and mouth­feel of a beer. Tweak­ing wa­ter-qual­ity vari­ables is “an­other color on [his] pal­ette,” and while col­or­ing a new beer with more sul­fide or chlo­ride will change how a drinker per­ceives fla­vor, there’s only so much a brewer can do with a wa­ter sup­ply that’s er­ratic or al­ready loaded with dis­solved solids. That’s where the RO setup at Green Cheek comes in.

Re­verse Os­mo­sis to the Res­cue

The RO wa­ter-treat­ment method re­moves im­pu­ri­ties, min­er­als, and just about ev­ery­thing else in a wa­ter source. Brew­ers through­out his­tory have ad­justed their brew­ing wa­ter to achieve the spe­cific re­sults that they’re af­ter, but it’s tough to take Dublin’s hard, min­eral-rich wa­ter down to the soft and pure wa­ter prized in Pilsen. With an RO setup, a brew­ery can take what­ever wa­ter they’ve got, strip it down to al­most pure H O, and build it back up to their ex­act spec­i­fi­ca­tions. The RO wa­ter is a blank can­vas ready to be col­ored by the brewer.

“His­tor­i­cally brew­ers had to learn how to work with the wa­ter they had,” Price says. “To­day, brew­ers have the abil­ity to learn how to make their wa­ter work for the beers they want to brew.”

The sci­ence be­hind the Am­pac AP2200 is straight­for­ward, and pres­sure is the key to the RO process. Sol­vent (wa­ter) laden with solutes (min­er­als) flows into pres­sur­ized ves­sel lines with a semiper­me­able thin-film mem­brane. The mem­brane al­lows wa­ter mol­e­cules to pass through, but not the dis­solved solids. Pres­sure pushes wa­ter through the mem­brane leav­ing the im­pu­ri­ties be­hind to be flushed from the sys­tem. The sys­tem re­jects 99 per­cent of the solids dis­solved in the source wa­ter and can re­cover be­tween 50 per­cent and 75 per­cent of the wa­ter that flows through it. Ad­di­tional fil­ter­ing stages pre­treat the source wa­ter and pro­vide a fi­nal pol­ish be­fore the treated wa­ter is pumped into a plas­tic stor­age tank.

The RO sys­tem pro­vides a steady flow of pure wa­ter, but the cost of the util­i­ties to run the sys­tem can be high. Be­sides the space re­quired on the brew­ery floor and the en­ergy costs of run­ning the sys­tem’s pumps, the RO process makes waste­water—al­most as much waste­water as treated wa­ter. Cal­i­for­nia’s brew­eries are al­ready sen­si­tive to how much wa­ter they use, and RO can add con­sid­er­able costs and headaches when you’re send­ing so much more wa­ter down the drain. At Green Cheek, Price com­bats the flow of waste­water by treat­ing only as much wa­ter as needed to brew; he fur­ther re­duces the vol­ume re­quire­ments by blend­ing the pure RO wa­ter with some fil­tered wa­ter from the mains. Price is dili­gent about having the tap wa­ter an­a­lyzed monthly, and he ad­justs the blend­ing ra­tios as needed. Only about a third of the wa­ter used for mash-in gets the RO treat­ment.

The added ef­fort and costs are a wash in the end, says Price, as the greater con­trol of the raw in­gre­di­ent means greater con­sis­tency in his fin­ished beers. Eas­ily hit­ting mash ph tar­gets and find­ing the per­fect bal­ance of chlo­ride to sul­fate for a re­fined bit­ter­ness is now pos­si­ble for Price, and more im­por­tantly, he’s able to ex­plore the world of styles de­tached from the con­straints of ge­og­ra­phy and lo­cal-wa­ter chem­istry. Less than a year old, Green Cheek is gain­ing no­to­ri­ety for a stream of high-pro­file col­lab­o­ra­tions (Fire­stone Walker, Cel­lar­maker) and on-trend can re­leases of hazy New School IPAS, but it’s his con­tin­ued foray into lager brew­ing that’s most ex­cit­ing for Price. “Play­ing with wa­ter chem­istry to make a re­ally im­pact­ful IPA is fun, but wa­ter chem­istry is ex­tra im­por­tant for brew­ing lagers,” he says. A re­fined, Amer­i­can­ized hoppy Pil­sner is a reg­u­lar fea­ture on the Green Cheek tap list, and Price is also ex­per­i­ment­ing with that other golden Ger­man lager de­fined by ge­og­ra­phy: the Dort­munder Ex­port.

“His­tor­i­cally brew­ers had to learn how to work with the wa­ter they had,” Price says. “To­day, brew­ers have the abil­ity to learn how to make their wa­ter work for the beers they want to brew.”

Above » Be­cause the re­verse-os­mo­sis sys­tem op­er­ates rel­a­tive slowly, Green Cheek pre-pro­cesses wa­ter, which is then held in a tank; Op­po­site, clock­wise from left » The Am­pac AP2200 con­trol panel; Green Cheek’s fo­cus on softer New Eng­land–style IPAS as...

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