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Mash pH Water Treatment for Brewing Beer

Mash pH Water Treatment for Brewing Beer

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Published by Brad Smith
A discussion of the importance of mash pH for home brewing beer to include how it can enhance the flavor of your finished beer and various alternatives for adjusting the mash pH.
A discussion of the importance of mash pH for home brewing beer to include how it can enhance the flavor of your finished beer and various alternatives for adjusting the mash pH.

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Published by: Brad Smith on Jan 13, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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By Brad Smith – Originally posted on our BeerSmith Home Brewing Blog – Subscribe here For many years I never worried about balancing pH or even what mywater profilewas when brewing. After all, the beer was fine and most of the time I was brewing with extract, so pH didnot matter much.However once I started all grain brewing, the water I brewed with suddenly started to matter. Italso helped that I moved to an area with extremely hard water, which forced me to use bottledwater to produce anything reasonably resembling beer. It turns out that the pH of your mash hasa huge impact on the mashing process as well as taste of your finishedall-grain beer .
Understanding pH: Alkalinity and Acidity
Pure water has a pH of 7.0, which means that it is neither acidic nor alkaline. If you are intochemistry, this means that the free H+ (hydronium) ions are balanced with the OH- (hydroxide)ions giving equal concentrations capable of forming H2O. If water has an excess of H+ ions, wecall it acidic (lower pH), while an excess of OH- ions gives us alkaline (higher pH) water. Now it we take our pure water in the form of rain and run it down through the atmosphere andsoil it picks up CO2 and Calcium from the soil, these elements will bind with the H+ ionsleaving a bunch of free OH- (hydroxide) ions making our water more alkaline. This increasesthe pH of the water. Most tap water is slightly alkaline for this reason. Really hard water can behighly alkaline.Interestingly all malts (and dark malts in particular) have phosphates in them that react with thecalcium and magnesium ions in alkaline water freeing up H+ ions that make the mixture acidic.Adding malt, especially dark malt, lowers the pH of the malt water mixture in the mash.
The Importance of Mash pH
The pH of the mash is very important for proper conversion of sugars during the mash and alsodue to its effect on finished beer. Mashing should always take place at a pH between 5.1 and5.3. However, its important to note that we are talking about the pH of the mixed mash, whichas I point out above depends on the color and quantity of malts added to the beer. In most casesthe mixed mash will be slightly alkaline (pH above 5.3) and require an acidic addition or buffer to bring it down to 5.2.Though some commercial brewers can accurately predict the pH of their mash in advance, fewhomebrewers have the detailed knowledge and data available to do this. The problem is that thecolor, quantity and even type and supplier of the malt can change the pH. In addition, your starting water and its interactions with the malts may vary with each recipe. Remember thatcommercial brewers brew the same recipe every time using the same ingredients, whilehomebrewers do this only rarely.That's why homebrewers are reduced to measuring the pH of each mash right after it is mixedand then adjusting our pH as early as possible in the mashing process.Measuring pH can be done in several ways including pH (litmus) strips, precison pH strips andeven using an electronic pH meter. Of the three methods, precision pH strips are usually most
cost effective and practical. Standard pH strips lack the precision needed to measure down to atenth of a point pH, and electronic meters are expensive and require frequent replacement of theelectrodes to maintain accuracy.Another practical consideration is that the mash is usually hot, so you need to adjust the pHreading for temperature. Hot wort will almost always provide a higher pH reading than theactual wort. You can compensate for this either by rapidly cooling the sample to roomtemperature before measuring or applying a correction factor after taking the reading. Check thedocumentation with your pH strips to determine the appropriate correction.
Methods for Adjusting Mash pH
There are several methods available to the homebrewer for adjusting the pH of your wort. Asnoted earlier, in most cases you will need to lower your pH to reach the 5.2 target level.
Calcium and Magnesium Salts:
Three salt: Gypsum (CaSO4), Epsom Salt (MgSO4)and Calcium Chloride (CaCl) can be added to lower your pH. The calcium andmagnesium ions in these additions reduce the alkalinity of the water. Note, however, thatthe sulfate and chloride ions react with the phosphates from the mash, which can lead toundesirable flavors. As a result you need to limit the amount added. You can calculateappropriate amounts using a water tool such as the one inBeerSmith. Suggested limitsare 50-150 ppm for calcium, 50-150 ppm for sulfate, 0-150 ppm for chloride and 10-30 ppm for magnesium. See our article on water profiles for more information.
Food Grade Acids -
Acid additions counter the H+ ion and directly lower the alkalinityof the mash. Popular additions include phosphoric acid, sulfuric acid and lactic acid. Allof these contribute other flavors and ions to the beer as well, which can again cause problems if used in excessive amounts. Phosphoric acid is used to make soda, and willcontribute phosphates to the mash. Lactic acid will add lactates, and is used in manyBelgian styles to sour the beer. Sulfuric acid will contribute sulfates. In general youshould add the minimum needed to achieve your target pH. The amount will varydepending on the concentration of your acid and wort volume.
Acid Malt -
Because of German purity laws (the Reinheitsgebot) that prevent additivesto German beer, sour malt (called acid malt) is used to aid in the brewing of light beers tolower mash pH. Acid malt is made by souring malt with lactic bacteria for a short periodwhich effectively creates lactic acid. Adding acid malt is effectively equivalent to addinglactic acid to the mash. Adding one percent of acid malt effectively lowers the pH of themalt by approximately 0.1 pH.
Sour Mash -
Another technique developed by the Germans is to create a sour mashwhich again contains lactic acid produced by lactic bacteria. The technique is to mash aquantity of grain, cools it to about 80F and then adds some fresh malt (which containslots of lactic bacteria naturally) and lets the mixture sit overnight. The bacteria willquickly sour the mash and start fermenting it, again creating lactic acid. The next day thissour mash can be mixed with a regular mash to lower its pH. The challenge with sour mashing is that it can be somewhat inconsistent in pH and also labor intensive.
Acid Rest -
Though seldom used today thanks to modern highly modified malts, an acidrest in the 95F (35C) range can break down phytins in the malt into phytic acid that willlower the mash pH. This was traditionally done in German triple decoction mashes, andis most effective when used with undermodified malts.

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