A new beer festival in the Texas Hill Country wants to highlight an ingredient in beer that we tend to overlook — water.
Make no mistake, though: The water is vital. In fact, beer is up to 99 percent water, which means that brewers constantly fuss over the quality and mineral content of the water they use to make sure it's just right. But these days, when drinking the beer, we usually focus more on the more exciting additions of hops and malt.
Destination Brew Fest, which will be held at Vista Brewing on June 8, aims to change that, if only for a day. To be clear: It's imperative for all beers to be produced with high-quality, mineral-specific water. But this beer event will showcase lagers and farmhouse-style ales from mostly local breweries as two styles that particularly require good water to make. It will also serve as the launch of the Texas Brewshed Alliance, an initiative of the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association.
One of the participating breweries is the ABGB, which has won the Brewpub of the Year award at the Great American Beer Festival for three years running because of its exceptional lagers. So it's fair to say the co-brewers at this South Austin brewpub — Brian Peters, Amos Lowe and Kim Mizner — know a thing or two about how to deliver a proper pint, lagers especially.
When they mentor aspiring brewers, Peters says, the ABGB brewers emphasize studying up on water and yeast, the two most important elements in the science of brewing. During brewery tours, on the other hand, consumers ask about hops more than anything else — although we didn't always used to be disinterested in the water.
"Water used to be sexy," he says. "When I grew up in the '70s and '80s, they touted Coors in ads as having Rocky Mountain water. And then it fell out of favor. I’m not sure when that happened, but especially with the craft movement, it became about hops. I guess the water just seems boring because it's in a lot of recipes" beyond beer.
The organizers of the Texas Brewshed Alliance created this growing group of brewers and water conservationists in the hopes of making water a little more interesting. If people care about how water affects their beer, the thinking goes, they'll care more about conserving it for all other aspects of our lives, too. Beer is an easy bridge into a serious topic.
That's what the two Texas Brewshed Alliance founders, David Baker and Tom Waymouth, have found in the course of research about engaging with the average consumer.
“If I come up to people and start talking about water conservation, five out of eight of them turn their brain off and stop really listening," Waymouth says. "But if I offer them a beer and tell them the water that brewed the beer came from the Trinity Aquifer, that’s something they’re going to care about. That starts the conversation.”
Breweries within Austin city limits like the ABGB use the same drinking water that flows out of the taps of homes and businesses — pumped from the Colorado River as it flows into Lake Austin. Vista Brewing, in Driftwood, is among the breweries outside the city relying on well water that comes from an aquifer, in this case the Trinity, 450 feet below the surface. Both surface and groundwater pick up natural minerals and damaging pollutants en route to their final destination.
These subtly different water sources have a big effect on the final beer, and so do the treatment and filtration processes that water utilities like Austin Water and the breweries themselves employ. Later this year, the Texas Brewshed Alliance wants to showcase how the same beer recipe replicated multiple times, using various water sources, might produce a surprising range of results.
For now, though, you can taste some of the lagers and wild ales that require good water at Destination Brew Fest, from participants such as Live Oak Brewing, Oddwood Ales and the Brewer's Table.
To produce their award-winning lagers and other draft options, ABGB brewers carbon-filter their water, raise the calcium content and adjust the pH, making sure the chloramine that Austin Water adds for disinfection is taken out "because it's not good for the yeast," Peters says. The water has to be Goldilocks correct, so to speak, because lagers are precise and clean, and missteps will show.
"Lagers have such subtle flavors, so any deviation is going to be more noticeable" than in ales, he says. "If the ingredients change, if the water changes, you’ll notice it right away in a helles, for example, the most delicate of lagers. For lagers in general, it just means you want good, clean water."
For the wild ales that you'll find at places like Vista, top-quality water is needed to get the best results from the yeast, which provide the driving flavor — funky and complex — in these styles. From the start, Vista's co-owners, Kent and Karen Killough, have emphasized the importance the limestone-filtered well water has played in making beers like the Seeking Sakura Cherry Brett Ale.
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Pulled from beneath Vista's sprawling acreage, the water is high in sodium and calcium, "a lot of base minerals that can almost super-charge the yeast. It's almost like a multivitamin for yeast," Kent Killough says. "We're quite fortunate to have this water."
The Killoughs and their head brewer have shown appreciation for where the water comes from with such water-themed names as the Karst Altbier and the Middle Trinity Tripel. Karst is land made up of limestone, or calcium carbonate, which Central Texas is famous for; it's found in both the aquifer water and in the lake water used by the City of Austin.
That's what made Vista a solid collaborator for the Texas Brewshed Alliance, which will be one of the four organizations at Destination Brew Fest highlighting the four main ingredients in craft beer at a special interactive station.
"Brewers understand the value of water better than almost any other industry, I’d say," Waymouth says, noting that Texas is not the first state, or even the fifth, to introduce an alliance between brewers and conservationists. "We’re gathering brewers who really care about water. They are the perfect spokespeople to talk about it and drive home why people should care."