Good Beer Starts with Good Water

This article appeared on our blog November 10, 2016

Beer Is Mostly Water, Why Not Enhance the Main Ingredient?

“Do you want to try the lager?” Hagen’s sister, Adrianne, asked from behind the taproom bar. Lager is not usually my go-to, but I could not turn down a friendly pour.

“Sure,” I said.

She set a full stein on the bar and I took a sip. There was something different about it. The smoothness, the foam, the aftertaste. Usually when I think of lager I think of Bud Light, Coors, or some other mass-produced beer. My dive into the craft brewery scene in the past five years has shifted my palate over to specialty ales. While many craft breweries offer lager, usually I shoot for hefeweisen, stout, or saison. Although a lager, the one from Dovetail Brewery has something special.

Dovetail Brewery

I arrived around 10:45am on a Saturday to tour Dovetail Brewery. Hagen, the owner, took us through his entire brewery to taste, touch, and smell each element that goes into creating his beer. First, the tour attendees and I had a full lager in the taproom. We then traveled into the brewery where Dovetail’s HyperLogic system sits. In front of the system was a whiskey barrel and pitchers of… water.

Photo of Dovetail’s HyperLogic Filtration System® with Water Samples
Photo of Dovetail’s HyperLogic Filtration System® with Water Samples

I went on this tour incognito, not telling anyone I’m from HydroLogic, the company that provided his water treatment system which stood behind the barrel topped with water pitchers. Hagen integrates water tasting into every single brewery tour. We started with a sample of Chicago tap water, swooshing around the taste of chlorine in our mouths. We then tried his carbon filtered water—this tastes a lot like water from a Brita filter (carbon filters remove chlorine from tap water). Then we tried the water Hagen uses to brew his lager. He uses a HyperLogic commercial filtration system to filter and re-mineralize this water. Surprised by its soft aftertaste and texture, people on the tour mentioned the difference and could tell how this water translates into the same aftertaste and texture of Hagen’s lager.

After that portion of the tour we moved over to tasting two varieties of toasted barley and smelled the hops that Hagen imports from Germany. We had two more beers on the tour as well, giving us a well-rounded hands-on experience.

After the tour I had a few questions for Hagen to learn more about his background in brewing and overall satisfaction with his HyperLogic water filtration system.

This is what he had to say:

What started your passion for brewing craft beer, and what is your educational background in the brewing industry?

I always liked good beer. My parents are both German immigrants, so beer drinking was a normal thing around my house. I never had crappy beer when I was—let’s say before 21. The first beer I ever bought legally was Pilsner Urquell which is made with very, very soft water. I always loved lager beers. I always drank those beers but, brewing wise, I didn’t start as a brewer. My mum’s family comes from a wine making region. She’s ethnic German from what’s today Croatia. I started as a home winemaker and did that for about ten years, but eventually got tired of the poor-quality grapes I could get so I simultaneously got into Lambic style beers and I thought I could try brewing Lambic. Lambic is between the beer and wine world—it’s like beer made like wine. So, for me, it was a natural progression.

Wine is made in the vineyard and beer is made in the brew house and the fermenters, and beer is much more complicated to make. I steered on this path that eventually ended up with me going to beer school. I went through the Siebel and Doemen’s WBA Masters program at the World Brewing Academy. I took is piece by piece, starting here in Chicago, and then ended up in Munich, where my partner Bill and I met in one of the brewing classes.

What made you decide to go to brewing school?

At some point when I was transitioning to brewing, I thought “alright, if I had to start wine making again, and if I were a ten-years-younger me, what advice would I give myself? How would I start?” I decided that I would start trying to take formal classes. When I found out about Siebel, I thought, “Well, if I were living in California, there’s no question that I would go to UCE Davis”—for an analogy. Since I was living here in Chicago, I went to Siebel.

I started out taking a sensory analysis course. My point of view back then was that, unless you can taste or tell the difference between what is good and what is bad from a sensory perspective, you can’t know the difference or become a better brewer.

I was an engineer for 20 years designing a bunch of different things. My first job was in California doing structural analysis of offshore structures. I then switched to mechanical engineering and designed a few different things, train seats of all things. I spent a lot of time designing industrial cleaning equipment and Zamboni-type ride on machines. I then worked at Bosch Power Tools for 11 years.

In doing product design, I figured out that the best ideas are well accepted by your customer. Bill and I want the beer we brew to be delicious and open new flavor experiences to people who have only been exposed to macro brews and that are ready to transition into drinking craft beer. We like to drink strange beers too but this is also a business, so we want to make beer that’s delicious to many people.

When we make lager, we think about what it is that makes Americans come back from Germany and say “oh, man the beer over there was so good. I don’t know what it was about it. I miss it.”

106-year-old copper fermenting vessel that Hagen restored from the world’s oldest brewery, Weihenstephaner, in Germany
106-year-old copper fermenting vessel that Hagen restored from the world’s oldest brewery, Weihenstephaner, in Germany

Does that lead into how you came up with the concept for Dovetail?

Yes, the beer world is big. There are many, many different styles of beer. Although Bill and I both like IPAs, we felt like craft beer was becoming this IPA-driven culture. In our education, we learned about many different styles of beer and what set them apart from each other. We decided to go in a different direction. It was kind of counter-intuitive, because one of our flagship beers is a lager, and lager makes up 90% of the beer market. However, we felt that the lagers most people are exposed to are not the lagers that we love, that there’s a world of lager outside of what was being produced. Lager must be produced in a very specific way to get that to that very delicious state.

Knowing how competitive the food and drink scene is in Chicago, what gave you and Bill the inspiration to open a craft brewery in this area?

We’re both from Chicago and we wanted to do something close to home. Although there are a lot of craft breweries in Chicago right now, we’re not nearly at a saturation point. When we started working on this project, we weren’t close to it, but we’re closer all the time. However, we’re confident that we&rsqup;re doing something different enough that it will be appreciated.

Is that why soft water is so important during your brewing process?

Chicago has some of the best water in the world because we have an enormous source of fresh water. However, we feel that because water makes up anywhere from 90-95% of beer it has a major effect on the end quality of the beer. In the case of our lager we wanted it to be nice and soft—like the beers of the Czech Republic. To do that, we had to make water that matched the profile of one of our favorite brewing cities in the world, and that’s Pilsen in the Czech Republic. We learned about various methods of water treatment in brewing school. Chicago water is a great brewing water for ales. However, to brew our lager we needed our water to match the profile of the water of Pilsen—with very light minerals and very low TDS.

When did you start your search for a system that does water profile matching and how did you find HydroLogic?

The search for a filtration system began after beer school and during the development process of the brewery laying out our initial costs. My partner Bill and I were familiar with HydroLogic because we were home brewers and we knew the systems you guys sold through home brew shops. We did a years’ worth of pilot brewing at home twice a week. As we planned our pilot brews, I thought about how to do water preparation at the pilot level of the home brewing level, so we found the HydroLogic Systems® Stealth-RO™.

We then went through the HydroLogic website and saw that you had a commercial site and that the HyperLogic had just come out. We knew from our schooling that the reject rates for RO systems are usually horrible—around four parts wastewater to one part product water. Reading about the HyperLogic ROs one part waste to four parts product was almost too good to be true. We thought, “Wait a minute, these guys are doing three to four parts product for one part waste.” Even though we’re next to a large source of fresh water, we’re still concerned about waste. That’s how we first reached out to HydroLogic.

Was it easy to work with HydroLogic from there on out?

Yes, very easy. You’re that group that’s at the top of our sub-supplier list. I shared my calculations with you and we had a little bit of back and forth designing out the skid. Your estimates were where we ended up. Your technical team is very knowledgeable and always available to answer any questions. You gave us exactly what you said you were going to give us. There were a couple of problems along the way that your company corrected immediately. Our entire experience with HydroLogic was everything you could ask for in a good supplier. We recommend HydroLogic to other people all the time.

Did you find any other companies that offer water profile matching for breweries?

We did search, but honestly I’d have to say that you guys were so easy to work with and the price of the system was right on the budget that we didn’t look much farther. We didn’t have to. I trusted that we were going to get what you said we were going to get. We also were using your smaller system, and our experience with that system was great.

How has using the chem injectors we provided changed your brewing process or made it easier?

It’s a “set and forget it” system. I know what the targets are—I can even see it. From my calculations, I know that I need to add an additional 18 PPM of calcium and 14 of magnesium sulfate. When I replenish the chem injectors, I just run the system. I make sure everything is running and I don’t have to worry about it again until I replenish again. That can be weeks.

Are you satisfied with how your HyperLogic system’s performance?

Absolutely, I think it takes our beer to another level and people notice it.

Upstairs in the brewery where Hagen barrel-ages beer in reused whiskey barrels.
Upstairs in the brewery where Hagen barrel-ages beer in reused whiskey barrels.

How do people respond to the water tasting portion of your brewery tour?

In the tap room, people taste the beer and they say, "Oh, yeah, this beer is—there’s something about it. It’s great." When I take people on a tour, we do a water tasting where we compare Chicago tap water to carbon-filtered Chicago water to our Pilsen simulation. We mix some carbon filtered water in, and then we bring up the calcium, the chloride, and the sulfate to the levels where we want it to be to as closely as possible to match Pilsen. We can’t match it exactly but this was an easy way to do it. Chicago city water is high in bicarbonate, so we’re higher in bicarbonate than Pilsen, but it’s still very soft and produces a very pleasant lager. When we do the tasting of the three waters people find it interesting. Usually the reaction I get is: "I’ve never tasted water on a brewery tour before." People have written reviews about the tour and they say things like, “Believe it or not, tasting water is the most interesting part of the tour.”

Does the water tasting portion of your tour set Dovetail apart from other breweries in the US?

Yes—you go on brewery tours; you just taste the beer; you don’t taste the water. It’s unique, because water is 95% of beer.

For being a new brewery in Chicago, you have a lot of great reviews. Do you feel like using our water treatment system has improved the overall quality and taste of your beer at Dovetail?

There’s no question. The lager is our number one selling beer and that’s the beer where we use this water. Lagers are popular—that’s what these macro breweries are making. We use this water for any beer that’s fermented right now with lager yeast. So even a dark beer, like a Rauchbier or our Holiday Bock—any lager we brew is made with the soft water your system creates.

What are your next steps for your brewery?

Our next steps are to get in more accounts. We’d love to be in every bar within two miles of this place—and a little farther also. We’re in about 50 accounts right now and we’d like to get to 100 to 150 within a short amount of time.

Do you have any of those accounts do the water tasting themselves?

We do industry open house events and the water tasting will be part of all the tours that we give.

Is the water tasting an integral part of every single tour?

It is essential. The water tasting teaches people about beer—in a funny way, you know. On the tour, we like to have people taste all the elements and then we put it back together by drinking the beer. It’s a very good experience. A “taste-on” experience.

Do you have expansion plans?

We built the brewery to grow to the right size. But if it gets to the point where the HyperLogic system is not putting out enough water for us, we would expand the system. It’s easily expandable – you don’t have to buy another system.

With the lager, we’re trying to create an interesting beer that speaks for itself. One of my favorite things is when somebody comes to the tap room and we tell them, “So, we have lager, this beer, and this beer” and they say “I’ll just have a lager.” I give them the lager and they say “Oh yeah, this is different.” It’s great that the HyperLogic can enhance that experience for our clients.

Dovetail HyperLogic Brewery Skid—We Provided All Filtration and Re-Mineralization Equipment on a Pre-Plumbed Turnkey Skid
Dovetail HyperLogic Brewery Skid—We Provided All Filtration and Re-Mineralization Equipment on a Pre-Plumbed Turnkey Skid

Hagen and Bill carefully engineer their beer to ensure each one looks, tastes, and feels incredible on the palate. Their careful fine-tuning of each component translates into their brews, making each one a piece of art. Beer is 90 to 95% water, why not enhance the main ingredient?