Water is the most important ingredient in the food and beverage industry. Nearly every chef on the planet takes for granted the easy access and availability of potable, safe, high-quality drinking water. The ability to turn a knob and have piping hot, clean, safe water is undeniably the most important – yet under-appreciated – aspect of any food / beverage program.

beer microbes

Used with permission for modification.
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sackton/7299690974

What’s truly amazing about the water we take for granted is just how much incessant yet completely unnoticed work goes into the monitoring, filtering, and maintenance of water systems. With the modern city becoming the model for modern civilization (ever since the Industrial Revolution) one only needs look at public health scares and/or natural disasters, such as the cryptosporidium outbreak right here in Milwaukee in 1993, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and Fukushima, or the recent tragedy in Flint, Michigan to get a sobering realization of the power and importance of water between mother nature and mankind.

Water is essential for life – and for beer! And those microbes can indeed be the good, the bad, or the ugly if not managed and monitored properly in the brewing of beers. For example, just take a look at what kinds of microbiota the American Society for Microbiology reports exist in the average beer production process:

microbiota-beerTable 1. (source: http://mmbr.asm.org/content/77/2/157.full)

As introduced in the earlier post Microbe Detective Founder Trevor Ghylin published in December 2015 confirmed, there were a host of microbes living in his homebrewed Scotch Ale – but the big picture in terms of how and why this has impacted everything from culinary taste to public health is even more interesting!

First, let’s think about the culinary history of beer. If you haven’t yet read Garrett Oliver’s Oxford Companion to Beer, we recommend it – but as a quick summary, here are some of his most salient points about this beverage as distilled (if you’ll forgive the fermentation and brewing pun) from the preface alone that describe what we love so much about the flavor profile(s) and experience of consuming this popular drink:

  • Beer is also the most complex and varied of drinks.
  • Beer can taste like lemons or smoke, coffee or coconuts, bananas or bread, chillies or ginger.
  • Beer can be crisply acidic and earthy, or it can be bracingly bitter and spectacularly aromatic.
  • Because beer can taste like almost anything, it brings superior talents to the dinner table.
  • Beer can evince a mere prickle of carbonation or flourish on the palate into a fine mousse. It can be enjoyed days after it was brewed or emerge from a bottle more than a century later and produce rapturous delight.
  • Beer does not resemble wine so much as it resembles music.
  • Beer predates human civilization and may well have had a hand in creating it.

Yes, you read that correctly – beer predates civilization and may well have had a hand in creating it. If you’ve seen the wildly popular Discovery Channel documentary How Beer Saved the World, you might remember the story of how beer didn’t just impact but actually shaped human civilization. And the reasons for this hinge on not only terroir but also the history of human consumption of microbes in water. The documentary is fun to watch, clever in its presentation, and covers a lot of ground. We’d certainly recommend it, but want to point out one major point as presented by Dr. Charlie Bamforth of the University of California-Davis, who highlights the relationship between the unsafe, unreliable, inconvenient nature of water as one of the many reasons why beer and other fermented beverages became staples in ancient and European cuisines. In fact, fermented beverages were safer and more reliable staples for human consumption, resulting in a lifesaving impact on mankind for millennia since its accidental discovery in the Mesopotamian era.

Beer has had an impact on agriculture, architecture, religious communities, revolution and warfare, settling and conquest, the Industrial Revolution, the Technical Revolution, the development of refrigeration, the development of pasteurization, art and song, and the development of medical advances and antibiotics. As Garrett Oliver writes, “Beer is a thing we think we know, yet right below the surface, lies a fascinating world of flavor aroma, art, and science. It is a world many of us are now rediscovering, as we seek to reconnect with our food and drink.”

In its simplest terms, beer is composed of four things: water, yeast, malt, and hops – and the foams or head serve as a welcome fifth. You might think of these elements in the following way:

  • water is the canvas (an often underappreciated canvas, unless you’re working with Japanese chefs, fine tea and coffee houses, and brewmasters);
  • yeast is the local, buttery, and alcohol-inducing element that celebrates (through its harvesting and culture) the local terroir;
  • malt is the essence of farming (creating the experience of warmth, sweetness, and hearth in a glass);
  • hops are the gatekeepers (keeping tabs on potentially bad microbes, while letting consumers know of the aroma and bitterness lying in wait);
  • while the protein-based foams highlight the aromatics, the essential oils of the foam, and seek to provide a balance between the flavor and the chemistry at work.

In terms of the technical aspects of production, and their impact on microbial science and water consumption as evidenced within the manufacturing of beer, two of the major contributors to the overall quality of the finished product are:

  1. the hardness of the available water, and
  2. the local flora living within the water.

The boiling process is an important step of managing whatever local flora exists naturally in available water, but one can’t overlook the fact that an excessively dirty or polluted water supply won’t be overcome by boiling, as some of the toxins created by micro organisms are not easily destroyed by boiling water (if the water has not been sufficiently filtered prior to boiling).

For the most part, humans can safely drink properly filtered and boiled water, as a healthy and properly functioning stomach / intestinal tract are both able to handle tiny amounts of these microbes, but storing fermenting concoctions for months at a time that are overrun by “bad” microbes is not necessarily the smartest plan for long-term health. (Home-brewers, take note!)

In addition to home-brewing, we might say a word or two about micro-brewing and current trends in production and culinary pairings, as well. The increasing accessibility to quality aromatic hops – instead of just focusing on a product that provides bitterness to the classic American Lagers – has opened many avenues for new quality craft beers out of micro-breweries / craft breweries. This new influx of very high quality ales has led to many modern chefs choosing to pair dishes with beers, and not just the traditional “red & white” dogma that’s existed in fine dining for hundreds of years.

True, many old Germanic feasts featured ales around the table, but just as many of those gatherings can’t quite be considered “fine dining,” there was a stereotype surrounding beer that it was meant to be drunk as a sort of party / festival beverage. Now some of the great beers are just as cherished and sought after as some of the best products leaving Burgundy / Rhone of France. Likewise, as Garrett Oliver reminds us, “many of beer’s most fascinating aspects are scattered throughout professional journals or textbooks, or are passed down in families over generations, hidden behind brewery walls, or, especially if it concerns craft brewing, barely written about at all… In this aspect, brewing is much like cooking – ingredients and cultural influences may come from many sources.”

Perhaps the best summary statement we can provide about the impact of water, beer, and the flora (intended and unintended) within is to share this much: beer and water are inextricably linked, central to the development of history, and the care, study, and attention paid to both are among the things about which Milwaukee can be very proud.

For further reading and study, we would recommend the following:


Bamforth, Charlie. “The Microbiology of Malting and Brewing.” Asm.org. American Society of Microbiology, 1 June 2013. Web.

Hieronymus, Stan. For the Love of Hops: The Practical Guide to Aroma, Bitterness, and the
Culture of Hops. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

How Beer Saved the World. Discovery Channel, 2011. DVD.

Mallett, John. Malt: A Practical Guide from Field to Brewhouse. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Myhrvold, Nathan, Chris Young, Maxime Bilet, and Ryan Matthew. Smith. Modernist Cuisine:
The Art and Science of Cooking. Bellevue, WA: Cooking Lab, 2011. Print.

Oliver, Garrett. The Oxford Companion to Beer. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.

Palmer, John J., and Colin Kaminski. Water: A Comprehensive Guide for Brewers. Boulder,
CO: Brewers Publications, 2013. Print.

Palmer, John J. How to Brew: Everything You Need to Know to Brew Beer Right the First
Time. Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications, 2006. Print.

White, Chris, and Jamil Zainasheff. Yeast: The Practical Guide to Beer Fermentation. Boulder,
CO: Brewers Publications, 2010. Print.

Dashi and Umami: The Heart of Japanese Cuisine. London: Cross Media, 2009. Print.