If you grew up in the Northwest, you might remember the jingle for an iconic Northwest beer:
“Olympia. it’s the water. And a lot more.”
That claim may have been marketing shtick, but Medford home brewer Steven Wyatt really does believe starting with the right water is the foundation for a great beer.
“If you speak to any beer connoisseur, they will tell you their favorite beer comes from a region because of the water,” he says.
Wyatt’s father in law, Robert Coffan, is a hydrologist and devotee of the Rogue River. So a few years back, he suggested that Wyatt try brewing beer with water drawn from one of his favorite places: the headwaters of the Rogue, a remote spot on the northern edge of Crater Lake National park called Boundary Springs.
“The real definition, if somebody said something is pristine. That’s what I think the Boundary Springs headwaters of the Rogue tastes like,” Coffan says.
On a warm October day, Wyatt and Coffan set off down a poorly marked trail toward Boundary Springs as the sun peeked through the tree line. Wyatt carried a backpack full of empty plastic gallon jugs. Coffan wheeled a round five-gallon cooler — the kind you’d see at a soccer game. The goal- to carry out about fifteen gallons, enough to brew a batch or two of beer.
The trail wound through a lodge pole pine forest, passing trees that had been scratched by black bears. It dissapeared into a marsh for a while, and then paralleled the banks of the Rogue River. The headwaters look like an optical illusion, a river springing fully formed from the side of a dry forest slope. Water rushes up out of the ground and spills out from under the roots of fir trees. Most rivers begin with a faint trickle of snowmelt, but the Rogue begins as powerful spring.
“If you look at a geological map right here, this is a basalt area where the basalt ends. The underground ground water is just bursting out right here at Boundary Springs,” Coffan says.
Wyatt and Coffan filled their bottles and hiked the 2 miles back to their car, carrying about 50 pounds of water each.
So, with all the ingredients that go into beer — the hops, the grain, the yeast- does the water really matter?
“It definitely matters, what water you use. Water is 90-95 percent of the beer for most all beer, with the other percentage being alcohol,” says Larry Chase, the brewer at Standing Stone Brewing Company in Ashland.
Upstairs, carbon dioxide bubbles out of steel tanks that hold amber ale Chase brewed a couple days ago.
Chase says Standing Stone gets its water from the city of Ashland, and heats the water in an open tank to help get rid of the added chlorine.
“If somebody was to not take out any of the chlorine, you get a very phenolic — what does phenolic mean — a medicinal, Band-Aid like flavor. “
Chase has never heard of anyone hiking and packing out water to brew with, but he says that differences in water quality helped shape the history of brewing and the different styles of beer that become popular in Europe.
“Pilsner comes out of Pilzen, Czechoslovakia, and that area of the world has extremely soft water. And that soft water lent itself to really brewing beers with that very pale yellow color. Light and crisp on the palate.“
In England, the town of Burton-on-Trent had waters with a high sulfur content, which complemented the flavor of hops and helped create the town’s distinctive hoppy style of brew.
Breweries can be huge water users, Chase says, and so some microbreweries in the Northwest are trying to make water conservation part of their trademark.
Full Sail Brewery In Hood River is one of the leaders.
Jamie Emerson, Executive Brewmaster at Full Sail, says that as a large brewery operating a small town, the business has to be thoughtful about its water use. In 1999, it built its own wastewater treatment plant.
“As an industrial water user we don’t want to overwhelm the city’s wastewater treatment system, if we would do that, they would have to dump in the Columbia, and that’s not acceptable,” he says.
Full Sail has invested in a range of equipment that conserves water during the brewing process, including a Belgian mash filter that helps squeeze more water out of grain husks before they’re discarded and re-purposed as feed for dairy cattle.
“An average brewery uses between six and ten gallons of water to brew a gallon of beer. Last year we averaged about two and a half.”
Other Northwest breweries are embracing water conservation, too; Deschutes Brewery in Bend has launched a partnership with the Deschutes River Conservancy and will help buy back water rights that keep a billion extra gallons of water in the river every year.
Back in Medford, Steven Wyatt’s home brewed spring water beer is ready to taste and on tap in his garage. He used Pilsner style yeast and lots of hops, and added his own twist: quince from a tree in his father-in-law’s backyard.
“What I taste in this beer is the tart, slash sour of the quince. And then more of a grainy and then a hoppy taste to it,” he says.
It’s bright and refreshing. Just the kind of thing you might want to sip after a hike in the Cascades.
You can learn more about what makes the Rogue River special. Tune in to Oregon Field Guide for “River of the Rogues,” Thursday at 8:30 p.m. on OPB television.