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Do Water Profiles Make A Difference?

Part three of our water profile series looks at the effects of sulphate:chloride in an English Bitter. Part 1 explains the concept and we take a sniff and taste of an American IPA; Part 2 changed it up slightly and we went dark, malty and hoppy with an American stout. Will we see similar results from either, or somewhere in between? Read on to find out!

English Bitter

Once again, we’re going semi blind into this one, so we decided to use the same method as we did for the stout. After a quick chat about the recipe, we did our usual list of descriptors we expected to get, and there were no surprises here. The we open up both beers and try to determine which one is which.


This English bitter was a fairly simple grist, covering base, toasted and crystal malts with a decent hop hit for bitterness and flavour.

Pale malt 86%; Biscuit malt 7%; Medium crystal 6%; Black malt 1%
Fuggles @ 60 & 30 minutes; Olicana @ 30, 10 and 0 minutes for a total of 39 IBU.
Yeast was Lallemand London ESB, mashed at 65oC. OG 1.046


CharacterSulphate (S:C=3:1)Chloride (S:C=1:3)
BitternessAssertive, harsherLess lingering
FlavourLess difference between themSweeter, muted hops, more caramel
MouthfeelRounder and fuller
FinishDrier, but high FG might make less differenceAccentuated sweetness

Initial Impression

Slightly more tilted one way than on the stout, there was a 3/1 split among the four blind tasters. Reasons given were:

  • Had similar flavour characteristics to the stout comparison; fuller body for chloride; some roast in sulphate
  • More hop aroma and higher bitterness for sulphate; Chloride more muted, spicy, malty and rounded
  • Sharper and thinner for sulphate; Sweeter malt and smoother mouthfeel for chloride
  • Higher toffee and caramel in chloride; bitterness and mouthfeel about the same; more hop flavour in sulphate

I was absolutely convinced that one beer had a small roasty malt finish, whereas the other had much more hop flavour and aroma. Going back to the stout comparison, this was true of sulphate being more roasty (to my palate). I was really hoping to be correct, as I was also the odd one out of the four tasters. It turned out I was wrong, but that just made this experiment even more interesting. Ignoring the style difference, to me the bitters were very close in character to the stouts (one of which I brewed,) but it seems that has probably much more to do with brewing process than the effect of water profile. Disappointing, as we might otherwise have been able to draw something more meaningful from this process.


While we had many different opinions about expectations and initial impressions, I think we came to the agreement that paler beers are potentially more affected by water profile than darker, richer beers. Simple grists and light flavours allow the minerals to affect hop character more-so than when malts are taking the focus away. Impressions on mouthfeel were somewhat 50/50. That said, we had 75% correct response for which beer was which for the bitter, compared to 50% on both the IPA and stout.

Discussing where we could go next, we talked about repeating it with more styles. For this, we tried to get beers with a little of everything in each – some maltiness, plenty of hops and a decent level of bitterness – but maybe that was the wrong approach. Picking different hoppy styles as a comparison, and then a separate comparison for more malt driven styles may help reduce the fight between all of the flavours.

We also discussed not only the sulphate to chloride ratio, but also the absolute levels of each. It seems as well, that a 3:1 ratio in favour of chloride is on the extreme end of the “maltiness” scale, whereas 3:1 sulphate is only mildly more bitter. So a higher ratio of sulphate compared to chloride – 5:1 or even 7:1 – may produce improved results.

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