Think of the great brewing cities of the world, London, Burton, Vienna, Plzeň. Each of them home to a famed type of beer, London its porter, Burton its IPA, Vienna its red lager and Plzen its Pilsner. When we look at brewing history, we look at the malt, hops and yeast that made these styles, we look at the methods employed to create the wort, we look at how long the beer spent conditioning, and then at how it was handled once it left the brewery. One thing though that I sometimes feel is overlooked is the most important ingredient in beer, water.
Whether it is hard water of London, the soft water of Plzeň or the famous sulphurous liquor of Burton, water has played a greater role in the development of beer that probably any other ingredient. As recently as the early 1890s the brewers of Munich were convinced their water would not allow them to brew a pale beer in the Pilsner style.
When I went to the new Blue Mountain Barrel House a couple of weeks ago I was talking with Taylor about the water source they have there - not a common beer lover line of conversation I am fairly sure. Taylor told me that the Barrel House water is insanely soft, on a par with the well at Devils Backbone apparently, while the well at the Blue Mountain brewpub, just a half hour drive, is quite hard.
To taste the difference between water sources, we sampled Blue Mountain's Full Nelson at the Barrel House, and again, half an hour later, at the brewpub, and the difference was very noticeable. The soft water version has a softer, gentler bitterness and hop flavour which I find very appealing, in fact I think I prefer it over the original, the Full Nelson Urquell you could say. That's not to say that the brewpub Full Nelson isn't a moreish, drinkable pale ale, just that the Barrel House version is more so.
It sometimes feels as though the only truly local thing about many beers is the water, given that malt, hops and even yeast are shipped in from around the world. While I understand the reasoning behind tampering with a water supply to recreate the waters of great brewing cities, when a brewery has access to tasty, clean water, I think it is something of a pity not to let it speak for itself.