People appear on Shark Tank, the popular ABC reality show, to pitch grand ideas. In front of five high-profile, celebrity investors, participants present inventions, concepts, and designs of varying degrees of ingenuity, in the hope that one of the investors—or “sharks,” to use the show’s parlance—will be convinced to finance their ambitions. The show is a gimmick, but it can also be a game-changer.
Last year, Taylor Minor and Charles Nick approached the sharks with the kind of idea whose wonkiness might initially belie its effectiveness. But thanks in part to the well-respected industry professionals they brought on to demonstrate their product, Minor and Nick walked away with an offer: a $100,000 investment for a 25% stake in the business.
What was the business? It wasn’t a new gadget. It wasn’t a revolutionary app. It was a small pouch, no bigger than a packet of sugar, called Third Wave Water: a discreet but transformative innovation that makes your water perfect for brewing coffee.
Water is a funny thing—its ubiquity makes it easy to forget. And yet, it’s by far the largest part of what you consume when you drink coffee or beer. (Typically, it makes up 90-95% of a beer, and 98% of a cup of coffee.) In my last Uppers & Downers missive, we examined the very particular process of lactic acid fermentation. This time, we’re looking at an element that all coffees and beers engage with, but few pay much attention to.
If you watch the Shark Tank episode that features Minor and Nick, the sharks’ initial reluctance is clear: why would anyone go through the pain of making their own water prior to brewing coffee? But then Minor and Nick call on 2017 U.S. Brewers Cup champion Dylan Siemens to prepare coffee for the panel. One cup is brewed with standard tap water, and the other is brewed with Third Wave Water—and the sharks instantaneously note the difference.
“Fortunately, we were brewing in L.A., which has terrible water,” jokes Minor as he recalls the experience. (In the end, the deal didn’t work out, which is a common off-screen occurrence.) Minor and Nick teamed up after Nick, who owns a coffee subscription service called The Wright Cup in Dayton, Ohio, was looking to add more local roasters to his roster. Minor, owner of Telemetry Roasters in nearby Cedarville, and Nick both shared a passion for science, and would often geek out about the relationship between water and coffee.
“Charles asked if I could condense his newly-built cafe system’s water profile for his coffee subscribers to have the right water to brew at home and [eventually] Third Wave Water was born,” Minor shares. At the time of their Shark Tank appearance, Third Wave Water was small but well-respected—folks like Siemens and other serious coffee professionals were already using it to win coffee competitions, and its merits were clearly demonstrated during tasting experiments like the one on Shark Tank.
After the show aired, sales exploded. “We had sold 2,000 units total in the year prior, and then sold 10,000 units in the week after the episode aired,” Minor says. Today, folks all over the world use Third Wave Water to make their coffee better (Minor even gets emails from people who use Third Wave Water in their Keurigs). “A few years ago, making your own water for coffee was such a fringe idea, and now we sell 1,000 units on Amazon a week,” he says.
Minor isn’t a scientist—simply a business owner who was frustrated when he’d sell coffee with a particular flavor profile to customers, only to hear that it tasted completely different to them. “Short of sending my customers home with their own water, I couldn’t articulate exactly what was in the coffee,” he says. With that in mind, he and Nick developed Third Wave Water, which Minor likens to “adding Crystal Light to your water.” You take a gallon of distilled water, add a small powder packet, shake until it dissolves, and finish with the ideal water for brewing.
The idea behind Third Wave Water is to take water variation out of the brewing equation. Although there are a dozen other variables to consider—temperature, grind size, even the humidity level in the space you’re brewing—theoretically, by controlling for water, you could get close to making a cup of coffee that tastes the same, no matter where you brew it. Beer, on the other hand, comes to a consumer as a finished product. Given other perfect conditions, like proper refrigeration and storage, a beer made with the same water source and bottled in the same facility should taste the same in New York as it does in Los Angeles.
That doesn’t mean the water content isn’t important. “In both coffee and beer, water is frequently treated to get the best result, but also—and more so with beer—areas with distinctly high-quality water are celebrated,” says Chris Schooley, owner and operator of Troubadour Maltings in Fort Collins, Colorado.
“In Colorado, for instance, Coors has long touted the Rocky Mountain water, and this state has been a big part of the craft boom since early on, with brewers recognizing the value of that amazing run-off,” he continues. “When I moved back to Colorado, I did a lot of playing around with treated water and such, only to have the straight tap water regularly outperform any of the samples brewed with treated water.”
Coors offers a clear—pun intended—example of water’s importance. The brewery has essentially built its brand on a foundation of Rocky Mountain spring water—so much so that it has been to court multiple times over who can use the spring and how its beer is marketed. (Coors now has global plants, but Coors Banquet is still brewed exclusively in Golden, Colorado.) At one point in the early 1990s, the brewery tried to capitalize on its water source by selling Coors Rocky Mountain Sparkling Water. Although the product was discontinued after two years, a Woman’s Day reader remembered the water fondly, noting “that Coors Sparkling Water was the best sparkling water I ever bought.”
That brings us to an essential question: what exactly makes an ideal water profile?
To begin, most water contains some amount of dissolved solids, or minerals and other materials, floating around in it—it’s rare that you’ll ever drink pure water, unless you buy a bottle of it distilled. Think of Minor’s comment about the quality of water in L.A. There, the water is mostly hard, which means it has a high mineral content. Hard water can have an off-taste—including ferric or metallic notes—or an unpleasant smell.
Soft water probably sounds better, but you do need some level of…stuff…in your water for chemical processes to occur properly. If you used distilled water to shower, for example, your soap would never make bubbles—and you’d probably step out of the shower feeling slimy, as if the soap hadn’t properly rinsed off. And the reason water has stuff in it is because of what it interacts with. If you’re drinking groundwater (and most of us are), the water will pick up minerals along the way.
“Groundwater interacts with many things on its journey to the cup, including Na+, Ca2+, Mg2+, Al3+, and Si4+ [Sodium, Calcium, Magnesium, Aluminum, and Silicon],” notes Christopher H. Hendon in Water for Coffee, the book he co-wrote with UK Barista Champion Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood.
Hendon lays out an incredibly thorough, and complex, breakdown of how water chemistry affects coffee brewing, which Colonna-Dashwood describes in simpler terms: “We show that in water, magnesium and calcium are of the most concern with regard to extraction as they both have the ability to help extract more coffee compounds into the water,” he notes.
For those ready to take a deep dive, the folks at Third Wave Water have developed this recipe for ideal coffee extraction: “~95 mg/l Magnesium (Magnesium Sulfate), ~45 mg/l Calcium (Calcium Citrate), ~10 mg/l Sodium (Sodium Chloride), ~0 Alkalinity (although there is some acidic buffering from the citric acid), ~6.6 PH (you may find it difficult to measure the PH from the lack of bicarbonate),” Minor says.
Essentially, the makeup of your water will help determine which flavors you pull out of a particular product, and water conditions change based on where you’re from and where your water is sourced. With Third Wave Water, Minor and Nick created an “ideal” mineral composition for coffee brewing that is meant to override any given municipality’s local water supply.
“Ideal” is the operative word, though. Ultimately, the mineral composition they’ve designed is meant to provide uniformity, and should work with most beans and roasts. Minor can now send his coffee cross-country, sneak a packet of Third Wave Water into the package, and have the resulting cups adhere to his expectations and tasting notes. (They recently developed an espresso profile—another big topic we’ll explore in a future U&D—which is similar to the classic profile but designed to minimize the buildup of scale in espresso machines.)
Today, water is often understood as an internal question that is talked about within the confines of a brewery; the conversation ends as soon as the beer is packaged and sent to consumers as a finished product. However, that doesn’t mean water is any less essential in the beer-brewing process.
Most of the history of beer brewing can be described as making due with what nature has provided. “There is so much ink spilled on local water sources compelling certain beers styles to arise,” says Stephen Bossu, head brewer for Hopewell Brewing Company in Chicago, Illinois. In England, where the water is notoriously hard, dark Stouts and Brown Ales color their brewing traditions, whereas in Germany, lighter beers like Pilsners and softer water go hand in hand.
Hardness and softness affect the pH of the water. Think of the interaction of water and mash as a science experiment—one where you’re trying to find the perfect pH. Beers with too high of a pH will taste dull. John Palmer in Beer & Brewing suggests a DIY experiment by adding baking soda to tomato juice, which will raise the pH and lower the acidity. “Low beer pH attenuates the beer flavors, and the beer will lose complexity.”
The task for beer makers is to find the perfect pH, which depends on how water and mash want to behave. High pH water is good for extracting flavor from dark-roasted grains, and the grains will also lower the pH of the resulting beer (the same is true of coffee), while low pH water is good for lighter beers. Using hard water for light beers will make them taste astringent.
Like coffee, effective beer brewing depends on the presence of key minerals. “The Ca2+ [Calcium] ion plays an important role in brewing,” Bossu says. “It interacts with phosphates from malt to lower pH in brewing, a positive for fermentation and flavor. It is also key to a clean and healthy fermentation when we are brewing clean and bright beers. In short, without Ca2+ we would have irregular and undesirable fermentations.” Bossu also cites CaCl [Calcium chloride], which “is said to provide a palate fullness and mellowness, and CaSO4 [Calcium sulfate] a pleasant dryness that accentuates hops.”
Bossu counts his lucky stars that he’s brewing in Chicago, where water, which is pulled from Lake Michigan “is pretty much a blank slate.” In some cities, like Memphis, the water is extremely soft. In other cities, like Los Angeles, the water is a lot harder. There are numerous ways to circumvent this, and create a bespoke water profile. One technique is reverse osmosis: a process that involves stripping minerals and other particles from water before adding back the ones you want. Both coffee shops and breweries also frequently install extensive water filtration systems meant to remove unwanted mineral content and produce a pleasant and predictable end product.
Many brewers and coffee folks, however, are also choosing to respect and work with natural water sources. “For me, I don’t want my beers to be brewed to style using a water profile that is redundant to the origin of that style, but to brew beers using unique origins and mineral profiles,” says Nile Zacherle, owner and brewer of Mad Fritz Beer in St. Helena, California. On Mad Fritz’s bottles, Zacherle prints a full ingredient list, including his local spring water.
“Let the naturally occurring minerals do the talking,” he says.
Using natural water sources means being aware of seasonal shifts. Weather patterns, from heavy annual snowfall to rainy-season deluges, can determine how water tastes throughout the year, and keying into those changes is where beer and coffee folks begin to diverge. While coffee pros do tune into water variation, they focus mostly on the farm level, where seasonal changes can impact harvests and crop yields. It’s rare to see a roaster adjust their roast profile because it's been a particularly dry summer or a snowy winter.
Another reason to pay attention to weather is that it’s critical to sustainable farming and brewing practices. “Brewers throughout Colorado are extremely active in water conservation efforts in a way that I’ve seldom seen in coffee outside of origin,” Schooley notes.
“It’s a crucial time for the brewery and agricultural sides to be communicating more on a level of shared use, with everyone focused on how we can be stewards together around the quality and supply of our water,” he continues. “If brewers are purchasing more raw materials from local producers, and local producers are producing raw materials for local brewers, the conversation around water can be much more proactive and effective. Buying local needs to be more than just knowing where something comes from. It’s the economic and ecological impacts of working more closely with local producers where the true opportunities for positive change lie.”
Does the same focus on shared conservation efforts apply to coffee? Perhaps it can in the future. Currently, coffee folks are focused on creating a shared lexicon by ensuring that coffees can travel from one place to another and still taste delicious. Innovative products like Third Wave Water have made it possible for industry pros to discuss coffees with greater objectivity, and to trust that they’re tasting the same finished product, no matter where in the country they’re based. Likewise, roasters are beginning to understand that water can play a significant role in how coffee should be roasted.
One anecdote from Hendon and Colonna-Dashwood’s book shows why focusing on water quality is so important, and why it amounts to much more than just geeky tinkering. As the story goes, Phil & Sebastian, a well-respected coffee roastery based in Calgary, Canada, sent samples of its beans to former World Barista Champion Tim Wendelboe (who lives in Oslo, Norway). Unfortunately, when Wendelboe brewed Phil & Sebastian’s coffee, the results tasted terrible.
Back in Canada, “their coffees…tasted bright, clean, and vibrant,” Colonna-Dashwood writes. “However, when their coffee cupped in Oslo, their coffees were not bright, clean, and vibrant.” The dismayed roasters asked Wendelboe to send over his local water specifications, and discovered that he used a different water profile—one with a low mineral content but a high bicarbonate concentration.
With those specifics in mind, the roasters at Phil & Sebastian adjusted their roast profiles to maximize acidity and sweetness, using water mimicking Oslo’s water conditions. These tweaks enabled their coffee to taste the way they expected it to.
Ultimately, water has an enormous impact on coffee and beer, and we’ve only just scratched the surface of the topic. Still, it’s worth trying to understand how water works and how it affects flavor—both to troubleshoot common brewing problems and to develop a more universal lexicon that moves the discussion forward.
As Colonna-Dashwood notes, “The most important outcome is that we are able to understand the water we are using and harness it to make good coffee, and have a common language that we can use when discussing our differences in results.”