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Beer out of water

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Talk about keeping the brewing process liquid: Some brewers are replacing plain H2O with more flavorful fluids.

Earlier this year, Right Brain brewer Nick Panchame scored 500 gallons of pricey fresh-squeezed, unpasteurized Balaton cherry juice from a local Michigan farmer. The guy just happened to have a surplus—and likely knew about Panchame’s thing for cherry beers.

Right Brain’s beloved summer seasonal is Cherry Pie Whole, an amber ale made with 80 cherry pies. But once Panchame got his hands on that juice, he vowed to brew a different kind of cherry beer: He would eschew water entirely, and use the juice as the beer’s only liquid.

Water is serious business in brewing; as beer’s unsung base ingredient, it affects mouthfeel and flavor. Alaskan Brewing touts its glacier-fed source; Firestone Walker painstakingly treats its supply to mimic the water in Burton-on-Trent, England, the birthplace of pale ale.

Omitting water caused Panchame some headaches (tweaking the liquid’s pH level to promote sugar conversion; transferring the viscous beverage to the finishing tank), but the experiment paid off. The 100 percent Balaton juice brew, dubbed TC Cherry Mash, emerged with tart acidity akin to a Berliner weisse and a round, cooked cherry flavor. Right Brain released it in July, just in time for the National Cherry Festival, held annually in its hometown of Traverse City, Mich.

Still, it wasn’t the first time a brewer has forgone water. Panchame was inspired by traditional sap beer, a centuries-old New England style based on late-season maple sap runnings. The style was largely forgotten until Lawson’s Finest Liquids in Vermont brewed Maple Tripple in 2008, which has since claimed two World Beer Cup medals. And rather than steeping beer on coffee beans or pouring brewed coffee into stout, Matt Johnson of Arizona’s Cartel Brewery ditches water and brews his Fuktonah Coffee and Donuts beer (a doughnut-infused brew returning this winter) with cold-pressed coffee from Cartel’s sister roastery.

How viable is turning off the faucet? Lawson’s and Cartel have relatively easy access to syrup and coffee, but another TC Cherry Mash beer isn’t in Right Brain’s future.

“Brewing is expensive as it is, but then you take water, which is practically free, and replace it with something that costs more?” Not a good business plan, Panchame admits. But for breweries vying for attention, throwing the traditional beer out with the brewing water might just be worth the risk.


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