Kevin Pratt, head brewer at Santa Barbara Brewing Company with author Laura Sanchez stirring the mash. Photo by Fran Collin

Seasoned by the Sea

Capturing Santa Barbara’s Essence in a Glass of Beer

Capturing Santa Barbara’s Essence in a Glass of Beer

by Laura Sanchez

Water is one of nature’s most essential compounds. Two tiny hydrogen atoms hand-in-hand with oxygen form a molecule vital for all life. In solid, vapor or liquid form, it covers 70% of the planet. And each droplet reflects the specific place of its origin.

Every water source has a unique chemical profile—a fluid fingerprint of sorts. As it flows over rocks and earth, water gathers minerals and trace ions like chloride, sulfate, sodium and magnesium. This unique assortment of minerals lends it a flavor particular to its geographical surroundings. If soils are calcareous, water collects calcium. If they are iron-rich, it accumulates iron. And when water is added to other consumables, these minerals directly influence flavor.

Beer is 90% water. Water’s ions and minerals naturally season it with sweetness, bitterness, richness and texture. They also affect the pH and the way enzymes break down the starches in grain during the fermentation process. Not surprisingly, beer made with local water tastes like the place that it’s from.

“Water has historically been the one ingredient that brewers couldn’t import. Because of this, it really defined beer styles,” explained Kevin Pratt, head brewer at Santa Barbara Brewing Co. In fact, two cities in England, Burton-on-Trent and London, made very different beer styles—India Pale Ale and Porter—simply because of the minerals in their water.

“Beer is best drunk local, close to the source. For a long time, if you wanted a particular beer, you had to travel to the place where it was made. We’re getting back to that in America—really trying to understand the essence of an area and put that in beer. It’s the new way of brewing. Beer can capture a sense of place.” Santa Barbara Brewing Co. uses water as it comes out of the tap. Like many seaside communities, our water is very hard with high mineral levels. These minerals can supply yeast with nutrients and enhance flavors.

“We run it through a charcoal filter but that’s really it,” Kevin said. “We’ve adapted our beer recipes to work with the local water’s mineral content because we want our beer to taste like Santa Barbara.”

AmiGose del Mar

“What exactly does Santa Barbara taste like?” Kevin and I wondered one afternoon over a pint. If you were to translate the geography to liquid, what scents would it breathe? What flavors would capture Santa Barbara’s essence?

As we contemplated the mountains and ocean influence, Kevin suggested a salt-enhanced beer with a wine-like flavor. “We’re between wine country and the ocean,” he said, “so why not?” It seemed like the perfect way to portray Santa Barbara. So we decided to brew a Gose-style beer, seasoned with water from the Pacific Ocean.

Gose (pronounced GOSE-uh) is a tart, refreshingly complex beer style originally produced in Goslar, Germany. Nearby salt and mineral mines lend the local river and ground water high sodium levels. As a result, the local beer tastes slightly salty, balanced by lemony acidity and delicate effervescence. It was the perfect fluid medium to express Santa Barbara’s earthy elegance and sunny, seaside charm.

So on a cool June morning Kevin and I waded into the foaming breakers off of Padaro Beach with buckets. We gathered 10 gallons of sea water and carefully eliminated the sea weed and sand. Later, we transported the saltwater to the brewery and tested it for impurities. Our results showed that it was clean and petroleum-free.

The following morning we began brewing at 4:30am. Santa Barbara Brewing Co. glowed in the crepuscular light, emanating oatmealy steam and lively music. Assistant brewer Gavin Cook lined up our ingredients—tubs of grain—and outlined our process while I familiarized myself with the equipment.

As a novice home brewer, working on commercial equipment meant a dramatic change of scale. Rather than grams and ounces of ingredients, we were working with pounds. Instead of a pot on the stove, we were boiling in a tank-sized kettle. It was like cooking for 300 when you’re accustomed to dinner for two.

Following a recipe that Kevin developed, we dumped heaping bucketfuls of grain into the copper masher—375 pounds of white wheat, some Vienna malt and pale malt as well as some rice hulls for natural filtration. We added water and allowed the mash to convert the grain’s starches to sugars that the yeast could consume as the beer fermented.

Salt water can inhibit the enzymes needed for this conversion so we waited until all of the ingredients were well-incorporated before adding in one bucketful—just enough to make it salt-tinged. For complexity we spiced it with some black pepper and coriander seeds. Then we let it all boil together to concentrate the flavors.

As the wort chilled, we tasted the sweet/salty liquid and mixed it with Scotch for a traditional brewer’s toast. It was time to get the microbial party started so we added a German lager yeast. Soon the wort began to bubble. It was alive and exhaling carbon dioxide as it fermented for the next 15 days.

When we finally tasted our brew, it was refreshing and complex with lemony tartness, layered minerality and a kiss of sea salt.

As it warmed in the glass, it smelled vaguely of honeycomb and orange blossoms. It encapsulated summer in Santa Barbara—the sun and salt air. We grinned our faces off.

Clean Water

As I correlated the mineral flavors in my sip of beer with the ocean water my eyes widened in astonishment. I could taste the palate-rounding effects of sodium molecules. I detected the stoney presence of minerals and the textures of tiny ions. It was illuminating. Suddenly I understood every brewer’s obsession with water. Beer’s transparency reveals each of water’s fluid features, making clean water essential.

Kevin explained that, under the Safe Drinking Water Act, water has to be purified before it enters public drinking systems. Chemicals are added to kill microbes, which brewers have to filter out. And when contaminants are removed, so are minerals integral to flavor. Source water that requires less treatment means that brewers have to do less to adjust water.

In Santa Barbara County, chemicals from offshore oil drilling, pesticides and stormwater runoff present threats to our water quality. So I spoke to the Environmental Defense Center about these issues and their efforts to protect local water quality through legal channels.

“Water overlaps all facets of our work, from coastal and ocean resources management to human and environmental health, and open space and wildlife preservation,” explains staff attorney Maggie Hall. “Offshore fracking and acidizing, as well as the discharge of harmful chemicals from industrial sources are of particular concern.” Along with their education and advocacy efforts, the public interest environmental law firm works to establish legal protections and accountability standards with government and individual companies. In addition, their partner groups like Santa Barbara ChannelKeeper continually sample and report on water quality.

After the release of our salt-tinged beer, Santa Barbara Brewing Co. offered to donate a keg of it to the Environmental Defense Center’s fund-raising events. The beer’s name AmiGose del Mar (“friends of the ocean”) alludes to this partnership as well as the small conservation efforts that each of us can make to protect the future of our water and our beer.

Besides sculpting the folds and foothills of our geography, water defines Santa Barbara. It inspires how we live and play. It determines our culture and influences our tastes. And as it quenches our thirst, it fills us with wonder. For every droplet is a prismatic little package that contains the essence of our area.

We drink it in.

Laura Sanchez is a Santa Barbara-based writer with a penchant for all things delicious. Her work appears in a variety of print and online publications.

Categories Fall 2014 Featured Read