“I love how it sits on my tongue, coats my soft palate, and feels like it never leaves my mouth.”
There’s a new TA in town: titratable alkalinity, right there in your pint glass. In the spirit of true American innovation, some brewers have begun making beer with higher than usual pH numbers and buffering capacity. Through the use of common food additives like sodium nitrite (an alkaline salt), these new beers are both highly shelf stable and counter the acidifying effects of the average diet on the human body. Depending on the alkalizing agent used, there can be health benefits to drinking alkaline beer.
According to Wikipedia, “pH (potential of hydrogen) is a numeric scale used to specify the acidity or basicity of an aqueous solution.” Relatively fresh information in the beer world differentiates the measurement of pH from that of titratable, or total acidity (TA) with regards to mouthfeel and acid perception. Pure water is neutral, at pH 7. Above 7 is alkaline, below is acidic.
Beers with much lower pH than the standard ale or lager have become en vogue over the past few years, with breweries like Cantillon in Brussels, Hill Farmstead in Vermont, and de Garde on the Oregon coast earning cult status among beer connoisseurs. Many of the beers produced at these breweries have a pH of 1 point lower than standard beer, which hovers around pH 4.2; this may not seem like a lot, but the difference is logarithmic (similar to the Richter scale for measuring earthquakes) and represents a tenfold difference in hydrogen ion concentration. With pH slightly higher than lemon juice, acidic or “sour” beers are bright and tart, and typically incite strong reactions from fans and detractors alike. The acidity can be produced by fermentation with bacteria such as lactobacillus, pediococcus, or acetobacter. Other acidifying bacteria are present in spontaneously fermented beers like Belgian lambics. Yeast fermentation lowers pH as well, though not to such a degree.
The inspiration for alkaline beer originated last year at Base Camp Brewery in Portland. “Someone accidentally left a bit of PBW solution in the line after cleaning, and pulled a Berliner weisse through on top of that into a glass,” said co-founder Ross Putnam. “It was weird at first, but somehow it worked, kind of like the salt in a gose.” The brewers set to work experimenting with different alkalines. They tested ammonium, sodium nitrite and nitrate, baking soda, lithium carbonate, and sodium hydroxide.
“The ammonium was really weird—it was actually smelling salts, so it contributed this insane aroma that literally jolted you awake.” The lithium experiment was a mixed bag, as it left the brewers in an intoxicated and bucolic state, but with less-than-pleasant aftereffects. “At this point, it’s all trial-and-error,” said Putnam.
Word of basic beer has spread slowly through the Oregon brewing community. Denny Conn, co-author of Experimental Homebrewing and Homebrew All-Stars, has taken up the reins of experimentation. “I really don’t like sour beer, so this is right up my alley.”
Conn explained that the pH should only be raised after fermentation. “Anywhere on the hot side or where yeast is active will really hinder things… unless you can find a yeast that ferments in an alkaline environment!” He suggests making a solution with water and adding it to the keg before transferring. There may be a brief reaction as the beer hits the solution, so appropriate safety measures should be taken. “I found out the hard way not to add the solution to a full keg, and got the weirdest beer shower ever. Luckily I regained sight in my left eye. And it made my hair grow like a werewolf.”
Sodium nitrite has also been used outside of its usual habitat. The salt is normally used in meat curing applications (which puts it in the realm of fermentation) to prevent botulism and color loss (as an antioxidant). A lager with 200 ppm sodium nitrite added resulted in a mildly pink beer that taste testers said reminded them of peanuts and horseradish.
We will see if this trend grows. As an entirely new concept in beer, it may attract those drinkers who constantly seek new flavors. There is also a significant health movement focused on alkalizing the body; perhaps these beers will be touted as a beneficial beverage—drink a sour beer, then counteract the acidity with a basic beer: better than Tums!