Beer

Beer Sourced from the Sky

The co-owners of St. Elmo Brewing Company in Austin have started making beer from Texas rainwater

Beer flavored with water at St Elmo Brewing Co
Photo Courtesy of St. Elmo Brewing Co.

How big of a beer geek are you? Can you identify the hops used in a beer? Can you give a good guess on the yeast strain in an ale? Fullers, Chico, Ringwood? Can you take a shot at identifying the malts used?

But how about the water? There’s a guy in Dripping Springs, Texas, who has some pretty strong opinions about the water. “I’m a beer drinker,” says Richard Heinichen (pronounced the same as the iconic Dutch beer, yes). “Everyone around here gets their brewing water from the same source—Lake Travis—so to me, it all tastes similar.”

St. Elmo co-owners, Tim Bullock on the left, and Brian Winslow on the right. Photo courtesy of Heather Gallagher Company.

Heinichen has more experience with water than most people; he’s the Richard in Richard’s Rainwater, a company that sells rainwater and rainwater collection systems. Tired of the stink and slipperiness of the sulfured water from his home well, Heinichen set up a home rainwater collection system in 1994. His neighbors tasted it and wanted the same water, so, a self-confessed tinkerer, he built collectors for them. In 1998, he opened Tank Town in Dripping Springs, with 10 acres of rain-collecting rooftops and light-free storage tanks, and started harvesting the area’s average annual 32 inches of rain. Every inch of rain puts about 15,000 gallons of water in the tanks.

That mineral-free, almost pH-neutral water was what caught the imagination of Bryan Winslow and Tim Bullock, co-owners of St. Elmo Brewing Company in Austin. “Richard is an awesome guy, a unique guy. I wanted to do a beer with him for a while,” Winslow said. “Our landlord’s dad is buddies with Richard. He brought him in here, and we were like, ‘Boom, let’s do this.’ He wanted to do a pail ale. So I wrote the recipe. He brought us 600 gallons, and we heated it up and brewed it that day.”

Is it really mineral-free?

“There ain’t nothing in it but H2 and O, man,” Winslow says with a laugh. “I had it tested and there is nothing in it, it’s crazy.” He wound up adding some minerals. “You do need some minerals for fermentation, and in the mash. I shot from the hip on that one.”

The beer, called Rain, is available only in the brewery taproom; it carries an above-average rating (3.6 out of 5) on the Untappd app. Winslow plans to do more rainwater beers with Heinichen, keeping them simple, to showcase the water.

“A Bavarian helles, that’s the next one,” he says. “To be honest, it’s just fun. People do collaborations with a chef, or a peach farmer. This is a guy who’s making water, which is unique. We cherish our water here. I use as little as possible, and it’s always on our minds.”

Lew Bryson has been writing about beer and whiskey for more than 25 years and is the author of Tasting Whiskey. Find him on Twitter.

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