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Energy & Resources
Geology and Beer:
It's in the water

What's in a name?

Mineral Resource of the Month: Tantalum

It's in the water

The link between geology and wine may be strong, but according to some, the link between geology and beer is even stronger.

“The most direct influence of geology is with beer — which one rarely hears about,” says Alex Maltman, a geologist at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. “The link comes about because beer is mostly water, and for most brewers this is obtained from a local aquifer.”

Geologist John Hickenlooper, now mayor of Denver, and his partner, a geophysicist, founded the Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver in 1988. Geology and beer share a long history, rich in scientific discoveries and cultural connections. Image courtesy Wynkoop Brewing Company.

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Revival of geologic brewing methods

Today, some brewers are trying to revive old methods of brewing, some of which involve geology. An ancient process call Steinbier uses hot rocks to boil the wort. Sugars in the wort then caramelize on the stone, adding a different flavor to the beer. The ideal rock is one that can withstand thermal changes and one that will not react chemically with the acidic wort, usually granite. The method was revived in 1982 in Germany by the Franz Joseph Sailer Brewery's production of their Rauchenfels Steinbier.

Other brewers are bringing back the traditional method of laagering in caves. And still others are returning to a method called fining, which clears the haze of particulates from both beer and wine. It involves the use of bentonite clay to absorb particulates and remove them upon settling out of suspension.


The brewing process is water intensive: First, malted barley and other cereals are steeped in hot water, a process called mashing. The resulting liquid, called the wort, is then boiled with hops, the female flowers of a member of the cannabis family responsible for the bitter and aromatic components of beer. Last, the concoction is fermented with yeast.

Breweries have traditionally been located on rivers, but, contrary to popular belief, brewers typically used surface river water only for running and cooling machinery, and drew their brewing water from groundwater wells or springs. “The geology of the aquifer directly influences the pH and concentrations of certain key ions,” says Rick Saltus, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Denver, Colo. And water geochemistry, Maltman says, “affects both the brewing process — and hence the most suitable beer styles — and the taste of the beer.”

The fact that certain beer styles are best brewed from certain types of water was discovered by trial and error long before an understanding of water chemistry developed. Monks in Burton-on-Trent, Great Britain, began brewing beer in the 6th century from well water drawn from the evaporite-rich Permo-Triassic sandstones outside of town. Such hard water, high in calcium and sulfate, brings out the bitterness typical of classic ales and helps prevent spoilage, which allowed for long-distance transport, even as far as India, and the eventual rise of a new variety — the India pale ale.

In contrast, the ionically depleted, soft water of Plzen in the Czech Republic resulted in the development of the light, clean-tasting lager now known as a pilsner which became the standard for hoppy, pale, dry lagers. (A lager, from the German word lagern meaning “to store,” is a beer that goes through a period of cold storage as part of the brewing process. Before the advent of refrigeration, brewers took advantage of caves for lagering purposes.)

Porter was first developed in 18th century London from water high in calcium and carbonate and low in sulfate and chloride. It was exported to Ireland where, in 1759, a Dublin brewer named Arthur Guinness began to make a thicker, or stouter, porter from local waters with similar chemistry. His brew became known worldwide as stout.

According to Maltman, there is possibly some merit to the pub legend that Guinness brewed in Dublin tastes different than Guinness brewed in London. Although the brewing waters of both are high in carbonate, the limestone source rocks of the Irish brewing waters are Lower Carboniferous, while those of the London brew are Cretaceous Chalk, which results in slightly different levels of magnesium, chlorine, sodium and potassium and accounts for the sweeter taste of the London variety.

With the elucidation of the water chemistries behind different styles of beer and technological advances in the science of brewing (called zymurgy), pure Rocky Mountain spring water can now be made anywhere. “Now it is easy to brew any type of beer with a soft water supply because one can merely add the necessary components to water,” says consulting geologist and amateur brewer John Wakabayashi of Hayward, Calif. However, “to brew a Czech-style pilsner with a hard water supply takes a bit more doing,” he says, because adding ions is easier than removing them.

Although water chemistry strongly determines the type of beer that can be made from it, Wakabayashi says that it isn’t the most important influence on a brew’s flavor. “It is my opinion that flavor characteristics of malted barley, hop varieties and different fermentation flavor profiles imparted by different yeast strains are far greater influences in beer flavor than brewing water,” he says.

But here too, geology plays a role. Maltman says that the regions most suitable for growing barley and hops are fertile, well-drained volcanic soils. More than 70 percent of American hops are now grown on the deep alluvial soils of the Yakima and Willamette Valleys of Washington and Oregon, which are derived from the nearby Cascade volcanic uplands.

The association between geology and beer, however, goes both ways, says Saltus, who along with USGS colleague David V. Smith has suggested the topic of geology and beer for an evening session at the upcoming annual Geological Society of America meeting in Denver. “I think that it is also true that beer has had an influence on geology, and especially field geology,” Saltus says. “Geologic mapping is a type of storytelling, rooted in observation, but requiring a lot of imagination and creativity. In many cases the crafting of these stories involves the kind of free-wheeling sharing of ideas and analogies that comes about after a few beers.”

Wakabayashi agrees. “The strongest connection between geology and beer,” he says, “is the love that geologists have of beer.”

Sara Pratt
Geotimes contributing writer

What’s in a name?

For many geologists, an ice-cold Rolling Rock beer at the end of a long day in the field is a fine tradition. What better way to wind down than to drink a beer that honors a geologic setting? First made in 1939 and named in honor of the smooth-pebbled streams that flow off the Alleghany Mountains, Rolling Rock stood out for many years as one of the only brews with a geologically themed name.

Deschutes Brewery’s Obsidian Stout takes its name from the Big Obsidian Flow at the Newbury Volcano, 30 miles from where it is brewed in Bend, Ore. Image courtesy of Deschutes Brewery.

That designation, however, has begun to change in recent years with the advent of microbreweries and a new breed of beers that seem designed especially for geologists. Referencing features and rocks from the pre-Cambrian to the Holocene, these beers give geologists one more reason to get out and do field work.

Consider Lake Superior Brewing Com-pany’s Agate Amber or Hematite Stout. Made in the town of Grand Marais, Mich., they reflect the petrologic passions of the brewery’s co-founder, Karen Brzys. “I am a rockhound and decided to name the beers as well as the menu items after local rocks. I also decorated with the same theme,” Brzys says. She also coined Granite Brown, Jasper Cherry, Pudding-stone Light and Sandstone Pale Ale.

Many beer names take another tactic in honoring the interfingering of geology and people. Another Lake Superior Brewing Company, in Duluth, Minn., produces Mesabi Red, a reference to the region’s vast iron-ore deposits known as the Mesabi Iron Range. “We made a red beer that needed a name,” says head brewer Dale W. Kleinschmidt. “We generally use something locally recognizable in our brand names and this moniker fits well, since the mine dust (before taconite) usually stained everything around a very rusty red.”

Brewers also honor the tools of trade. Pick Axe Pale Ale and Pick Axe Porter come from areas famed for their mineral riches, Tommyknocker Brewery in Idaho Springs, Colo., and Fox, Alaska, respectively. Unfortunately, no brewer has created a Brunton Bitter, Estwing Export or Hastings Triplet Hefeweizen.

Most lithic quaffs, however, simply reflect the landscape where they originate. Obsidian Stout, from Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Ore., refers to the 1,300-year-old Big Obsidian Flow at the Newberry Volcano, 30 miles south of Bend. And Balcones Fault Red Granite and Balcones Fault Pale Malt come from a Miocene-age normal fault that cuts across the Austin-San Antonio region.

Other petrobrews simply derive their name from qualities that any geologist can appreciate. “We are right on the beach, so a little dark humor plays in to the name as well. Dark humor, dark beer,” says Darron Welch, head brewer at Pelican Pub & Brewery in Pacific City, Ore. He claims that the taste of his Tsunami Stout “will bowl you over.”

Bill Millar also embraces this concept at the San Andreas Brewing Company, in Hollister, Calif., the convergence zone of the San Andreas, Hayward and Calaveras faults. “We attract a few geologists with the names, but I mostly do it because it’s fun,” he says. His brewery produces Aftershock Wheat, Seismic Ale, Earthquake Pale Ale and Earthquake Porter.

Perhaps most fitting is the Oktoberquake brew, which came in handy for the Oct. 17, 1989, Loma Prieta earthquake, when the San Andreas made its biggest move since 1906. “We stayed open and everyone was drinking Oktoberquake,” Millar says. The beer is still available, and, of course, the faults are still moving.

David B. Williams
Geotimes contributing writer

Maltman, Alex, 2003, Wine, beer and whiskey: the role of geology. Geology Today (Blackwell), v. 19, n. 1 (January-February), p. 22-29.
Cribb, Stephen J., 1990. Beer & Rocks. Zymurgy, Fall issue. pp. 34-36.

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Mineral Resource of the Month: Tantalum

U.S. Geological Survey Tantalum Commodity Specialist Larry D. Cunningham has prepared the following information on tantalum — a specialty metal used mostly in the production of electronic components, cutting tools and superalloys.

Tantalum is a metal that is critical to the United States because of its defense-related applications in aircraft, missiles and radio communications. It is ductile, easily fabricated, highly resistant to corrosion by acids, a good conductor of heat and electricity, and has a high melting point. Tantalum’s first commercial usage was as filament material in incandescent electric lamps in the early 1900s.

Currently, more than 60 percent of total tantalum consumed is in the electronics industry, mainly in the form of tantalum metal powder used in the manufacture of tantalum capacitors. Major end uses for tantalum capacitors include automotive electronics, pagers, personal computers and portable telephones.

Alloyed with other metals, tantalum is also used in making carbide tools for metalworking equipment and in the production of superalloys for aircraft engine components. In 2003, estimated overall U.S. consumption of all tantalum materials was about 500 tons. World mine production in 2003 was about 1,230 tons.

The principal source of tantalum is a series of minerals that contain columbium (niobium), iron, manganese and tantalum oxides. There has been no significant U.S. tantalum mining since 1959. U.S. tantalum resources are of low grade, some are mineralogically complex, and most are not commercially recoverable. With no tantalum mining industry, the United States must import all its tantalum source materials for processing.

On a worldwide basis, identified resources of tantalum are considered adequate to meet projected needs. Tantalum mineral production comes mostly from mining operations in Australia, Brazil and Canada, as well as from smaller mining operations in some African countries. Australia, which is the largest producer, accounts for more than 60 percent of the world’s annual requirements for tantalum mineral concentrates. In 2003, Australia accounted for about 56 percent of total U.S. tantalum imports. Tantalum is also obtained from low- and high-grade tantalum-bearing tin slags, which are byproducts from tin smelting, principally from Asia, Australia and Brazil. However, the overall importance of these byproducts has decreased, with the exception of accumulated inventories, owing to the downsizing of the tin industry during the 1980s.

To ensure supplies of tantalum during an emergency, various tantalum materials have been purchased for the National Defense Stockpile (NDS). At year-end 2003, the NDS tantalum inventory consisted of about 628 tons of tantalum contained in tantalum materials valued at about $34 million, all of which was authorized for sale by the Defense Logistics Agency.

The price for tantalum products is affected most by events in the supply of and demand for tantalum minerals. Faced with runaway tantalum mineral prices during the late 1970s through 1980, processors were forced to pass along a large part of the price increases to end users, which had the effect of a decrease in the use of tantalum.

Because of escalating tantalum prices, consumers began to substitute alternative products, to decrease tantalum content in products and to increase recycling. In the consumer electronics sector, some circuits were redesigned, and tantalum was replaced primarily with aluminum-bearing electronic components.

Tantalum was recycled mostly from new scrap that was generated during the manufacture of tantalum-related electronic components. Recycled tantalum also comes from new and old scrap products of tantalum-containing cemented carbides and superalloys. Detailed data on the quantities of tantalum recycled in the United States in 2003 are not available, but recycled tantalum may compose as much as 20 percent of consumption. Substitutes, such as aluminum, rhenium, titanium, tungsten and zirconium, can be used in place of tantalum, but are usually used at the expense of either performance or economics.

For more information on tantalum, visit the USGS Minerals Division online.

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