Water, Water Everywhere
What water is doing to your beverages and equipment—and how best to treat it.
So you’re ramping up your beverage offer. Got yourself a bank of state-of-the-art coffee brewers, some new cappuccino machines, a 24-head soda fountain with two types of ice. You launched a new coffee menu with a proprietary brew and even a Fair Trade option.
So what’d you do to treat your water? Oh, nothing? Well, good luck with those new offerings; you’ll be dealing with inefficient equipment and funky tastes in no time.
John Notte, coffee and fountain category manager for Sheetz, noticed a change in the coffee in stores near the company’s Altoona, Pa., headquarters. He called the city’s water treatment office and, sure enough, he found out there had been a drop in mineral content. “He started laughing: ‘Of all the things we’ve done, I never thought I’d get a call saying Sheetz coffee tastes different,’ ” Notte says.
Whether it’s in a recipe or a coffee machine, water is a critical ingredient in all consumables. Just as you wouldn’t use subpar beans in your brew or syrup in your soda, the water flowing into your stores should be treated for optimal performance.
But there’s a lot of science involved in a glass of water—let alone the process of treating it. Before determining what treatment system your stores need, understand what’s happening when the water starts to flow.
A Look Under the Hood
For c-stores, water treatment is most crucial to the insides of coffee, iced tea, fountain and ice machines, as well as steam ovens, for those who use them. But water affects each machine and product differently.
Flavor is an important factor, largely affected by the characteristics of a city or region’s water supply. Meanwhile, temperature—in both freezing and heating the water—can affect what that water to the inside of a piece of equipment, causing heating inefficiencies and equipment breakdown.
- Fountain: Because you aren’t heating or freezing the water in a fountain machine, the biggest concern here is taste, caused by dirt and sediment as well as any chemicals added at the water-treatment plant to make the water safe to drink.
“Commonly found chemicals in water, chlorine and/or chloramines, can negatively impact the taste of the finished product,” says Daniel Schmidt, business development manager for the VIZION water-treatment brand from A.J. Antunes & Co., Carol Stream, Ill. “In some cases, high levels of certain chemicals can also damage or corrode equipment.”
Chlorine and other elements can also cause poor carbonation, making the beverage go flat.
- Coffee: Three issues affect coffee quality and machine efficiency. When it comes to taste, it’s all about the mineral content of the water. If your water supply is very high in mineral content, not enough oil will be extracted from the grounds, resulting in weak or flat flavor. Low mineral content results in too much extraction. The result: a bitter, oily brew.
“You have to have that balance between too little and too much mineral,” says Roy Parker, global senior marketing manager, foodservice, for Pentair Process Technologies, Hanover Park, Ill., which manufactures the Everpure water treatment brand.
Chlorine is also an issue for coffee. Most water-treatment facilities use chlorine, which bonds with the organics in the water to create that swimming-pool smell—not a particularly favorable flavor pairing with a customer’s French vanilla creamer.
And then there’s scale, the biggest culprit, which occurs when the water is heated and “dissolved hardness minerals in the water come out of suspension,” explains Schmidt. “The minerals attach to heating elements inside of boilers or pipes/lines and negatively affect the efficiency of heating elements and potentially restrict water flow.”
However, those hardness minerals are also an important contributor to the taste of the coffee. “If all hardness minerals are removed, the coffee would taste astringent,” says Schmidt. “As a result, we need to have a ‘healthy’ balance of hardness minerals in the water.” The industry standard, he says, is three to six grains per gallon.
- Iced Tea: Whether you’re brewing iced tea or using a concentrate will determine the effects of water on the final product. Regardless, “because tea doesn’t have as strong a flavor and color as coffee … it’s even more susceptible to changes in flavor,” says Parker.
Brewed tea faces pitfalls similar to those of coffee: scale buildup due to heating. Tea’s transparency also makes it prone to the cloudiness imparted by that pesky hardness mineral, calcium magnesium. When heated, calcium magnesium bonds with the organics and creates a cloudy, dark color, says Parker.
Tea that comes from concentrate doesn’t face the issues of cloudiness or scale buildup. But, as with fountain drinks, the taste can be affected by chlorine, chloramines and organics in the water.
- Ice Machines: The sheer amount of water flowing through an ice machine is what causes issues for the pieces inside. For traditional cuber machines, the biggest culprit is high mineral content. Like its friends in the coffee machine, the mineral content of water in an ice machine is affected by changes in temperature. It builds up on the evaporator plate (called freeze up), causing the water to stick and freeze and refreeze, making for inefficiency and misshapen ice.
- Steam Ovens: Cooking/holding equipment that involves steam is especially susceptible to bad water. “It’s taking water and converting it to steam, which means all the mineral that’s in there is going to fall out of the solution and stick somewhere, usually inside the boiler or the cavity where the food is steamed,” says Parker.
One-quarter-inch of scale buildup in a steam oven can increase energy consumption by 38%. What’s more, chlorine in the water can turn to hydrochloric acid in the heat, which will pit and destroy the components. The first sign of corrosion from chlorine is rust on the grates, which is typically made with a lesser-quality metal than the cabinet.