Pilsner — Bohemian Style


Pilsner is the root of what most people think of when they think of beer.  Brewed originally in the town of Plzen in Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic), this is a relatively younger style of beer, only being around for about 170 years.   According to , the first Pilsner was unveiled in October 1842.  What was so revolutionary about this was it was a clear, light golden color.  Prior to this, most beers were darker, because the grain could not be as carefully kilned to dry it out after malting, and it would darken in the process.  The English, using two of the signature ingredients of the industrial revolution, coal and steel,  figured out how to make better malt kilns.  This allowed for lighter colored malts.  These malts would actually produce more sugar pound for pound then the old “brown” malts, and were quickly seized upon by English brewers to get the same strength of alcohol in beer with less grain.  Taking this even further, the maltsters of Bohemia were able to produce lighter colored malts then even the English, and thus pilsner malt was born.  A very distinct, spicy, floral hop from the town of Zatac,  which the German’s call Saaz, were used in the beer.  Combined with a clean lager yeast and super soft water, you have the classic Bohemian Pilsner.  Pilsner Urquell is probably the best know version of this beer in the world.  From Bohemia, the beer was quickly copied by the Germans.  However, the German’s struggled with duplicating this, because their water was too hard in many cases.  This lead to problems with mashing the grain, and the hop character, changing the end product.  In the end, what have become classic German styles of beer, and , were attempts to copy this beer.

Of course, the German immigrants to the US liked these lighter colored, clean tasting lagers, and since most of the brewing in the United States was originally done by brewers trained in Germany or by Germans, Pilsner style beers were a mainstay.  Using local ingredients (ie corn and rice) as cheaper sources of sugar for the beers, these became lighter and lighter in color, until they became the insipid yellow stuff we know today from the likes of Miller, AB, and Coors.  Slightly richer, maltier versions of these are brewed  in Canada, notably by Molson and my personal go-to beer in college, Labatt’s.

However, when you try a Czech Pilsner, you will first notice that hops are not an afterthought, they are right up front.  You can smell them on the nose, taste them as the beer coats your mouth, and the refreshing, cleansing bitter aftertaste keeps you coming back for more.  However, what I think separates the Czech versions I have had from everyone else is the maltiness and the body.  You can taste and feel the malt in there.  That is the key, and to accomplish that, they use a mashing system called decoction.

Beer has been brewed for thousands of years.  .  So, how did you make beer, where the grain needs to be mixed with water at fairly specific temperatures and allowed to sit for certain periods of time, when you could not tell what the temperature really was?  . In this process water and grain was mixed.  Then about 1/3 of the grain was strained out, and boiled in another kettle, and put back into the first pot and mixed.  This raised the temperature, and then about 1/3 more of the grain was taken out, boiled, and tossed back in.  This process gets you into the proper temperature ranges for conversion of starch to sugar by the malt enzymes without really knowing what the temperature is.  It also helps to break down the starches in grains that were probably not very well malted, so they are easier to convert.  As an added bonus, it creates a deeper, maltier, flavor as the grain is boiled, and the heat produces more flavor compounds.

Brewing good pilsners is tough.  There is really nothing to hide behind, the beer is very stripped down.  There are no roasted or dark crystal malts with their strong flavors.  Yeast esters, which I usually love, are a bad thing in this beer.  These beers are about letting the pilsner malt and the Saaz hops shine, and otherwise get the hell out of the way.  They are the crystallization of all the techniques and skills developed in modern brewers to create a clear, light colored, clean beer, and thus is the antithesis of what I have been striving to do lately.  Also, I tried one once in college, and it was a disaster of a beer.  So, I had to give this another go.

Modern malted grains don’t really need decoction to help break down the starch.  Thermometers let me hit the temperatures I need for the starch to sugar conversion process.  However, it never exposes the grain to the high heat of the boiling pot, and I think that is part of the key for a great Pilsner. I had decoction mashed once before, and that was for my second version of a Lambic, which is a completely different beast, so I decided to do it with this beer, but in a more classic manner.  So, after boring everyone, here is my recipe and how I brewed it.

9.00 lb       Pilsner (2 Row) Ger (2.0 SRM)             Grain        97.30 %
0.25 lb       Caramel/Crystal Malt – 10L (10.0 SRM)     Grain        2.70 %
1.50 oz       Saaz  [3.80 %]  (60 min)         Hops         18.4 IBU
1.00 oz       Saaz  [3.80 %]  (30 min)         Hops         9.4 IBU
1.00 oz       Saaz  [3.80 %]  (15 min)         Hops         6.1 IBU
1.00 oz       Saaz  [3.80 %]  (5 min)          Hops         2.4 IBU
0.50 tsp      wyeast yeast nutrient (Boil 15.0 min)     Misc
1.00 tbsp     PH 5.2 Stabilizer (Mash 60.0 min)         Misc
1.00 items    Whirlfloc Tablet (Boil 15.0 min)          Misc
1 Pkgs        Southern German Lager (White Labs #WLP838)Yeast-Lager

OG: 1.054, FG 1.012  ABV: 5.5%

First off, the water.  I am lucky, in that the water coming out of my tap millions of people pay for in bottles of water.  There is a very large bottled water company here in Maine, and they have long ago outstripped their natural water supply, so they truck in water from nearby communities, including mine.  My water comes from a large, local lake.  It tastes very good, is very cold (it is Maine, and yes the lake freezes over), and is very soft, almost the same as the waters of Plzen.  I just add a small amount of sodium metabisulfite (campden tablets) to my hot liquor tank, and away I go.

The yeast was harvested from my dunkel, and repitched here.  I added a pH stabilizer to my mash, because the lighter grains don’t get as acidic, and the enzymes don’t work as well if you can’t get the pH down around 5.2 to 5.4, so I hedge my bets and toss this in.  I mixed 18.5 quarts of water at 135F with my grain, and let this sit for a about 30 minutes at 122F.  I would have liked to have a shorter rest here, but I was figuring out how to heat the decoction without scorching it, so it took a bit longer.  I then took 6 quarts of grain out of the mash, and I put it in a 2 gallon pot, and slowly brought it up to a boil, stirring constantly, taking about 30 minutes.  This was then dumped back into the mash, stirred in, and I was at about 145F, a little low, but I could live with that.  I then took another 4 quarts of grain, brought that to a boil over about 30 minutes, again stirring constantly, and tossed that back in.  I was supposed to be around 156F, but I was not, it was still a little low, 152F.  So, I took out 2 more quarts, and brought that to a boil, and tossed that back in.  It got me just around 156F, and I let that sit for about 30 minutes.  I then drained the wort from the mash right into my kettle, and brought it up to a boil to stop the conversion.  I then batch sparged x 2 to get my final volume into the kettle of 8 gallons at 1.045.  This was then brought to a boil, and boiled for 30 minutes before any hops was added.  I did this because pilsner malt can leave a corn taste if a particular chemical, DMS, is not boiled off, and the longer boil time (90 vs my usual 60 min) allowed me to do that.  I then added my hops as above, and I ended up with 5.4 gallons of 1.054 wort going into the fermentor.

From here, the wort was cooled in my temperature controlled stand up freezer to 52F, and the yeast was tossed in, and allowed to ferment.  I let it go in primary fermentation for 14 days, then I took it out of the cooler, let it warm up to 60F for 2 days (ambient temperature in that part of the basement) to allow the yeast to clean up any diacetyl, and then I racked it over to a keg, and let it sit (or lager as the German’s call it) for 6 weeks at 40F.     Force carbed at 10 PSI, this gives me 2.3 volumes of carbonation.

Tasting: Pale golden color, slight haze to the beer.  The nose is Saaz hops with a soft, almost floral honey aroma.  The taste is again the Saaz, with a nice malty/grassy sweetness as a counterpoint.  The beer finishes with a nice bitter bite.  It was very clean, not much as far as esters goes.

Critique:  I am pretty happy with this.  I brought this to a friend’s house tonight for him to try.  Pilsners are his favorite style, and he happened to be drinking a Sam Adams Noble Pils when I got there, so we had an improptu tasting.  Mine is a bit darker then the noble pils, and had a more floral note to the nose, not as spicy as the Sam Adams.  Mine also had a much bigger malt profile.  Ok, decoction mashing is a pain, but my first impression is it really helps boost the malt profile.   Overall, I really like this beer, and will likely make this again in the future.

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