Pilsner Urquell – decoction mash or single infusion?

It’s that time of year again when my cellar reaches optimum fermenting temperatures for lager style beers. Over the past year, I’ve become more familiar with the various styles and I can’t wait to take a stab at some of them.  I’ve researched and learned a tremendous amount since I started brewing, and along with that research comes, of course, many new beers to try.

There has also been countless hours spent talking with my father-in-law about all things beer, wine, and gardening. He is originally from the Czech Republic, and because of that, is always promoting the superb quality of the world’s only true Pilsner; Pilsner Urquell. The history of Pilsner Urquell and how it came to be is a wonderful, informative tale of brewing history. One that is too large for the scope of this post, but is touched upon in a fantastic article from Brewing Techniques titled: The History and Brewing Methods of Pilsner Urquell.

Up until this point, I’ve been brewing completely with a single infusion mash, which works for most styles of beer. (and keeps the brew day at a reasonable length) Recently I’ve become intrigued by the traditional decoction mash that is used by European brewers. Thus far, I’ve seen it as too advanced for me, but after coming across an excellent 3 part video from Braukaiser explaining in great detail the double decoction mash, (See video here) I feel I’m ready to give it a try. Every time I have a sip of the buttery golden yellow of a Pilsner Urquell at my in-laws, the more I want to discover how the heck they actually brew it.

I’m not going to pretend I know what I’m doing with a decoction mash as I’m a virgin in such territory. Braukaiser’s video is the one to watch, but I do want to learn what effect it has on the resulting beer. In order to do this, I’m going to do 2 things:

  • Compile the information I have found on how to brew a true Bohemian Pilsner (Pilsner Urquell in particular), which is the following:
  • use very soft water (I will dilute mine with distilled water)
  • use bohemian pilsner malt
  • use a triple decoction mash
  • 120 minute boil
  • use Saaz hops
  • lager for a least 40 days
  • Perform an experiment by brewing the same recipe twice. Using the same malt, hops, water, yeast and fermentation schedule, but changing the mashing style to see if I can detect the difference it may or may not make to the finished beer. I’ve heard from brewers, including the brewers from Pilsner Urquell and Budweiser Budvar, that the only way to get that rich, smooth, pilsner flavour profile is by employing a decoction mash. So let’s see what happens!

Based on the information in the Brewing Techniques article, I’ve been able to formulate this recipe:Carbonation and Storage

Pilsner Urquell (decoction mash)
Bohemian Pilsner
Type: All Grain Brewer: Hoptomology
Equipment: 7.5 Gallon Stainless Steel Pot + 5 Gallon Coleman Cooler Mash Tun
Est Original Gravity: 1.048 SG Measured Original Gravity:
Est Final Gravity: 1.015 SG Measured Final Gravity:
Estimated Alcohol by Vol: 4.4 % Actual Alcohol by Vol:
Bitterness: 40.0 IBUs Bitterness Ratio: 0.834
Est Color: 3.3 SRM Calories: 0.0 kcal/12oz
Ingredients
Ingredients

Amt Name Type # %/IBU
9 lbs 1.3 oz Pilsner (2 Row) (2.0 SRM) Grain 1 100.0 %
0.681 oz Saaz pellets [5.50 %] – First Wort 120.0 min Hop 2 17.6 IBUs
0.681 oz Saaz pellets [5.50 %] – Boil 80.0 min Hop 3 16.0 IBUs
0.681 oz Saaz pellets [5.50 %] – Boil 25.0 min Hop 4 6.4 IBUs
0.50 oz Irish Moss (Boil 15.0 mins) Fining 5
2.0 pkg SafLager West European Lager #S-23 [0.80 oz] Yeast 6
Total Grains Used: 9 lbs 1.3 oz Total Hops Used: 2.042 oz
Mash Profile
Mash Style: Decoction Mash, Triple
Brewhouse Efficiency: 78.00 %
Mash Steps

Name Description Step Temperature Step Time
Acid Rest Add 4.79 gal of water at 99.4 F 95.0 F 45 min
Protein Rest Decoct 1.61 gal of mash and boil it 127.0 F 60 min
Saccharification Decoct 1.11 gal of mash and boil it 143.0 F 15 min
Mash Out Add -0.00 gal of water and heat to 163.0 F over 10 min 163.0 F 10 min
Sparging: Fly sparge with 4.55 gal water at 168.0 F to achieve 8.00 gal
Boil Profile
Boil Size: 8.00 gal Boil Time: 120 min
End of Boil Volume: 6.00 gal Estimated pre-boil gravity: 1.035 SG
Batch Size (into fermenter): 5.50 gal Measured pre-boil Gravity:
Final Bottling Volume: 5.25 gal
Fermentation Profile
Fermentation: Lager, Single Stage
Primary Fermentation: 11.00 days (pitching yeast at 39.0 F and raising to no more than 48.0 F)
Carbonation and Storage
Carbonation Type: Keg Volumes of CO2: 2.3
Pressure/Weight: 10.10 PSI Age Beer for: 40.00 days
Keg/Bottling Temperature: 40.0 F Storage Temperature: 40.0 F
Notes
Taste Rating: 0.0 / 50
Taste Notes:
Other:
www.hoptomology.com – A little about life, a lot about beer.

Here is the recipe for the single infusion version:

Pilsner Urquell – Single Infusion Recipe

Once I have the final results in my glass, I’ll be sure to post them.

Learn more about the exciting history of the Pilsner style…
Watch The Beer Hunter Michael Jackson explore “The Bohemian Connnection”:

24 Responses to Pilsner Urquell – decoction mash or single infusion?

  1. After watching BrauKaiser’s Decoction Mash video series, I have a renewed respect for true Bohemian Pilsners produced with traditional brewing methods. All of a sudden, Urquell seems ridiculously cheap given the amount of labour required to produce the product. $2.50 well spent IMO.

    • I completely agree. And to know they were able to figure out the proper temperature rises using decoctions, before they even had thermometers, just blows me away. We have it so easy!
      Much respect to those brewers!

    • Unfortunatley I have to inform you that Pilsner Urquell since their merger into inbev, only produce their beer in oak barrels in 1 of 3 of their brewing locations. And you can taste it, generally you will pick up on a steel sort of taste due tothe stainless steel fermenting vessels. Its a shame that even the creators of modern pilsen beer were subject to corporate nonsense.

      • I had heard about the steel tanks from the Brewing Techniques article, but not about the InBev takeover. I did a search and it said SABMiller bought it out, did InBev buy them out? Man, that would be a real tregedy. The original being bought out by the imitator….

  2. From what I understand today’s malts don’t really benefit from decoction since they are so highly modified. Keep in mind I have absolutely no experience with them, but my brew days are long enough.. I want them shorter! Good luck!

    • It is true, part of the reason brewers of old used the decoction method, apart from accurately managing the temperature steps before the advent of thermometers, was to give the enzymes better access to the starches in the under modified malt that was used. Like you say, it’s not necessary with today’s highly modified malt. Actually the protein rest that was commonly used may actually have a negative effect on head retention and produce a thinner beer, because these two things are reliant on proteins. I’ve read that you can still do a very short one (10mins) but at that point, why bother. Then again, I’m certainly no expert on the subject and only going by what I’ve read so far. The brewers that still use the decoction confidently say, that it is still the only way to get that smooth, richness present in the best Pilsners.
      In reality, I will probably go with a double decoction. If my time is very limited, I may just do a single decoction. (which will take the saccrification rest to mashout)
      And true enough on the long brew days! haha
      I’ll let you know how it goes…..

      Cheers!

      Here’s a good link on the decoction styles: http://www.homebrewtalk.com/wiki/index.php/Decoction_mash

    • btw, I may completely screw this up! lol, but I’m going to give it a try anyways! :)

  3. Good luck, I’m actually going to do my first Pilsner this weekend as well. I’m using the BCS recipe for Bo-Pils, and will use 2 packs of Saflager w34/70. My basement is at about 11-12 degrees so I know it’s a bit on the warm side, but we’ll see how it goes. I’ll pitch cool anyway, and see what happens. Hoping I can use the cake for a doppelbock. My only concern is the lagering stage, my ferm chamber (freezer) is dead, so I will have to lager in a corny in my kegerator which is at about 45 degrees. I’m assuming it will just take longer.

    • Are you going to use distilled or RO water? or are you just going to wing it with what you have?
      When I first started brewing and didn’t know much of anything, I brewed a batch of pilsner using only Pilsen DME and Saaz pellets and 1 pack of Saflager S-23. My cellar was at 12C and I fermented there for 4 weeks until things died down, then I racked it and left it in the same spot for another almost 3 months. Even under those circumstances, my in laws are still talking about that beer! I think the time spent lagering takes care of a lot… good luck!

  4. I thought about doing a half RO/half tap water (I’m on well), but to be honest.. I’m feeling too lazy to go buy 5 gallons of RO. There was a good episode of Northern Brewers Brewing TV recently which talked about Lager workarounds, and they successfully brewed lagers with Bohemian Lager from Wyeast at 60 degrees. I think the lagering phase has as much to do with it.

    • I imagine it would work, but I’m guessing if you want that smooth, traditional pilsner profile, you’ll need to use very soft water, in particular for the hop flavour. But give it a shot!
      I’m just going by what I’ve researched so far and not yet on actual experience….

  5. Had a couple Pilsner Urquell tonight… damn delicious! Not as hoppy as I remembered but I found the malt came through very well.

    • That’s the amazing thing about that beer, the malt and hops are so smooth and round. That water they have has got to be a big part of the secret.
      Did you check out the videos at the bottom of my post? Great look into things through the eyes of Michael Jackson…
      How’s the Sierra Nevada tasting these days? My brew day for that has been pushed back yet again, but I did squeeze in a Stone Pale Ale. I got the recipe from their latest book. I’ve never had their beers at all, but it gave me the chance to try our columbus and amarillo hops, which I haven’t had yet.
      As soon as I can get my hands on some simcoe, I want to try something with the Amarillo/Simcoe combo that people are raving about…
      Cheers!

  6. Oh man.. Amarillo/Simcoe, prepare to be amazed. Do yourself a favor and google Lake Walk Pale Ale. It is a fantastic Pale Ale which uses Am/Simcoe. It’s the recipe I won gold at TBW with last year.

  7. That’s the one! I even have started adding Columbus to the mix.. oh the Dankness!!!!

  8. I couldn’t resist, I pulled a pint of my bo-pils, that has been lagering in my kegerator for 3 weeks.

    Holy crap it’s incredible! I’m seriously thinking about brewing another batch right away, since with the warmer weather my basement will be too warm to ferment it.

    • Sweet! It’s always great to pull that first beer and have it be as good, or even surpass your expectations! (even though it’s not always the case, at least for me. lol) I’m going to finally get to the infusion vs decoction next weekend and hopefully I can get the last few weeks of cooler weather in my cellar. Might try and push out an easy drinking Corona for the summer months as well…
      Go for another batch for sure! otherwise you have to wait until next year!
      Cheers!

  9. Like most beer geeks I own a copy of Micheal Jackson’s Beer Companion, but I can’t believe I’ve never seen Beer Hunter before! He does such a good job of explaining the process and reasons for the process. I’m an ale brewer/drinker but I do like a good Pilsner and make sure I stock up on Pilsner Urquell each January. Great article Jeff!

    • Thanks! yeah, he really takes it to another level doesn’t he? His work is in part responsible for the resurgence of craft beer here and in the states, if not the world. He has some other videos as well you should check out when you have time. Just do a search on google. I’m definitely more of an ale drinker as well, but the history fascinates me, and my father in law is always telling me about how they brewed back home in the Czech Republic. unfortunately I still haven’t found the time to brew both versions in the same weekend, hopefully soon, I want to have lots on tap for the summer!
      Cheers!

  10. Pingback: The Pilsner Urquell showdown: Decoction Day | Hoptomology

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