Focus on Malt: Pilsner
Pilsner malt is one of most utilized malts in brewing around the world. Beyond the vast array of pilsner-style macro-produced lagers, it’s commonly used in a variety of craft styles by micro and specialty breweries in the US. Many Belgian, French, German and Eastern European styles rely heavily upon pilsner malt as well. Considered a base malt for its ability to act independently during the mash process, converting starch to fermentable sugar, it stands apart from other base pale malts in flavor, color and history.
Hailing from the Plzeň region in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), pilsner malt emerged from a confluence of boundary-crossing industrial era influences in the 1840’s. Up to that point, fires to kiln and roast malt were typically fed by wood or by peat, which inevitably left a both a darker color and smoky flavor and aroma upon the malt. Demands from the flourishing British steel and iron industry had introduced new firing techniques using coke, a processed form of coal. Notably, coke produced substantially less smoke and no wood scents like previous methods. This meant that coke-fired malt was able to remain both lighter in color and cleaner in flavor and aroma. In 1839, one particular brewery in Plzň looking to produce high-quality, exportable beer took advantage of the improvements in malting technology, applying them to barley grown in nearby agricultural Moravia. They also sought out an accomplished brewer from Bavaria (a region highly-regarded then, as now, for its brewing accomplishments) who brought his knowledge of bottom-fermenting lager yeasts. The brewery began consistently producing a clean, light and flavorful beer we now call Pilsner Urquell, which translates to “the ancient or original source of pilsner.” Now owned by SAB Miller, Urquell still produces its original pilsner for local and export consumption. Though pilsner malt has become a key component in many different styles, it’s impossible to extricate it from its original intent: the crisp and clean Bohemian Pilsner beer.
Pilsner malt today is produced in a number of countries–Germany, the Czech Republic, France, Belgium, the USA, and Canada. All versions are made from low-protein barley that is gently modified and kilned at a low temperature to preserve its light color and flavor. But what does it really taste like? Most drinkers describe it as donating a fresh grain flavor and a crispness with a true, mellow sweetness. One additional element of pilsner malt’s flavor can arise from something called DMS or dimethyl sulfide. You’re probably already familiar with the taste–some describe it as a cooked corn or cabbage-like flavor, vegetal and somewhat savory. The biological precursor to DMS is produced during malting from natural germination processes. Both the precursor and DMS itself are heat-sensitive, meaning that the longer they are exposed to heat, the more they oxidize and are driven off by evaporation. The lower kilning temperature of pilsner malt means more of these unwanted compounds remain in the malt. To counteract this issue, some brewers boil their wort for extra time to help eliminate DMS, but ultimately some will remain in the final product. However, as with most things, it’s all in the levels: a little is allowable; a lot is unpleasant to drink.
Over time, other advancements in malting technologies have helped make pilsner malt simpler to use and more accessible to brewers of all types. German and Czech brewing methods are traditionally very complex, using two or more steps of temperatures and timings during the mash, where portions of the grain and water are removed, heated to boiling, and recombined to boost the temperature into specific ranges. This technique, called decoction, was originally necessary to help convert the grain’s starches into sugars, as malt was frequently undermodified–essentially, less ready for mash conversion. This meant that more time was spent in the brewery coaxing the sugars out of the grain. It also gave the final product a special taste, as some flavor compounds arise specifically from boiling the grain-water mix itself. Happily, with current malting knowledge pilsner malt is more thoroughly modified, so the absolute need for decoction and other “stepped” mash processes is gone. Decoction is still used by many traditional breweries, though–their recipes would have to be recalculated, and the flavors of their beer would be entirely and perhaps undesirably different.
What has become a hugely popular style with a diaspora of versions and earnest imitations around the globe comes back to a beginning based on innovations in technology and shared expertise surrounding the production of one one kind of malt. It’s a story that the craft beer community should embrace: sharing, collaboration, and ultimately striving for high-quality, future-forward beer.