Lager, Part 4. Decoction Concoction.

I was lucky enough a while back to see a Bohemian lager being brewed the original way. By original, I mean the way the pioneers of the 1840s to 1870s did it in breweries throughout Bohemia, and later across Europe and beyond.

The story of how Josef Grol, a Bavarian brewmaster, took the lagering process of his native land and fused it with paler malts, which had in turn been inspired by English brewers, is well known. Less well known, but just as important a catalyst was the burgeoning Bohemian glass and crystal industry. This was pivotal for the brewers… it meant there was no place to hide when it came to the clarity, brightness and transparency of the finished beer. Suddenly, not only was taste important, so was presentation. And presentation was about a combination of factors of which the brilliance of the beer was just one. So too was the head which, as legend would have it, should be strong enough to support a coin of the Austro-Hungarian Realm.

The question that Grol and his contemporaries wrestled with of course was not just one of lagering, or the right grist bill. The question of mashing was central. How best to coax the brewing sugars from the malt, particularly at a time of imprecise science.  Most brewing nations used a version of an infusion mash – that most associated with British ales today.  Think tea – pour the hot brewing liquor over the malt, stir and pour.   Add sugar to taste. I don’t think it’s quite as simple or as blunt as this but you get the idea.

What the Bohemian brewers experimented with was perfecting a different way, what we today call a decoction mashing regime. I love the word decoction, it has that slightly naughty yet unctuous overtone to it that only brewing could throw up. But what is a decoction mash and where did it come from? And more importantly what are the benefits?

Without truly understanding the complex science behind it (something I can sympathise with), the Bohemians knew that the thicker, more viscous wort from the first runnings produced the ‘best’ beer – by that they knew it led to a vigourous initial fermentation.  But the delicate Moravian barley gave a malt capable of beers of greater complexity – the question was how to obtain them, whilst not getting more undesirable flavour compounds too?   Decoction came about through a process of trial and error, but essentially – involved removing a portion of the wort (normally from a specific part of the mash) to a separate copper, raising it’s temperature to get at the brewing sugars, and then introducing it back into the main body of the mash.  Then repeating at different temperatures, sometimes up to three times (a ‘triple decoction’ mash).  It was (and is) as you can imagine a time and cost intensive process requiring considerable skill too – all good reasons to find a quicker, cheaper and less labour intensive process to replace it with.

This is all very interesting of course if you are into the romance of beer, yet commercially it is another part of the classic Bohemian brewing method that many brewers (unsurprisingly perhaps) and sadly including Czechs amongst their number, have abandoned for more ‘economic’ – and efficient – methods (normally some version of a temperature controlled mash). It’s also claimed, with modern breeding of barley that today’s strains of malts do not need the subtle, time intensive and somewhat alchemical machinations of a decoction process.

I am not convinced.  My criteria is not a lens of nostalgia, nor science, but one of mouthfeel, of taste, of having experienced the beguiling complexity of beers decocted and lagered properly and in some cases witnessing how particular beers have changed over time.

Alas, sadly, it is all rather academic. Perhaps for most drinkers or licensees, the real common denominator between beers is the price paid. As I write, I’ve just heard that a major brewer has purchased Staropramen for $3.5billion. To be clear, this isn’t just the price for that brand but 8 or 9 breweries and some market share, but even so, $3.5billion is a significant sum for a beer that is a shadow of its former self.

My Staropramen story in brief weaves it’s way into one of the proudest periods in my career and most enjoyable. 12 years ago, I took over the management of Staropramen at Bass Brewers. I had been involved when Bass first acquired Prague Breweries in launching the brand in to the off trade. In those days our first concern was helping people pronounce it – something of course not needed as drinkers were keen to discover and experiment and play. Later though, when I started running the whole show it was a different set of problems. Essentially, we needed to build a strong pub base for the beer and stop all discounting of the brand in the off trade. Sounds easy but the plan would see the brand haemorrhaging volume initially.   As part of the project, I made a number of trips to the Staropramen brewery in Smichov, Prague. My! Here was a cathedral to brewing lagered beer. The ‘new’ set of lagering tanks dated from just after WW2, and stretched in a vast array for a third of a mile under the city. The damp air, with the slight vinous smell of alcohol, was a joy.  The 12˚ ležak beer (the one exported to many markets including the UK) was a joy too, it enjoyed a double decoction and lengthy lagering.  3 years later we had re-established the base business of the brand, orientated it back to an pub based brand again and were enjoying healthy growth. Rightly too we were getting a lot of praise for the beer itself.

Fast forward through 12 years. Staropramen was bought by Interbrew in 2002 who soon lost focus (amongst other hair-brained schemes they had in buying Prague Breweries was introducing Stella Artois to Prague for the tourists…my observation was that the tourists were coming for the awesome Czech beer that was cheaper than water).  The purchase sadly coincided with the Vltava river flooding, inundating the lagering cellars at the Smichov brewery and giving them an excuse to move production to the Branik brewery on the edge of the city.  Whilst this happened, production for the UK was moved to Salmesbury. Yep, that’s Salmesbury in Lancashire.  Not known for its decoction coppers that brewery, and strangely enough the beer took a huge decline in character.  I know this because in a bar one evening, six of us did a blind taste test between Staropramen and Castlemaine XXXX …..I don’t need to tell you which one won do I? (Much to our shame)*.

Let’s sincerely hope that Staropramen’s new owners don’t see lagering the beer and using decoction mashing as a strange, alchemical process but return it to its rightful place as a great Bohemian beer again. For decoction isn’t a fanciful, wasteful brewing concoction. The discoveries of the Bohemian brewers of the late nineteenth century are just as relevant in the twenty first. Clarity, depth, rounded multi-dimensional mouthfeel and a rich, compact head that laces like the best cask ales…they’re something worth preserving as our legacy for future beer drinkers.

*The beer is brewed back in Prague today and has regained some of its character.  For completeness, I tasted a bottle recently and noted good head formation and retention, a mild malty / sweetcorn foretaste but an over dominance of alcoholic esters and little aftertaste.  Not a bad beer by any means, just not a real Bohemian pilsner any more.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles. Originally posted on Posterous, April 2012

Author: David Preston

Brand expert; beer enthusiast; outdoorsman; fell walker; writer; eclectic observer; pun lover

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