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Decoction and other stray beer thoughts

Fine post at DesJardin Brewing centered on Jason Oliver, Devil Backbone Brewing and the excellent lagers Oliver brews there. Oliver gets a chance speak at length about why decoction (during which some of the mash is removed, boiled and returned to the original mash, often two or three times) matters. Good stuff, but I do wish he hadn’t said this:

What you can’t substitute is the romance of decoction! Even if you do not notice any difference in a beers taste, the fact you did one is not made any less valid. Craft brewing is a craft, and using a traditional method to brew a traditional beer is something to be celebrated not denigrated. My advice is if you can decoct it then do it on special brews, it makes it extra special, extra traditional, and extra authentic.

He and I talked a while back about how decoction adds flavor and texture to some beers. If you take the time to read “Decocting with Jason Oliver” you’ll notice not everybody agrees.

A few years ago Martin Krottenthaler, a professor at the Weihenstephan brewing university north of Munich, talked about research comparing decoction mashing and less-time consuming infusion mashing. He flipped through PowerPoint slides, explaining why lesser malts once made decoction necessary. “Boiling is boiling,” he said, showing benchmarks that the chemists recorded were different throughout the two processes but the resulting worts produced almost identical profiles.

Then he introduced the human element. A tasting panel basically confirmed the results, because few of its members could tell the difference — but Krottenthaler was one of those who could pick out the beers produced using decoction. “For me it was significant,” he said.

Krottenthaler’s experience is what decoctionist (yes, I just made that word up) should be talking about. I agree with Oliver that brewers make a statement about the artisanal aspect of their craft when they choose to use decoction. But it’s an empty gesture if the beer they create doesn’t actually taste better. It feels like we’ve stepped into the dreaded realm of marketing.

The reason to value traditional brewing methods is not simply that they are traditional but that they result in beers that tastes better. Try the ones from Devils Backbone and you’ll understand.

  • Thanks to @olllllo for this link to “Foodies gone wild: A plea for calm among foodies from a part-time food writer who’s part of the problem.”. Adding context to the discussion about “regular” beer.
  • I haven’t not looked at Beer Magazine since it first came out, but George de Piro (brewmaster at C.H. Evans Brewing Company’s Albany Pump Station and an occasional bloggers) does not seem to be giving it a thumbs up:

    If that’s not enough for you, here’s a gem from page 27, where the author eloquently states the purpose of hops is to “…provide balance to the beer just as a girl’s left boob does for her right. One without the other is a freakish carny.”

    And that’s the stuff you can print in a family blog.

  • TIME profiles Sam Calagione, and provides a look at “craft brewing” from the outside in. Among other statements: “Such lack of brand loyalty may actually force smaller brewers to constantly release new concoctions, lest their fickle audience lose interest.”

    Is the writer talking to you?

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    14 Responses to Decoction and other stray beer thoughts

    1. Darren December 29, 2010 at 5:13 pm #

      As a fan of both boobs and hops I really like that comment and may be stealing it in the future when explaining the role of hops to friends!

      As for decotions although I like some traditional things and the whole slow food idea, I am not a fan of slow brewing so decotion is not something in my brewing tool kit. If we didnt have the malts we do today, or it made a difference then bring it on, but we do and it dosent.

      So its simple infusions and step mashes for me. Less time and less chances of stuf ups. I’ll still have stuck mashes and boil overs but no sorched mash tun. I’ll also be washed up and having a beer a lot sooner than my decoctionist (yes I used it too) brothers. Still big respect to them for taking the time and caring for their craft and beer.

      Cheers D

    2. TimC December 29, 2010 at 5:23 pm #

      Thats a nice read after spending a day making a triple decocted 12 degree pale lager with that Floor Malted Bohemian Pils. That smell of boiling mash was just wonderful. In my experience the texture contribution is significant and some many brewers/people don’t consider enough in general.

      As for the tradition and romance, its like innovation, I don’t care as long as its makes good beer.

    3. Alan December 29, 2010 at 7:58 pm #

      I think you made up “decoctionism” and you may have made up decoctionismist,” too.

    4. Matt, The Palate Jack December 29, 2010 at 8:35 pm #

      Romance aside, there is no question when one does a decoction that deep red colors and tangy melanoidins are produced, and that modern malts and melanoidin malt can still make only an approximation. Once you can identify the aroma of these compounds it is usually quite simple to tell on first sniff whether a decoction was used. There is no mistaking a beer brewed with decoction, whether by color, aroma, flavor, or mouthfeel – or all of the above. If you are an “antidecoctionist,” I urge you to try it at least once. Observing the color and aroma differences between the main mash and the decoction is just as magical as that first all grain you brewed. If after trying it you still don’t believe, then you can at least argue from experience.

      Matt, the Palate Jack, German decoctionist and Belgian turbid masher, too

    5. Stan Hieronymus December 29, 2010 at 9:10 pm #

      Alan,

      “decoctionismist”

      Guilty as charged.

    6. Steve December 30, 2010 at 9:09 am #

      Thanks Stan, now I gotta figure out how to try another brewery’s beers that are far from my distributors’ radius. Can’t wait.

      Count me as pro-decoctionist. I remember when you mentioned that Spaten had stopped decoction-brewing their beers — it was about the same time that I was noticing the flavor in their beers was starting to become “thin,” for lack of better descriptor. That rich, bready character just wasn’t as prominent anymore. I’ve also noticed many other German brews losing that character over the past 5, or so, years. It’s a shame.

    7. Swordboarder December 30, 2010 at 12:17 pm #

      “Such lack of brand loyalty may actually force smaller brewers to constantly release new concoctions, lest their fickle audience lose interest.”

      This perfectly describes the new craft brewers in Seattle. A few of the nanobreweries aren’t even producing any year round beers. In a few years, I think you may see an exhaustion on the side of the consumer in trying to keep up with so many different beers. I know I already am.

    8. The Professor December 30, 2010 at 1:19 pm #

      @Swordboarder:
      “In a few years, I think you may see an exhaustion on the side of the consumer in trying to keep up with so many different beers. I know I already am”

      How true. It seems to me that the kind of fierce brand loyalty we saw in beer drinkers in years gone by may indeed be slowly fading into history. With so much more to choose from these days, the new generation of beer consumers seems more inclined toward experimentation rather than a slavish devotion to a particular brand, The choices these days can be a bit overwhelming (though some of the product isa bit underwhelming).

      The success in cultivating this trend of the consumer’s willingness to explore and experiment is certainly great for the micro industry at large, but perhaps sometimes not as great for the individual brewers fighting for shelf space in an increasingly crowded marketplace. On the upside though, despite a diminishing brand loyalty this new willingness of the consumer to experiment more probably does result in more blind purchases of products that may not have otherwise gotten attention of the finicky and brand loyal consumers that were the typical beer consumer years ago.

      I have to wonder if this (at least in part) could account for the demise of some truly outstanding small breweries at the beginning of the so called “craft beer” revolution…there were not as many adventurous palates willing to try beers that they had never heard of as there are today, and “craft” beer seemed like a novelty to many.
      I believe that the best of the early wave ‘new brewers’ that closed up shop were simply ahead of their time…which can sometimes be almost as bad as being behind the times.

    9. Jason Oliver December 30, 2010 at 3:41 pm #

      Thanks Stan for posting a piece on decoctionismists. Of which I obviously am one. I think that word should be a new addition to the Urban Dictionary.

      In my rant on DesJardin Brewing I also said :

      “When you are boiling 1/4 to a 1/3 of your mash and are smelling it, you can’t tell me that it makes no flavor addition. Also, if you tell me that specialty malts can create the same flavors, please give me the formula.”

      Of course I think the main reason for decoctions or any brewing technique should be to benifit the beers quality not for advertising. That said, history and tradition are very important to me. Innovation is fine, but it all depends on what your brewing.

    10. FlagonofAle December 30, 2010 at 5:36 pm #

      Beer magazine is the worst load of garbage I’ve ever read about beer. Terrible. It seems to mostly be a one man operation. Hopefully he’ll tire himself out eventually.

      I’ll have to try to find a copy of the article on Brown Ale in which they explain that nuts were traditionally used in its brewing.

    11. Stephen Beaumont December 31, 2010 at 11:02 am #

      You “haven’t not looked at Beer Magazine” since it debuted, Stan? Does that mean you’re a loyal subscriber?

    12. Stan Hieronymus December 31, 2010 at 12:35 pm #

      Oops. Fixed. No subscription, but easy to find (what other beer mag do you see in truck stops?). Sometime I think about flipping through one, but George pretty well discouraged that.

    13. Generik January 11, 2011 at 2:19 pm #

      The piece about lack of brand loyalty is pretty interesting and I guess I live up to that. But in all honesty, how can a craft beer fan intentionally lock themselves into brand loyalty when a stroll down the beer aisle presents dozens if not hundreds of options depending on the quality of your local beer shop? It’s easy to understand why the macro lagers get loyalty based on their brand. There is a small handful and they all make roughly the same product. (Interesting side note.. back in the day of my college years, I would routinely buy a keg of Miller High Life and tell everyone at our party it was Miller Lite. If I told the truth, most would walk away). So most people probably wind up loyal to the brand their dad drank, their best friends in college etc.

      On the craft side, not only do you have more brands than you can keep up with, but each one is producing multiple styles. I have a handful of ‘go-to’ brands and then wing it the rest of the time.

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