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Style Matters - Czech Pilsners
In each issue, CBQ spotlights a particular beer style and provide
tips from an ingredient and fermentation perspective. In this issue we
take a closer look at Saison beers.
Malt Notes: The grandfather of today’s most
popular beers, Czech Pilsners originated in the city of Pilsen in the
Czech Republic. The soft water of the bohemian plateau made it possible
to brew an all malt, pale beer which showcased the bitterness and
flavors of hops. Over the years, as malting technology advanced and the
use of adjuncts became more common, pilsners have become paler in color,
but the epitome of the style, Pilsner Urquell, still retains a slight
amber hue with a Lovibond of 3-5.
In formulating the grain bill for a Czech Pils we
would suggest a mild, clean tasting base malt which will allow the hop
characteristics to shine through. Cargill’s Salzgitter Malthouse,
located in Salzgitter, Germany, specializes in Pils Malt. World Select
German Pilsner is a low protein, high extract, Barke variety, pale malt
very popular among north European pils brewers. As a domestic
alternative Idapils, malted from Idaho grown Harrington, is a flavor
neutral malt widely used in lager beers. Europils can be used for a more
assertive flavor, which will support the hop character of a pils.
Because of the 3-5 Lovibond color range of a Czech
Pilsner, a specialty malt may have to be added. Here we strongly
recommend the use of a low color caramel malt. The process of stewing
green malt before drying, unique to caramel malt, produces foam positive
compounds which aid in the head retention found in an excellent pils.
Any of the Continental European caramel malts available will make an
excellent pils, although we would suggest stirring clear of the darker
types. The roasting process used in dark caramel malts can add a burnt
note inappropriate to a pilsner. On the domestic side our kilned Caramel
10, 20, or 30 will provide a reddish hue, and a slight toasty note.
— Cargill Malt
Hop Notes: The signature hop for this style of
beer is the classical "noble" aroma hop from the Czech
Republic named the Czech Saaz. This is the signature hop associated with
the world-renowned Pilsner lager. The Czech Saaz variety is typically
lower alpha from 3-4.5%, with a similar beta level and has a Co-Humulone
in the mid-range from 24-28%. It is very mild with pleasant "hoppy"
spicy and floral notes. The oils are not as high as other hops but the
Farnesene level of 11-15% is one of the highest of any hop and plays a
part in its noble aroma characteristics. The beer should have a distinct
bitterness that is not overly harsh and blends in with the rich
There are a couple of other hops that can be used in
brewing this style, which are the Polish Lublin, which is a Sazz grown
in Poland, and the Sterling, which is a Saaz plant grown in the US. Both
of these other hops have similar profiles to the Czech Saaz so can give
similar bitterness and aroma to the beer. Although these other hops are
available, the Czech Saaz is still the standard for the Czech-style
Pilsner, and also is still our largest selling import hop. For more
specific varietal details please refer to page 48 in the Hopunion Hop
Characteristics book. If you do not have a new book give us a call.
Yeast and Fermentation Notes: The following
is a first-person account by Chris White, president of White Labs, after
returning from a trip to Europe:
Recently, I had the good fortune to be in the Czech
Republic for the European Brewing Congress. I drank my fair share of
Czech pilsners, and talked to some of the brewers. A lot of tradition is
still present; some brewers are even still fermenting in open (some
For those of you who have used our WLP800 Pilsner
Lager Yeast, you know that it ferments more from the top than most lager
I believe that is due to its use in open fermentors,
and you can see a thick yeast coat on the open fermentors in the Czech
I spent a day at Budweiser Budvar; they are very
traditional in practice, but they switched to tall, closed conical
fermentors in 1992. They ferment for 12 days, plus or minus depending on
the VDK test, then transfer to horizontal maturation tanks. Tradition
now takes over, and they mature the beer for a surprisingly long time of
90 days. They allowed me to compare a beer from a 40-day tank and a
90-day tank. The flavors were similar, but the aroma of the 40 day was
higher. It was also not as clear as the 90; some yeast looked to still
be present in the 40-day tank. Aging for 90 days has another advantage,
as it keeps diacetyl down; some Czech pilsners do have diacetyl.
Not surprisingly, their lager yeast is not very
flocculent (similar yeast to our WLP802, Czech Budejovice Lager Yeast).
Perhaps if the 40 day was filtered, the aroma would be closer to the 90.
Sulfur aroma was very little in both samples.
— White Labs
Brewer Comment: In each issue we try to get
a brewer who has experience in a particular style to offer his or her
own perspectives. In this issue we welcome the comments of Philip
DiFonzo, President and Brewmaster at King Brewery in Nobleton, Ontario,
Canada. The brewery produces only European-style Lagers and celebrated
its three-year anniversary in July 2005.
CBQ: What are you trying to accomplish with
DiFonzo: I want the beer drinker that
understands this style of beer to say it tastes like a pilsner some
where between Pilsner Urquell and Budvar. That it has the bitterness of
Pilsner Urquell and the maltiness of Budvar. I believe that a Czech
pilsner should have some challenge to the beer drinker. I think that
many Czech pilsners have been mainstreamed to a milder bitterness and
less hop flavour. I feel that my Czech-style pilsner was probably what
Bohemian Pilsner beer was about some 50 years ago. A pilsner with a firm
malty back bone to support a lot of fresh saaz hop bitterness and
CBQ: What do you do differently than other
DiFonzo: I spare no detail to brew a
stylistically correct and authentic European tasting lager.
To capture the aroma, flavour and body of a
Czech-style pilsner you need pure soft water. I use distilled water and
salt it to match the soft water of Plzn. My malt bill is straightforward
100% Bohemian Pilsner Malt from the Czech republic. Four additions of
only Czech Saaz hops. I brew in a newly fabricated German-style
decoction brewhouse. I mash in my kettle and perform 3 upward
temperature rests using steam jackets and a speed adjustable mixing
paddle. This is known as stir mashing. My mash off is by decoction.
Accurate fermentation, aging and lagering are very
important to all lagers. Clean consistent flavours and aromas are at the
route of a quality experience in the beer glass. For me there is only
one to do this — a 99.9% pure authentic Czech strain of yeast. Clean
and viable, ready to perform a vigorous and complete fermentation at
10*C or colder. Use the White Lab rules of pitching rates and start
temperature then drop the temperature down to your target but only after
yeast has started its aspiration of CO2. After a 48-hour ferment, let
the temperature naturally go up to a diacetyl rest for an 8 hour period
and then reduce temperatures to perform an aging over the next 5 days.
Then lager at 0*C for whatever period necessary to drop yeast and get
rid of unwanted by-products of fermentation.
CBQ: What suggestions can you offer to other
brewers to improve their Czech Pilsners?
DiFonzo: Get to know your yeast! I seem to
learn something new about my strain every fermentation. The correct
temperature for the phase of fermentation is vital to a complete proper
ferment. Yeast should stay in suspension after fermenting to clean up
flavours and aromas. Sure, pull yeast after you reach your finished
gravity but do an aging of 5 days or so, by dropping slowly to 0*C that
will keep the yeast around for awhile. Yeast is a brewers best friend
don’t piss him off! Or you will be sorry.
Learn more about King Brewery at www.kingbrewery.ca.