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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 maltiness.

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.

Hopunion

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 wooden!) fermentors.

For those of you who have used our WLP800 Pilsner Lager Yeast, you know that it ferments more from the top than most lager strains.

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 Republic.

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 your beers?

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 flavour.

CBQ: What do you do differently than other brewers?

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.