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  • Writer's pictureCalgary Brewery Tour Guy

The Art of Decoction Brewing

Updated: Jun 20

making beer in the 1500's

The way that beer is brewed has evolved over centuries, encompassing various techniques and methods usually discovered by trial and error to achieve unique flavors and characteristics. Among these techniques, it is decoction brewing that stands out as a method both cherished and feared by brewers for its tradition, difficulty and ability to extract rich malt flavors and to enhance the complexity of the final brew.

To really know what decoction brewing does, you must first understand how malts are used to make beer. The easiest way to explain this would be to talk about cooking at home with sugar. When you heat sugar in a pan, it starts to change colour as it caramelizes. First its yellow, then gold, amber, brown and eventually black. A person who makes malt (a maltster) will take barley (or other grain) and heat it. If they want to make a dark coloured malt, they will heat the grain until it turns black. If they want to make an amber, they will heat it until it reaches the desired colour. Each type/colour of malt is going to provide different flavours. Think of the difference in taste between a stout and a lager. Both are made using amounts of malted barley, but one is dark and one is light.

A Brief History:

Decoction brewing has its roots deeply embedded in the brewing traditions of Central Europe, particularly in the Czech Republic. Historically, decoction brewing was born out of necessity rather than choice. Early brewers lacked precise temperature control methods, so decoction served as a means to raise the temperature of the mash, aiding in the conversion of starches to sugars (caramelization) and enhancing the extraction of flavors from the malt.

In the 1500's large metal vats were not very easy to come by, but smaller kettles were. Brewers who made small amounts of beer were happy to do so in these little pots and likely achieved pretty good results. However, as large scale brewers were making their batches in cheaper and easily available wooden vats, they could not achieve boiling point, so, they cleverly began pulling out small amounts of the mash (heated grain) from their wooden vats and boiling it off to the side, repeating this process over and over to achieve desired results.

two beers showing what decoction brewing can do
These beers are made with the exact same ingredients. The one on the right was decocted.

Decoction brewing imparts a range of distinctive flavors and characteristics to beer, making it prized among brewers seeking depth and complexity in their brews. Some key attributes of decoction-brewed beers include:

  1. Rich Maltiness: The process of boiling a portion of the mash intensifies malt flavors, resulting in a beer with a pronounced malt character. This is especially noticeable in styles like Märzen, Dunkel, and Bock.

  2. Enhanced Mouthfeel: Decoction brewing promotes the development of long-chain sugars and proteins, contributing to a fuller body and creamy mouthfeel in the finished beer.

  3. Complexity: The caramelization of sugars and formation of melanoidins during boiling add layers of complexity to the beer, with notes of toffee, bread crust, and dried fruit often present.

  4. Improved Stability: The melanoidins formed during decoction brewing act as antioxidants, enhancing the beer's shelf life and stability.

Decoction brewing is a time-honored technique that continues to captivate brewers and beer enthusiasts alike. While modern brewing methods offer greater precision and control, the art of decoction brewing remains a testament to the ingenuity and craftsmanship of traditional brewing practices. Whether you're a seasoned brewer looking to elevate your recipes or an adventurous beer drinker seeking new flavors, exploring the world of decoction brewing is sure to be a rewarding journey into the heart of brewing tradition. Cheers to unlocking flavor through the art of decoction brewing!

If you would like to learn more about beer, join a Calgary Brewery Tour or check out the YYCTOURS Community Craft Education page.




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