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The Magic of Pilsner Malt

Pilsner malt is one of the least modified malt types on the market today, and unless you’re making a German style lager or something light, you’ve probably overlooked this delicious base malt for something better modified.  While it is less modified, it’s also one of the most delicious base malts around, adding distinctive and sweet malt flavors to any beer. But there is also extra process involved with this malt type, and it can be a little intimidating. This week we’ll talk about different processes to get the most from your Pilsner malts in any beer style, how to ward off DMS and what that even means, and why you should give pils a try in your next beer!

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Why Use Pilsner At All?

Mostly because pils is delicious!  The color and flavors are lighter than any other malt, and it seems that when you are brewing lighter ales and lagers, the malt shines through as a wonderful and distinct malt flavor, maybe slightly green or fresh tasting with hints of cracker or the smell of fresh wort.  We’ve tried this side by side with American 2 row to really nail down the difference, and while still tasty, 2 row seems to lack the subtle complexity that you can pull with a solid pilsner malt. Think of drinking your favorite American Blonde ale versus drinking a classically brewed Helles or Pilsner.  Yes, the yeast involved and saccharification mash temps play a large role in the expression of the malts, but the malts themselves also play a pretty big role!

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Do I Really HAVE To Do A Protein Rest??

The short answer?  No. Absolutely not.  These days, while technically an undermodified malt type compared to the fully modified malts available, pils is still WAY better modified and ready to use than it was during the birth of our favorite Belgian styles and German lagers.  This means that you really can get away with a normal, single infusion mash.

That being said, every mash and the corresponding mash efficiency can benefit from a 136° F rest for 20 minutes, or even 30 minutes.  This rest can help your beer in a few ways, not least of which is breaking up longer chain proteins that contribute to chill haze. Other benefits include helping out with overall extraction and mash efficiency.  In this range you are utilizing the proteinase enzyme, which will take your longer chain proteins and cut them down into medium chain proteins, which help with body, head formation and foam retention, whereas if you leave all of the long chain proteins, they contribute more to haze and lower efficiency.

The other enzyme involved with a protein rest is peptidase, which is the lower end of the temperature spectrum, from 113° F to 128° F, and likes 122° F the best.  This enzyme is going to cut medium length proteins to their component forms, which is useful when using super high protein malts like 6 row. For a protein rest on pilsner malt, we tend to lean towards utilizing the proteinase enzyme because it leaves behind the mid range proteins, so our head formation and body don’t really suffer at all.  The great thing about knowing how these enzymes work is that you can utilize them however you want to make your beer exactly how you want it! If you want an ultra crisp, ultra light and crystal clear American style lager, then try hitting the strike zone between the two rests, right around 125° F. If you’re making a helles or pils, then aim higher at 136° F.

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What Is DMS?

This is where the science gets fun!  As you may have heard, unless you’re brewing with Pilsner Malt Extract, a 90 miute boil on all beers mashed with pils is a MUST!  DMS has been described as a cooked corn, vegetal or even sauerkraut flavor in your finished beer, which sounds like a complete waste of a brew day to me.  

This is because of compounds called S-methyl methionine, or SMM and dimethyl sulphoxide, or DMSO.  These are present throughout nature, and barley is no exception. These are the precursors to dimethyl sulfide, affectionately known as DMS. 

What happens is that these naturally occurring compounds are degraded during malting, mashing and boiling, and levels can even be increased if you keep your grain outside of an airtight container in a humid environment for too long!  When they degrade, they turn into DMS, which lucky for us is a very volatile compound.

Hence the 90 minute boil!  A long a vigorous boil is all it takes to break this compound up and keep it out of your finished beer.  Mix that boil with a happy and active fermentation, and you won’t have to worry about a thing! You can even sub your 60 minute boil for a 90 on all of your beers if you don’t want your water calculation process to change brew day to brew day, although it’s definitely not necessary.

When using Pilsner Malt Extracts, don’t worry about that extra boil time.  The way that these precursors are enhanced in the malt in the first place is the low kiln temps used to keep them light.  When using pilsner malt, we basically have to heat the water long enough and vigorously to drive them off, but with pils malt extract, the process of producing the malt extract does that for us, so it’s not an extra step that we need to add to our process unless there’s a 90 minute hop addition in your recipe choice.

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The Application of Pilsner

As an overall malting grain and type of base malt, pilsner is versatile and delicious, and really does work in everything.  We’ve made everything from American Light Lagers to European Lagers to IPA’s and Porters with pils as a base, and have never been disappointed.  While we definitely have go-to base malts for certain styles, it’s nice to change it up and experiment.

The solid grain characteristic and super light color make pils ideal for hitting certain color beers, as well.  If we want a super light and dry IPA, using pils as 50% of the grist and hitting it with a protein rest around 125° F works insanely well!  Try it with your next Pliny clone and you’ll see what I mean!  It’s also great for mixing with malts like Best Red X and Vienna malt to bring out their own natural malt colors and characteristics.  Think of it like a canvas or enhancer for these kinds of projects!  

When brewing with pilsner malts, just remember to boil for 90 minutes, and you’ll make great beer.  We like the fun and added challenge of throwing a protein rest in, but with the quality of malt available to all of us homebrewers these days, you can definitely skip that part if you don’t want to get crazy.

Thank you for reading!  Don’t be shy to leave any questions, comments and experiences in the comments below so everyone can hear about your process and experience with pils!

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