When you’re playing folk music or doing government work, it’s easy to embrace an ethos of “close enough” as being sufficient for most purposes. In brewing, the combination of an infusion mash and some melanoidin malt is often thought of as close enough to a traditional decoction mash for a lot of brewers. After all, today’s malts are well-modified, not under-modified as they were when Old World brewmasters developed the techniques of decoction mashing centuries ago. If many European breweries that formerly used decoction have long-since moved over to infusion mashes, why should we waste our time and energy on an outdated technique?
I certainly appreciate the approach of something being “close enough” when I’m playing horseshoes, and I imagine I’ll feel the same if I ever find myself lobbing live grenades at ravaging packs of feral hogs. But for brewers and drinkers who truly know the traditional styles of Bavaria and Bohemia—pilsner, bock, tmavé pivo, schwarzbier, hefeweizen, and others—there is no question. You can’t get there, at least not all the way, without a decoction mash.
“People who have been trained, judges or brewers, know the difference every time,” says Kristen England, head brewer at Bent Brewstillery in Roseville, Minnesota. He’s also an education liaison with the BJCP who has done extensive research into historic Old World beer styles. Decoction mashing, he says, works best with the traditional styles of Central Europe. “All Czech pale and dark lager,” he says. “German dark lagers, for sure. All weissbier, especially pale wheat.”