One of the joys of brewing is that there are almost endless combinations of ingredients we can use to produce specific flavors, as well as a variety of ways in which those ingredients can be used. The result is a staggering array of potential flavors for any given beer, and many paths to the top of the mountain when it comes to getting the flavors you want. All that matters in the end is that you get the flavors you’re looking for!
Want banana flavor? You can add a banana puree, choose a Hefe yeast and let the esters do the work, or even add a solution of isoamyl acetate. The same is true for dozens of flavors—citrus can come from yeast or hops, pepper can be derived from hops or spices or yeast, vanilla can come from your spice rack or certain types of oak, and more.
Since that’s the case, it’s a wonder to me that many brewers choose to take on a time-consuming and challenging old-school brewing process in the pursuit of certain flavors—I’m talking about decoction mashing. Decoction mashes were an early way to solve two problems: first, getting more out of undermodified malts, and second, hitting appropriate step temperatures in mashing.
By thrice removing a portion of the mash (usually about one-third), boiling it (shorter intervals for lighter beers, and longer for darker beers to develop color and flavor), then returning it to the mash, you end up with a four-step mash that hits the right numbers for an acid rest, protein rest, saccharification rest, and mash-out. Boiling the mash (often referred to as “gruel” in this case) also improves efficiency by improving access to starches within the grain. Win-win!
But it’s a long process. You’re looking at three to four hours for a triple-decoction. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have that kind of time to brew. And even if I did, I might not want to. Luckily, though, there’s an easier way: you can “recipe” your way into the same kinds of flavors.
Malt to the Rescue
To forestall the objections, let me state at the outset that I know that many feel decoction mashes produce superior-tasting beers. I won’t dispute that, but I will challenge the idea that this means we must do them. First, not everyone agrees: in a variety of experiments decoction-mashed beers seem to generally be preferred, but not overwhelmingly so, and many selected malt-adjusted beers or even single-infused beers without recipe adjustment. And second, I may know a process produces better results, but those results may be only marginal relative to the increased workload. My salsa is probably better with freshly shucked corn, but I’m not going to visit the local farmer every time I want to make it when I can simply open a bag of fresh-frozen corn and get 98 percent of the flavor I want!
So what do we get out of decoction mashes? We get some color. We get a bit more clarity in the finished beer. Both are negligible in terms of their contribution to the beer.
More importantly, we get melanoidins. Boiling the base grains in a decoction tends to produce these rich-tasting compounds, but instead of using a decoction mash we can tune the recipe and use particular specialty malts (including, as you might guess, melanoidin malt) to get some of that same melanoidin character in our beer. Now, it is important to note that every decoction will produce different levels of these flavors based on the process and the equipment, but most studies agree that at least some melanoidin production occurs. In light of that, I would strongly urge you to add such malts sparingly, even in darker decoction-mimicking beers (such as Dopplebock). While some recipes call for 4, 5, or even 10 percent melanoidin malt, I usually recommend 2 percent. It’s enough to provide for a small boost in the rich toast background flavor without overwhelming the other subtle flavors in your beer.
You might also consider not only melanoidin malt in your recipe, but other lighter-kilned character malts such as Victory (toasted) malt, aromatic malt, or even amber malt (all in the 20–30L range). Each, through its own production process, carries through to the beer a touch more of the melanoidin characters that decoction mashing can provide. While there are no guarantees that you’ll clone a decoction-produced beer (many note that decoction mashing can result in only limited melanoidin production, depending on boil intensity, process, and duration), these character malts are certainly not going to hurt your beer. Experiment with them until you find one you like, but be prepared to change things up for different recipes!
Easy Does It
I cannot stress enough the importance of using these malts lightly. They’re an accent, and not a principle element. A little will go a long way, and you can always increase the percentage in subsequent batches if you want a greater impact. When adding these malts to your grist, think, “less is more.” Properly utilized, you can mimic some of the flavors you might have gotten out of your decoction mash and add to the complexity of your beers—and save yourself hours in the process.