Decoction Mashing

Decoction mashing is a great way to enhance the flavor and clarity of your all grain beer recipes, and requires only minimal additional equipment and time.  Few homebrewers use decoction mashing in their recipes, but it is a very powerful technique for enhancing many styles of beer.

Decoction mashing involves nothing more than extracting a fraction of your mash mixture and bringing that portion to a boil in a separate vessel.  Then the boiling wort is added back to the original wort to raise the temperature of the entire mixture for the next mash step.  All that is required is a separate smaller pot and heat source.

History of Decoction Mashing

Decoction mashing predates common use of the thermometer.  In those early days, it was difficult to achieve accurate infusion temperatures for today’s infusion mash, and also malts were undermodified compared to the highly modified malt we have today.  Brewers instead discovered by trial and error that if they extracted a fixed fraction of the mash and boiled it they could achieve the accurate temperature steps needed to mash their malts.

Decoction was used extensitvely in continental European recipes, and is still heavily used in many German and Bohemian styles.  Many commercial brewers today use decoction mashing as well because it results in higher extraction rates and also maximum extraction of flavor from the malt.

Why use Decoction Mashing

The first thing most all grain brewers learn is that they should not overheat their mash or they will risk killing off the enzymes needed to convert sugars, effectively stopping conversion.   Yet in a strange paradox, decoction mashing actually results in higher conversion rates than infusion mashing.  In fact, decoction mashing has a number of benefits (Ref: FAQ):

  • Boiling extracts maximal flavor from the malt, which can be a real advantage for many malty styles of beer including most German beer styles.
  • Boiling the mash destroys the grain cell walls, releasing additional enzymes for conversion and resulting in a higher extract conversion rate than infusion mashing.
  • Boiling wort will carmelize a portion of it, again enhancing the malty flavor of the beer.
  • Proteins in the mash tend to coagulate during the boil and are filtered out during lauter resulting in better clarity.

At the same time, some care must be taken while using the decoction method.  Decoction does take longer than a single infusion mash.  When heating the decocted fraction, you need to monitor it to avoid scorching the mash.  Safety is a concern when handling large quantities of hot wort, and you must be careful not to splash the wort to avoid hot side aeration.

The Decoction Method

All decoction mashes start with a single infusion step where hot water is added to the mash to start the mashing process.  Typical temperatures for the first step vary.  Multiple step decoctions are often used.  Some examples of steps include:

  • 95F (35C) – Acid and Glucanese rest – to break down gummy solids (glucose) and lower pH of the mash for undermodified malts
  • 127F (52C) – Protein rest
  • 145F-153F (63-67C) – Beta Amalyse Rest
  • 158-167F (72-75C) – Alpha Amalyse Rest

Decoction mash profiles may have one, two or even three decoctions.  When selecting a decoction profile, keep in mind that many of the traditional multi-step decoction methods were designed for undermodified malts as opposed to modern modified malts.  However, multiple step decoction methods will add a unique character and flavor to your beer.

The amount of water used in a decoction can vary tremendously.  Traditional infusion mashes and many modern decoction methods use a relatively thick ratio of 1.25-1.5 quarts per pound of grain.  Older decoction mash profiles often used much higher water to grain ratios – as high as 2 or even 3 quarts per pound of grain.  Slightly higher conversion rates are possible at the lower ratios, but some purists still use the higher traditional ratios to reduce the chance of scorching.  You also need to consider what will fit in your mash tun and boil pot.

The initial strike water is calculated as if it was a normal infusion, and can be done using the BeerSmith strike temperature tool or an online calculator.  Typically the first infusion targets either 95F (an acid rest) or 127F (a protein rest).

After the infusion step, a fraction of the mash is decocted (drawn) and put in a separate pot to be slowly heated to a boil.  Some people argue whether the thin part of the mash or thick part should be drawn.  I generally try to get a representative sample of the mash, including both grains and wort.

Calculating the fraction of the mash to decoct can be easily done.  A program like BeerSmith has both a separate tool for calculating decoctions and an integrated mash profile system that lets you simply select a decoction mash profile and automatically calculates the fractions and provides step by step mashing instructions.

Alternately, a quick google search will provide you with online decoction calculators.  If you prefer doing it by hand, this article recommends the following fraction:

F = (TS – TI) / (TB – TI – X)

Where f is the fraction, TS is the target step temperature, TI is the initial (current) temperature, TB is the temperature of the boiling mash and X is an equipment dependent parameter (typically 18F or 10C).

Care must be taken when boiling the mash to avoid scorching.  Mix the mash continuously and heat it gently.  Once the decoction starts to boil you can add it back to the original mash and mix thoroughly to achieve the next step.  Hold each step for the recommended time, much as you would with any infusion mash and continue with additional decoctions or sparging.

Finally, if you are using a decoction to achieve mash out temperature (usually around 178F target temperature), you need to draw only the liquid portion of the mash as mashing out with a large portion of grains can result in undesirable flavors.

Thank you again for your continued support!

Brad Smith

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Sparging Techniques

Sparging (or lautering) is done at the end of the mash process, before the boil. The purpose is to extract the sugars created by the mashing process and dissolve them into hot water to form wort. We will then take the sugary wort, add some hops, boil it and ferment it to make our favorite beverage: Beer.

There are three techniques for sparging: the fly sparge, no sparge and batch sparge. Traditionally brewers use a fly sparge, where hot sparge water is continuously sprayed over the top of the mash tun to replace the hot wort as it is drained from the bottom of the mash tun. This gives a continuous flow, ideally with the flow in matching the flow out. Commercial brewers will monitor the specific gravity of the hot wort coming out of the mash tun and stop when it reaches approximately 1.010 to avoid off flavors and tannins associated with low wort concentration.

Duplicating a traditional fly sparge at home does create some challenges for the homebrewer. One must have not only a method for spreading water continuously over the grain bed, but also constantly monitor the flow of the water into the mash tun to make sure the grains do not run dry or overflow. Also fly sparging is a slow process – requiring as much as 60-90 minutes in some cases.

Batch Sparge and No Sparge

Two alternatives to fly sparging are the “no sparge” and “batch sparge” techniques. For these techniques a fixed amount of hot sparge water is added to the mash tun, the tun is gently stirred to assure even extraction for the batch, and then the entire mash tun is drained into the boiler, often at a fast rate (i.e. just open the spigot). The “no sparge” option uses a higher water to grain ratio when mashing and drains it all out in a single operation, while batch spargers use two or more sparge water additions, draining the mash tun empty each time.

The downside of batch sparging is reduced brewhouse efficiency – since a significant amount of sugar will be left undissolved and be discarded with the grains rather than make its way into the wort. For example a homebrewer fly sparging might achieve 73% brewhouse efficiency while a batch sparger might only get 66% brewhouse efficiency. Homebrewers compensate by adding more grain and just take the hit on efficiency.

For a commercial brewer the extra loss would be costly, but for the homebrewer making a 5 gallon batch of beer adding 1-2 pounds of extra grain (perhaps $2-4 in cost) is not significant. For most homebrewers, the extra few dollars of grain is a good trade off when compared to the extra time and equipment needed to do a proper fly sparge. Batch sparging also has the advantage of higher gravity for the runnings, which will rarely come even remotely close to the 1.010 limit mentioned earlier.

An additional concern with batch sparging is that stirring the mash upsets the grain bed, allowing more tannins and grain bits to make it into the wort. To reduce this risk, some brewers use a hybrid batch sparge method where they add sparge water slowly to the top and avoid stirring or completely draining the mash tun. This hybrid method does require additional time for the water to flow through the grain bed – much like a traditional fly sparge.

Batch sparging is more popular than no-sparge because it lets you use a traditional water to grain ratio when mashing, a smaller mash tun (typically a 5 gallon mash tun for a 5 gallon batch), and achieves much higher efficiency than no sparge options.

Batch Sparge Calculations

The most popular is a two stage batch sparge with equal size batches (equal amount of wort drawn off, not equal amount of sparge water added). Two equal size runnings of wort (equal batches) also maximizes the extraction efficiency. Calculating the amount of water to add for each sparge is straightforward where boil_size_l is your target boil size in liters, mash_water_l is the number of liters of mash water added and grain_wt_kg is the grain weight:

Two stage batch sparge additions:

  • batch_1_sparge_liters = (boil_size_l/2 – mash_water_l + grain_wt_kg * 0.625)
  • batch_2_liters = boil_size_l / 2

If you have deadspace under the mash tun, you must also add that amount of extra water to the first batch. If you have the newest release of BeerSmith, you can get an optimal “equal runnings” batch sparge that duplicates the sparge water calculations described above by selecting any of the default batch sparge mash profiles. The batch sparge amounts needed are displayed using the brewsheet (Preview Brewsheet) for your recipe.

The next item to consider is how much extra grain is required to use your batch sparge method. Unfortunately it is difficult to know this in advance, since your mash efficiency will depend on the milling of your grain, efficiency of your lautering system and other factors. A good rule of thumb is to add about 10% to your grain bill (or alternately take about 7% off your starting overall brewhouse efficiency of the recipe) for the first try. Some people use this “rule of thumb” method to size their batch sparge grain bill.

If you use brewing software or a spreadsheet, you can calculate your overall brewhouse efficiency and use that number to properly size future batches. In BeerSmith, these calculations can be accessed from the “Brewhouse efficiency” button in the top section of any open recipe. This display your estimated overall efficiency and OG in the “Brewhouse Efficiency based on Target Volume” section. Enter your actual volume into the fermenter and measured OG into the dialog and the program will calculate your actual overall brewhouse efficiency which you can use for your next batch. After a few batch sparge trials you should have a good handle on what your brewhouse efficiency, and you can then use the “scale recipe” command to adjust web recipes to your personal brewhouse efficiency.

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Mashing for All Grain Beer Brewing

Mashing can be a mystical process for first time all-grain or partial mash beer brewers.  At its heart, the mashing process uses hot water and natural enzymes to convert complex sugars from malt into simpler sugars that can be readily fermented.  We covered the basics of infusion mashing in an earlier article.

At its essence, mashing converts long chains of starches into much shorter sugar chains.  Several enzymes that naturally occur in barley malt play key roles in breaking down these sugars.  The process starts during malting when the barley grains are germinated and dried.  Beta-glucanese and proteolytic enzymes divide branches of complex sugars into shorter chains.

During the mash, the heavy lifting is done by diastatic enzymes that break down the protein and carbohydrate chains that lock up fermentable sugars.  Further, as these starches are heated they become more soluble in water, making it possible to extract the sugars and create the sweet wort extracted during lautering.  Crushing the grain before mashing increases solubility making it possible to extract a larger percentage of the sugars and starch.

Here’s a summary of the major enzyme groups found naturally in malted barley and their active range:

  • Phytase (86-126 F) – Lowers the pH of the mash.  Lowering the mash pH has a number of benefits, though a Phytase rest is rarely used by modern brewers.
  • Debranching (95-112 F) – Helps to increase the solubility of starches resulting in increased extraction for certain malts.
  • Beta Glucanese  (95-113F) – Breaks down the gummy heavy starches, which can help improve stability and extraction, particularly for mashes high in proteins and adjuncts such as wheat.
  • Pepidase (113-131F) – Produces free amino nitrogen, which can aid in fermentation.
  • Beta Amylase (131-150F) – Produces maltose, the main sugar fermented in beer.
  • Alpha Amylase (154-162F) – Produces a variety of sugars, including maltose and also some unfermentable sugars.  Mashing at the higher end of this range produces more unfermentables and therefore more body in the finished beer.

For single or multi-step mashes, the main step is called the conversion or saccrification step.  The bulk work of mashing is done by the alpha and beta amalyse enzymes, both of which are active to some degree in the normal 148-158F conversion step range.

Mashing at a lower temperature of 148-152F activated more beta amalyse, resulting in more maltose conversion.  Maltose is the primary sugar preferred by yeast, so a lower mash temperature results in a larger percentage of sugars being fermented resulting in a clean beer finish with higher attenuation, slightly higher alcohol content and less body overall.  It does generally take a bit longer for beta amalyse to do its work, so a longer conversion step at low temperature is needed.

Mashing at the high end of the range (154-158F) activates alpha amalyse, resulting in not only maltose but other unfermentable sugars.  Less of the sugars will ferment, leaving lower yeast attenuation and additional body in the finished beer.  Alpha amalyse completes its work more quickly than beta, so a slightly shorter step time can be used.

The other popular step used by modern brewers is the dough-in rest (protein rest).  Usually done at a temperature between 100-120 F, the dough in allows the grains to soak and saturate as well as allowing the key various lower temperature enzymes to begin chopping up longer chains of molecules.  This will generallylower your pH slightly, and improve your mash efficiency by a few percent.  I personally recommend a 20 minute dough in at a temperature between 100-112F for maximum impact.

Brad Smith Follow BeerSmith on Twitter and Facebook