The Pilsner People - Chapter 4. The Malt Master: Jiri Bohac

We are unquestionably living in the age of the hop. Beer is more popular than ever and bitter, aromatic hop flavours are arguably the easiest within beer to latch on to. Pilsner Urquell is no different, with the noble Saaz hops, grown in the Czech Republic adding the beers characteristic bitterness and herbal bite.

As a result of this malt often gets overlooked as an ingredient, despite a great deal more of it being used to create a beer in comparison to hops. Many people refer to malt as the “backbone” of a beer, but I don’t think this description gives malt the credit that it truly deserves. Malt is the heart and soul of a beer. In Pilsner Urquell, the triple decoction brewing method, which we will learn more about in the next chapter, causes some of the malt to caramelise during the brewing process. This is what gives the beer its characteristic sweetness that balances out the bitter flavours imparted by the Saaz hops.

Traditionally, malt is created by Maltsters and then sold to a brewery for use in brewing. Most small breweries these days will buy pre-crushed grains, so that they can extract as much sugar as possible for a happy fermentation. Larger breweries will have their own mills so that they can crush grains to their own exacting specifications. This ensures greater freshness in their malt, as once a husk is cracked the grain begins to deteriorate. 

Pilsner Urquell, like many other Czech breweries, take this process one step further, in that they have their own malting plant and produce 100% of their own malted barley. The current Malt Master, who oversees this process, is Jiri Bohac, who has worked at the brewery for 14 years. He began his career as a ‘technologist’, as he puts it, overseeing various processes in the brewhouse. He then moved to the malthouse, continuing to work as a technologist for a year and a half before becoming the Malt Master.

“I decided that malt is my love,” Jiri says when asked why he made the transition from brewing to malting. “Malt is one of the most important ingredients, but only together with hops and yeast, of course!” Pilsner malt is now used all over the world to create golden lagers. It’s origin of course, was the town of Pilsen, from which is takes its name. Here it was used to create Pilsner Urquell, the first golden Pilsner, which brewers from all corners of the globe have attempted to imitate ever since. 

Malting is the process of turning a grain, usually barley, into a product that creates fermentable sugar when steeped in hot water. Malt is responsible for providing beer with its alcohol content, but it also provides body and prevents beer from tasting thin and lifeless. The first process at the Pilsner Urquell malthouse is to sort the grains, which are mostly sourced from farms in an area of the Czech Republic known as Moravia.

“We say that from malt comes body and form, it’s certainly my favourite ingredient.” Pilsner Urquell Malt Master, Jiri Bohac

“We sort the grain we buy and if the head is smaller than 2.5mm in width then we don’t use it for malting as it’s not suitable.” Jiri informs us. “The unsuitable grain goes back to the farmers to be used as feed.” The farmers also have the added benefit of picking up the spent grain used during the brewing process to also be used as feed. This highly sustainable model is used by breweries all over the world and results in dramatically reduced wastage.

Once sorted, the grain is loaded into long rectangular troughs in the malthouse before being spread out flat and steeped with water. After a couple of days of steeping, the key process of malting begins: germination. This germination causes the tough and undesirable cell walls composed of starch within the grain to be broken down. This in turn allows the naturally occurring enzymes to easily break down these starches into sugars during the brewing process.

Germination generally lasts for around five days and once complete a root can be visibly seen protruding from the barley husk. The root is undesirable but thankfully this is removed during the kilning process. Kilning involves the barley being stored at high temperatures, the higher the temperature the more unfermentable sugars are produced by crystallisation within the grain. This is not to be confused with roasting, which is a process used after kilning to create the dark malts used in beers such as stouts, porters and the dark lagers of the Czech Republic. This process would be undesirable for Pilsner Urquell. 

Once the kilning process is completed the barley has become malt and is ready to be used for brewing. The aim at Pilsner Urquell is, of course, to produce the famous Pilsner malt that gives the beer its characteristic golden colour, bittersweet flavour and rich mouthfeel. That they can replicate this time and time again is a testament to the work Jiri and his team does in the malthouse. 

“We say that from malt comes body and form, it’s certainly my favourite ingredient,” Jiri says as he finishes giving us a tour of the malting facility. “But I love the hops too!”