Q: I’m trying to achieve a rich, malty aroma in my beers that rivals that of such beers as Ayinger Maibock, Pilsner Urquell, and Anchor Steam. I know decoction works well, bur is there an easier way to come close? Different types of malt, perhaps? Different types of yeast?
A: In my experience, you can get the malty aromas and flavors of the classic German lager styles without resorting to a decoction mash. As you say, using a “malty” yeast strain, such as Wyeast #2308 or #2124, is vital. So is the selection of high-quality specialty malts, especially the highly kilned and caramel malts used in the dark lagers.
I have been able to brew excellent pale lagers, including Maibocks, using a simple infusion mash, domestic two-row brewers base malt, imported highly kilned and/or light caramel malt, noble aroma hops, and German lager yeast strains. I have been less successful with the darker beers; the flavor and aroma were right, but in many cases the beers suffered from a grainy, tannic character that made them taste rougher than the German examples. I attribute the difference in smoothness primarily to the mash method.
One exception — a couple of years ago I brewed an Oktoberfest that was a lautering disaster. I milled the grain too fine and got a stuck mash. I had to do the whole number with it, including a long, slow vorlauf followed by a two-hour sparge. The extraction rate was nonetheless terrific, the wort was crystal clear (this I expected) and in addition, it was the smoothest batch of Oktoberfest I have ever made in a brewpub (this I did not expect). My experience suggests that a longer, more intensive mashing and wort clarifying process — whether it includes boiling or not — may help to remove some of the tannins from the wort and result in a smoother beer.
All of this in turn leads me to suggest that you might want to investigate a RIMS (recirculating infusion mash system), or at least a RIMS-style mash, for some of your German lager beers. Fortunately, BrewingTechniques published two articles on the subject in the last issue. I am still skeptical about some of the alleged benefits, and I worry about the dangers of hot-side aeration; nonetheless, RIMS may prove to be a better alternative than simple infusion for those brewers who lack either the patience or the time or, in the case of commercial brewers, the equipment to go the decoction route.
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