When it comes to beer-drinking culture and the place of beer in daily life, the Germans have few peers. Visions of frothy steins, pretzels, wurst, and singing in the biergarten come to mind.
For the most part, the everyday beer of the Germans, especially in Bavaria, is Munchener helles. Easy to drink, mellow in character, but classically German, helles is beer sustenance at its finest. Though it may be considered a mainstream brew in its simplicity and ubiquity, helles offers much to the beer drinker. A new addition to the Classic Beer Style Series, entitled Bavarian Helles by Horst Dornbusch, describes this modest Bavarian lager and its rightful place within beer culture. As helles is a less-than-common offering in brewpubs outside of Germany, this is a welcome book for aspiring Bavarian-style home- and microbrewers.
Dornbusch’s name is a familiar and well-respected one in the beer world. The native of Dusseldorf is copiously published, having written many articles pertaining to beer and two other books, Prost: The Story of German Beer, and Altbier (number 12 of the Classic Style Series). He is also the owner of the Massachusetts contract brewery, Dornbusch Brewing Co. Inc., a 2000 GABF medal-winning brewery. Dornbusch is well-credentialed, knowledgeable and passionate about beer.
After a tantalizing introduction, the book takes off with an extensive and informative chapter on history. “Helles Throughout History” traces German brewing traditions and practices that relate to the development of helles from the dark, murky ales of the 14th century to the crisp, light-colored lager that we enjoy today. The author’s detailed account of the modern pale lager brewing revolution of the 19th century is especially intriguing. This is followed by a short chapter, “Profile of Helles,” that describes the characteristics of this delicate, malty golden brew and how to serve it. It essentially explains what to look for in a well-made helles, the culmination of centuries of refinement in the German art of brewing and the beer for which Bavarians take brotzeit (bread time) each morning.
The next three chapters are specifically aimed at the microbrewer and homebrewer. They are titled, in order, “Ingredients for Helles,” “Brewing Helles Lagers,” and “Recipe Guidelines.” Dornbusch takes the brewer through every detail imaginable to produce this delicate and delectably soft brew. As is the case for any beer, technique and ingredients are the critical determinants for brewing great beer. Dornbusch examines each aspect relating to this, in both a simplistic and meticulous way, describing not only how, but why, each step is executed.
The recipe section is short, with six recipes, but offers quite a bit of variation with respect to malt composition. Some recipes contain just pilsner malt, while others suggest pilsner, carapils and Munich malt bills. These are excellent guidelines and demonstrate the freedom to tailor a recipe to one’s own taste while staying within the stylistic parameters.
The last third of the book is a series of appendices that offer commercial examples of helles and technical brewing advice and information, such as hop utilization, extraction rates, and German malting techniques. This information is of interest to the brewer primarily and the consumer secondarily. The commercial examples are not very extensive and represent the most commonly found helles brands, but the entire book is sprinkled with photos of brand labels that encourage helles hunting.
Certainly this book measures up well with the other Classic Series books. Both brewers and beer aficionados can glean much information. And what better authority on a Bavarian style than a German-born professional brewer? He presents the humble helles style with reverence generally given to a more assertive beer. It is sometimes said that it’s the simple things that make life enjoyable. As Dornbusch shows, helles beer is testament to that.