Good as Helles
It is a testament to subtlety and simplicity that Bavarian helles endures. On the surface, a pallid and soft beer such as a helles would seem to be an easy beer to make. The opposite is true. Often helles is made with a single type of malt and a single type of hop. Coaxing the delicate nuances out of these two ingredients requires the highest of brewing skills.
Helles begins with a base of premium German pilsner malt. It is the lightest-colored malt available and, used by itself, produces a straw-yellow or golden wort. The desired wort for a helles should give the finished beer a full-bodied nature relative to its strength. The brewer can accomplish this by manipulating the mash in one of two ways. Decoction mashing is one of these methods. By heating and boiling a portion of the mash and returning it to the mash tun, the brewer takes the malt through a series of enzymatic steps that encourage the production of body-building dextrins. Those that employ simple step infusion mashing can get the same effect by using high mash temperatures. In either case, the wort produced is rich in dextrinous viscosity.
German barley tends to be somewhat high in protein content, and the degradation of this protein is yet another contributor to the full perception of the beer. Some brewers might boost the character of the beer by using a small measure of Munich malt or dextrin malt.
Balance is a key feature of a well-brewed helles. Hop rates are modest, and this along with the fuller body distinguishes it from other pales lagers, especially the very popular pilsners of Germany. Hops known as “noble” varieties are what give German beers their unique aroma. Hallertauer, Tettnanger, Hallertauer Mittelfrüh, and Hersbrucker are such varieties, and their soft, herbal qualities are a perfect match for the delicate malt backbone of a helles lager. Twenty international bittering units is typical for a helles, noticeable but understated. There should be a hoppy thread running through a helles, with flavor and aroma hops in the mix, but again, at fairly reserved dosages.
Being a lager, helles has the clean, round quality that one would expect from a bottom-fermented, fully lagered brew. Though many examples are produced in Bavaria, the style varies a little from brewery to brewery. Some are drier than others, some hoppier, some a little fuller in color. All are imminently quaffable and register an alcohol by volume level of about 4.5 to 5.0 percent.
Where the Helles?
As Bavaria’s everyday beer, helles is offered by most of the region’s breweries. Many are exported and readily available. Spaten, Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr, Löwenbräu, Weihenstephan and Hofbräuhaus helles can be purchased nearly anywhere under any one of a number of monikers. Some are simply called “hell,” others “Münchener hell,” and still others “Urtyp hell” (original helles). Weihenstephan calls its helles “Original Lager.” These beers have a soft, noble hop character; a clean, crisp maturity; and a mellow malt background. While the common examples are excellent in their own right, a visit to Bavaria would uncover many gems in the style, in some very quaint settings. Some might even be drawn fresh from a cask or from the bierkeller.
Many American brewers make a decent, if not excellent, version of helles. Augsburger Gold, this year’s gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival, is one of the best. Capital Brewery’s Bavarian Lager is the maltiest of the lot. Pennsylvania offers two excellent ones: Penn Brewery’s Penn Gold and Stoudt’s Golden Lager are well-crafted, authentic and satisfying.