Light gold in hue and laid-back in character, helles (German for “light”) is Bavaria’s answer to a session beer. The humble helles is Bavaria’s most popular brew and is considered by many to be the refined zenith of south German brewing with its underlying maltiness, soft hop bitterness, and superb drinkability.
It is a testament to subtlety and simplicity that Bavarian helles endures.
Of Monks and Men
To understand the roots of helles, one needs to travel the centuries-old road of German brewing history. Northern Europe has been inhabited for several millennia, and the production of fermented beverages was a practice of those prehistoric tribes. The brewing center of what is now Germany was the unassuming settlement of Munich, a monastic outpost along the ancient trade route known as the salt road. Though Munich was home to an eclectic mélange of cultures, monastic influence might have been the greatest. The city’s very name is a derivative of monchen, meaning monks. Almost by default, brewing fell into the hands of the monks, who were generally regarded as the preeminent practitioners of the craft. They were also hop growers par excellence, with documentation of that as long ago as AD 768 by the Freising monastery.
Germany endured numerous political and aristocratic tussles beginning about a thousand years ago. Control of the brewing industry was often at the center of them, especially as secular interests entered the brewing landscape. To protect the quality of the beer and the rights of the brewers, guilds were formed and laws enacted that dictated brewing ingredients and methods. In 1447, the Munich City Council allowed beer to be brewed with only hops, malted barley and water. Such requirements led to passage of the famous purity law, the Reinheitsgebot, in 1516.
Brewers, being the astute craftsmen that they were, noticed that beers brewed in cool months and stored cold were far superior to those brewed during the summer. Yeast, as an essential brewing entity, became appreciated in conjunction with bottom fermentation. To ensure the superior standards of the Münchener beer, the brewing of bottom-fermenting beers was outlawed between April 23 and September 29: Only the top-fermenting wheat beers could be brewed between those dates. It was during this period that Bavaria, and Munich in particular, further distinguished itself as a brewing epicenter. Weissbier, bock, and the signature dark beer, dunkel, were the beers that made Munich famous. None of these even remotely resembled the beer we know today as helles, but the brewing revolutions leading to its development were looming on the horizon.
The Search for Perfection
The watershed event that undeniably revolutionized brewing was the invention of the hot air kiln in 1817. The drum-like device allowed green malt to be dried indirectly with hot air instead of directly over a fire. It also allowed for very controlled heating, which allowed the maltster to make fairly pale grains to brew with. Gone was the dark, smoky product of yore. English brewers were the first to take advantage of the new kiln and began producing wonderfully clean, pale ales. Naturally these brews caught the eye of other brewers in Europe who craved a similar sparkling product.
Pale malt was brought to continental Europe by two famous brewers, Gabriel Sedlmayr of Spaten in Munich and Anton Dreher of the Dreher brewery in Vienna, after a trip to England in 1833. Sedlmayr’s amber lager beer, known as märzen, was introduced to the public in 1841 at the Munich Oktoberfest. His malt was known, of course, as Munich malt. Dreher produced his first pale beer, known as Vienna lager, that was even lighter in color than the märzen of Spaten. At the same time in Plzn, Bohemia, the Bavarian brewer, Josef Groll, was busy producing a golden lager with a yeast smuggled in from Bavaria. His brilliant gold pilsner lager, the lightest beer yet, was introduced to the public in 1842.
Pilsner, unmistakably the new king of beers, was hastily copied in some form all over Europe. The Franziskaner brewery, operated by Gabriel Sedlmayr’s brother, Joseph, introduced a pale lager to the Munich Oktoberfest in 1872 as a direct competitor to the Bohemian lagers. Finally, in 1894, Gabriel’s three sons produced a very pale lager that is today considered the first true helles lager. It was in keeping with Bavaria’s penchant for malty and modestly hopped brews, different from their pilsners.
Today, about half of the beer consumed in Bavaria is helles, rather impressive when one considers that there are several styles of beer that call Bavaria home: pilsner, bock, dunkel, märzen, and the resurgent weissbier among them. Munich is directly responsible for giving us both märzen and helles as new beer styles, while retaining its more traditional and refined dark beers.
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.