No region is more known for its beer than Bavaria. With summery weissbier and pilsner, autumnal Märzen and bocks for winter and spring, Bavaria has a brew for every season. But it’s the golden lager known as Munich helles that serves as the most popular and common beer.
Helles is the Bavarian answer to the plain, uncomplicated, flavorful and carefully crafted beers consumed on a regular basis by the masses.
In German, “helles” denotes something light, bright or blonde, all of which describe the beer. Easily distinguishable from pilsner, helles has a muted hop character and soft malty accent. Barely a century old, helles is regarded by many as the absolute pinnacle of brewing science and art―a reputation well earned.
A proper discourse on helles requires an historical look at European brewing on the whole. No brew is more different from, yet more a product of its forebears, than this one. From that perspective, brewing seems the conditional and divine destiny of Central and Northern Europe, given its temperate conditions, fertile lands and technological proclivity. Cultivated grain and agriculture came to Europe from the Fertile Crescent. Trade and military roads, built by the Roman Empire, crisscrossed Europe, and the routes remained as crucial commercial arteries post-Empire.
Munich was founded as a monastic settlement along such a route and, as in much of Europe during the end of the first millennium, these monks were the preeminent brewers of the era. Their dedication, meticulousness and focus were second to none. Monks in the Hallertau region of Bavaria (near Munich)―always ahead of the curve―first cultivated hops in the 8th century AD.
Soon enough, brewing became more secularized, followed by inevitable competition, and eventually commercial, political and aristocratic friction and distrust. Guilds to protect product quality and brewing rights were formed, and a number of localities enacted laws to regulate the ingredients of beer. These were the forerunners of the Reinheitsgebot Purity Law of 1516, and established the Bavarian tradition of brewing exclusively all-malt beer.
About this time, bottom-fermentation was emerging as a means to ensure proper beer quality. The cool climate of the Alpen foothills offered conditions that favored slow, steady fermentation, with the side benefit of empirical selection of specialized house yeasts. Serendipitously, the nearby cool caverns were perfect to store and age finished beer. Noting the inferiority of beers made during warm months, authorities outlawed bottom-fermentation brewing between April 23 and September 29 (this did not pertain to top-fermented weizenbier).
Though pale beers were still over 300 years in the offing, Bavarians were busy honing their bottom-fermented dark lagers like dunkels and bock. This modus operandi would come in handy throughout the 19th century, when brewing technology blossomed, with one key byproduct being paler, cleaner malt. Finesse and subtlety would replace the rich, albeit rougher, dark malt character of older styles.
Pale malt, by relative standards, was being made in England during the 18th century via old methods of direct kilning. Lighter than the coarser brown malt favored for porters and stouts, it was used in the production of pale ales, or as a mollifying base for darker brews. By the early 19th century, malting improved markedly, making pale malt less expensive, cleaner-tasting and even lighter in color.
English pale ales caught the eye of two prominent European brewers from the mainland: Gabriel Sedlmayr of Spaten in Munich and Anton Dreher of the Dreher brewery in Vienna. Their junket to England in 1833 sparked a flurry of malting experimentation and eventually ushered in the “golden age” of brewing; specifically the development of pilsner, and subsequently, golden derivative lagers that came to dominate the brewing landscape.
Sedlmayr’s first “pale” beer was a bottom-fermented Märzen introduced to the public at the Munich Oktoberfest in 1841, made with his newly developed amber Munich malt, decidedly paler than that made for dunkels and bocks. Dreher’s new brew, made with his Vienna malt, was offered to the public mere months later, and was even lighter than Sedlmayr’s.
Meanwhile, Bavarian transplant Josef Groll was busy making golden malt and even paler brew in Plzeň, Bohemia. This golden lager known as pilsner essentially changed brewing history. Brewers scrambled to compete with the new beer from Bohemia. Except for those in Munich, that is. Bavarian beer was expected to have some color, as they were famous for the reddish brown, and very traditional, dunkels and bocks. Even Märzen beers were considered unconventionally pale by comparison.
After years of tinkering, Sedlmayr’s sons (now in charge of the brewery) finally made the malt they desired, resulting in the test introduction of the new Munich helles in 1894. The new blonde beer was heartily accepted by most, but it was viewed by some of the old guard as a surrender of esteemed tradition. Bavarian brewers disagreed whether this was an affront to their proud heritage or a necessary commercial concession to trends and modernization, and more importantly, commercial viability. Wisely, the old-timers acquiesced, and brewers throughout Germany began adding helles to their repertoire. Markedly different than pilsner, it was maltier and less hop-forward, features favored by Bavarians.
Helles is the Bavarian answer to the plain, uncomplicated, flavorful and carefully crafted beers consumed on a regular basis by the masses. Beers such as this rely on a simple recipe made with the highest quality ingredients, and craftsmanship that is able to entice the maximum from a somewhat Spartan approach. What else would we expect from the some of the finest brewers in the world? A bill of German pilsner malt and a noble hop variety are all that is needed to produce the unpretentious helles wort.
The subtle, underlying malt sweetness and delicate grain notes are characteristics of the malt itself, and provide enough depth for a beer of simplicity―this is complimented by a soft, medium body and mouthfeel derived from the protein-rich nature of the malt and the mashing skill of the brewer.
Though slightly tilted towards the malt, helles is a well-balanced beer. It offers the spicy, herbal aroma of German hops at restrained levels, and enough bitterness in the finish to dry the palate. The clean finish is, of course, a product of generations of carefully selected bottom-fermented yeast and full lagering. Bavarian yeast tends to produce malty, dextrinous brews, characteristics evident in helles.
There may be hundreds of them to be found fresh on draft, a staple in brewery-rich Bavaria. Most run about 4.8 to 5.2 percent ABV, but those in the range of 5.5 to 5.9 percent can also be found. These stronger versions, made alongside regular helles, are often brewed as a special or festive brew. In fact, some beers presented at the Munich Oktoberfest are deep golden and not the amber hue that we would expect in exported Märzen. These are essentially more formidable helles. There are some stellar versions made in America, with Stoudt’s Golden Lager, Victory Lager and Penn Gold among the best.
Most true beer lovers need not be reminded that there is plenty to appreciate in elegant simplicity, easy drinkability and sublime refinement. Helles was the final frontier for the brewers of Bavaria: the polished consummation of centuries of brewing, standing proudly among the great beers of the world. Bohemian pilsner may be more copied, but helles remains a Munich original.