Award winning Beer Writer Adrian Tierney-Jones explores the Central European 'Lagerlands' in a series of Euroboozer blogs: Part #4...
Keep your eyes peeled for our next European lager pre order for access to a host of Bavarian Helles and more! Launches Thursday 9th February
The most enduring and long-lasting of beer styles often have the simplest of names and there is an equally simple reason for this — it makes them easy to remember and they do exactly what it says on the tap badge. We know what to expect from a pint of bitter (unless some idiosyncratic brewer has chucked some fruit and veg in the mix). Pale ale is also self-explanatory (unless it is a dark pale ale as I have seen been brewed several years back…). Meanwhile, for a German-speaking drinker, Helles will immediately give them a precise definition of what to expect. Helles is a simple descriptor, meaning light, pale or bright in German, and it is certainly a state of being that suits the public face of Bavaria’s most popular beer (elsewhere throughout Germany you will find that Pils, or Pilsener, is the ubiquitous choice though recent anecdotal evidence suggests that Helles is starting to make inroads outside Bavaria).
This is a beer for a summer’s day in a city like Munich, where you sit outside in a pub garden beneath the flittering bright green leaves of a linden tree, often in the company of pretzels or even a plate of radishes (plus friends of course). There will be a half-litre (or maybe even a litre if a thirst is upon the drinker) of this lustrous beer that will gleam in the glass through a secret of its own making, showing off various shades of gold ranging from the proud shine of a well-polished wedding ring to the dulled, broody scowl of an ingot that’s spent too long in a vault. It is also a beer that is not too high in alcohol, being between 4.5-5.3% abv, while its Plato value is around 11-12.5˚ [The Plato gravity scale measures the ratio of fermentablesugars to water in a beer.] . A well-made Helles is a beer that will enchant and captivate with its easy drinkability, a beer that, as Schönramer Brewery’s brewmaster Eric Toft told me, when we met before Christmas over a beer, will make you want to keep drinking it until you remember that you have commitments such as an early start the next day.
‘Helles is a beer for volume drinkers,’ he says, ‘this is for Bavarians in particular, especially for those in the south-east of the state. There is a saying that you cannot stand on one leg, so nobody drinks just one. You drink two, and that is already a litre, because people don’t bother with either .300 or .400ml measures. They go for the half litre, but a litre is also quite common and it is often enough, but if it is a good one people are going to want more. The trick of a good Helles is that you should have this subconscious desire to keep drinking it and sometimes you have to make the conscious decision to stop drinking for whatever reason. It might become too much or you might have to drive in the morning. It is beer for any time, any place, not too high in alcohol, not too heavy on the hops, although if the mashing is done properly and everything else in the process is, you can put a lot more hops in than you think.
‘As for its production, I am very traditional and believe that cold fermentation and primary fermentation should take at least nine days, maybe 12, and then the beer should have a proper lagering time. I used to say that it had to be at least 28 days maturation (or lagering), but now at Schönramer we have the luxury of a bigger cellar and have been adding tanks and so in my view it starts to get better at 35 days with an optimum of 42 days for a Helles. Once you get above 50 you start to get some autolysis [Autolysis happens when yeast cells die and can often create an umami like note, which would be totally unacceptable in a Helles.], so it’s not a big enough beer to accommodate more than 50 days. I also think that decoction mashing is essential for producing this beer.’
With all this in mind, let’s see what the gods of Bavarian beer have in store for us with a Helles. Here’s one I tasted earlier, from Krug-Bräu in Franconia. On its nose, there is a delicately sweet and bready flurry of notes, or maybe it’s the lure of light breakfast cereal? This is a beer that is a hymn to the sustenance of barley and the subtle inference of a delicate lemon-like note in the background that the use of Noble hops such as Hallertau Mittelfrueh and Tettnanger can bring [In comparison a Pilsener has a lot more hopcharacter, while examples of Northern German Pils apparently feature hops with a higher alpha component and this produces a less refined bitterness; though a Bavarian Pils could use the same amount of hops but because they are lower alpha varieties the perceived bitterness is less]. There is a soft carbonation, which encourages the thirsty drinker to maintain their presence at the bar, while the clean tasting finish has echoes of malted barley and once again the gossamer lightness of the hop.
The best Helles beers (such a beer I have described above) are an easy drinking treat, uncomplicated and yet elegant in their finesse. It is one of those beer styles that can bring sunshine into the gloomiest of days and is an ideal accompaniment to that box of delights we call life. It’s not a radical beer heaven forbid, for most beers that style themselves radical are hard work to drink after half a pint, but it is a beer for, and of, the people of Bavaria. You can match it with food if you like as it has a versatility, but its main reason for living is to refresh the palate and provide an excellent beer-drinking opportunity. With all this in mind it sounds like it’s easy to brew, but herein lies a delightful contradiction. All the brewers I have spoken to about Helles point out that when brewing it, despite the simplicity and ease on the palate, it is not a question of turning up at the brewhouse, twiddling a few knobs and hey presto Helles is flowing through the pubs and bars of Bavaria. Brewing an exceptional Helles is as difficult and as challenging as a Mahler symphony is for an orchestra.
‘In our opinion a Helles is one of the most difficult beers to brew,’ says Andreas Stürzer, a brewmaster at the legendary monastery brewery Andechs south-west of Munich, whose 4.8% Hell is a fine and eloquent example of the style (a stronger Spezial Hell is also brewed). ‘Because of its pure character and the less amount of hops used, you will taste every off flavour, while in other beer styles you can conceal off flavour problems with the hops, darker malt and high alcohol volume.
‘Yes, we think it is conservative beer style,’ he adds in answer to a particular question I put, ‘but in a traditional way. As a brewery in southern Germany you have to brew a good Helles. It is a pure and elegant style of beer and we would never describe it as bland. A Helles is first of all a regular lager, with a pure and smooth taste and no edges. Its bitterness is very low and it has a bright yellow colour. For us it is a perfect everyday beer, because it has no bad bitter aftertaste and its alcohol amount is not so high.’
Stürzer’s view is echoed by Jonas Seidl, Managing Director of Munich-based Giesinger Bräu, a newish brewery, whose main beer is a Münchener Hell (over a dozen other beer styles are produced). ‘We started production in a garage in 2006,’ he says, ‘but now we have two breweries in Munich. One is still located in the Giesing district where we produce the smaller batches and there is a big new brewery in the north of the city where our flagship Erhellung – a non-filtered Helles with a higher gravity (12.6˚ Plato) than usual and a light hoppy/yeasty flavour — and Münchner Hell are produced. Helles is a rising star in the whole of Germany. For many years it was only requested in Bavaria. It is an everyday beer and is characterised by a bright colour, low bitterness and not much flavour at all. It is one of the most difficult styles to brew. This specification provides a huge drinkability. That’s why Helles is so popular.’
There is a pleasing symmetry in the way that the beer styles of Central Europe developed during the 19th and 20th century. I, along with other beer-lovers, will think of Anton Dreher in Vienna, Gabriel Sedlmayr the Younger in Munich and Josef Groll in Pilsen; all three of these brewers coming forth with epoch-defining beers over a similar time. Given that the social media of the time was likely to be letters and postcards sent over long distances, it is still amazing that the foundation of modern lager beers broke out forth so close to each other. On the other hand, Helles was a slow starter, being introduced in March 1894, though instead of giving it to the Munich locals to try as most brewers launching new beers today would do, its makers, Spaten, sent it to Hamburg for what we might nowadays call a soft launch. The then dominant beer style in Munich was Dunkel but the city’s brewers were not unaware of the success of the golden beer coming out of Pilsen.
As the Austrian beer-writer Conrad Seidl noted in the Oxford Companion to Beer’s entry on Helles, before 1894, a couple of Munich brewers had tried their hands at beers that were somewhat paler than the popular style in the city. A year after the proclamation of the German Empire following the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War, 1872 saw the release of what was called a Helles Export Bier by Franziskaner-Leist-Brauerei. According to Seidl this was not recognised as being what we now call a Helles, ‘but yielded the foundation recipe of what was to become today’s Spaten Oktoberfest beer’.
Twenty-one years later Hacker-Pschorr (then known as Hacker-Bräu) brewed a Münchner Gold, which was meant to be an imitation of the Pilsner being produced over the border in Bohemia. However, it was Spaten that eventually took the monumental step of introducing their benchmark Helles to Munich drinkers in June 1895, when it was released as Helles Lagerbier. The emergence of this first Helles, and the beer’s growing popularity, apparently had some Dunkel drinkers (and brewers) getting in a right old lather over what they saw as the usurping of their favourite beer, which, according to Seidl, caused no small amount of dissension: ‘The success of the Helles style brought about a stormy meeting of the Verein der Münchener Brauereien (the Association of Munich Breweries) on November 7, 1895, where the owners of some of the largest breweries declared that they had no intention of making any pale lagers in the near future. They even drafted a resolution aimed at turning the clock back and forming an anti-pale-lager cartel, which would aim to preserve a local market for dunkel. The result of the meeting was disunity. The brewers who wanted to make helles simply went ahead, and those who did not, did not. The more forward looking of Munich’s beer barons, however, recognised that pale beers were the beers of the future, and all brewers soon started to rethink their policies.’ [This myopic view reminds me of the story from the 1886 Brewers’ Exhibition in North London, where one of the presentations at a Brewers’ Congress held during the event was a paper entitled ‘The Beer of the Future’. At the end of the talk an agent for a lager beer was heard to call out that lager was ‘the beer of the future’. How prescient was this unnamed man?]
Meanwhile Helles zipped through Bavaria’s bars and pubs over the next couple of decades even though it wasn’t until the 1920s that some Bavarian (and German) brewers began to make Helles (as well as a Pils). According to Eric Toft, he believes that the original Helles in Bavaria was a copy of a Pilsner from over the border in Bohemia, but that the brewers realised the local water meant that some changes had to be made.
‘The thing is they had to dumb down the hopping rates,’ he says, ‘as it was too aggressive and way too bitter. When the beers were made using Czech water, which was soft, there was no hardness, but Munich water has a lot of carbonated hardness as well as a pretty high residual hardness which means that the perceived bitterness is much more extreme and a little bit astringent, so they had to take the hopping down to make it approachable.’
Whilst hops and malted barley (to some extent) fascinate and excite those with an overstimulated interest in beer (brewers, beer nerds, beer writers), the role of water is often forgotten, even though the soft water of Pilsen and the sulphury water of Burton-upon-Trent have played a crucial role in the development of those cities’ world-famous beers. Perhaps it is that water is not as captivating or heroic as the colourful palette that hops work from or as stolid and workhorse-like as malted barley, and yet water is part of the fantastic foursome that makes a great beer and if you taste the waters of Burton or, as I did, of Buvdar, you get an extra sense of what makes the beer styles attached to the area so characterful. When I tried the untreated water of Budvar, it was like the ghost of water, and there was hardly anything there on my palate. It was clean and limpid in the glass, a canvas on which the actions of the malt, hops and yeast could daub their colours and form their shapes. Now if you imagine tasting the harder water of Munich, you can understand Toft’s analysis of how using the same hopping rates of the brewery in Pilsen could lead to astringency in the beer and subsequently the tinkering and water treatment that led to Helles (incidentally, Schönramer’s sub-Alpine water is similar to Munich’s).
That begs a further question: why does the perceived softness of a Helles appeal to so many drinkers? I have written about its drinkability but in an age of highly hopped IPAs, teeth-rotting pastry stouts and aggressively soured beers, there has to be some sort of reason. Sure, if you are interested in beer then it always makes sense to try something whose brewer has thrown all caution to the wind and used their experience to fashion an intriguingly flavoured beer. However, maybe it is a case that more beer-lovers are not so interested in aggressively flavoured beers as craft brewers might think, especially given the growing amount of brewers I have heard state that the style they most want to brew is a lager.
With my own experience a Helles is certainly the kind of beer whose glass is quickly emptied, even though I also enjoy all kinds of Bavarian beer styles such as Rauchbier, Märzen and Doppelbock. There is something pure and childlike about the style perhaps, possessing an elementary understanding of the character that hops and malted barley can give to a beer after a long lagering process. It’s an end of the working day beer, a weekend lunchtime chiller or something to muse on as you ponder on the verities of life.
Given the influence of Pilsners from Bohemia on the development of Helles in the late 19th century, it is both interesting and instructive to briefly consider the emergence of the Bavarian (or German) Pils/Pilseners several decades later. As Eric Toft earlier said, the harder water of Munich made it difficult to completely emulate the golden lagered beers of Bohemia, with the same hopping rates leading to astringency in the beer. However, some years later, brewers started producing their own versions after the water treatment had been worked out and more hop forward beers could be brewed. There is also a point about the price of hops, as Eric Toft speculates, ‘hops are extremely expensive, so a hoppy beer was expensive, almost a luxury beer. I don’t know exactly the details but the transition from Helles to Pils could have come about once they had figured out the water which meant they could add more hops and then start to ask a premium price’. [I recall being told on my first visit to Pilsner Urquell of how the beer used to be seen by some as a ‘luxury’ beer, because it was more expensive than other beers such as
Gambrinus Original. ]
Helles is other people’s variations
As I wrote earlier, I have heard an increasing amount of brewers stating that the beer style they most want to brew is lager. With this is mind, it does seem that many breweries, whether they see themselves as craft or not, have either a Helles or Pils in mind. For instance, Leeds-based Amity Brew’s lager is called Festoon Helles, whose inspiration, co-founder Russ Clarke told me, were ‘beers like Augustiner Helles and Tegernseer Helles. Our goal is not to try to “beat” these beers, but to take the elements that we love about them and construct something more modern in line with our ethos of giving a modern spin to classic styles’. Meanwhile, Camden Town’s Hells is described as a ‘love child’ of Helles and Pils. Other breweries have taken to using American hops, which Eric Toft admits to being bemused by.
‘Where I have a problem,’ he says, ‘is when you have Helles hopped with American hops and you have this almost ale or pale ale character in a lager beer. I was judging at the World Beer Cup and there was a beer that obviously had Cascade or Citra in a German beer category and it was the judges’ favourite beer. I said that it was not really typical, not classical, but other judges were saying, “but it doesn’t say no US hops in the style guidelines”. For me you have to respect the category, it shouldn’t be anything goes.’
Andechs’ Andreas Stürzer posits a similar view. ‘We think Bavarian Helles is the benchmark, because it was invented in Munich in the late 19th century,’ he says. ‘In our opinion something like a dry hopped Helles loses is traditional character and you can’t call it a Bavarian Helles.’
On one hand, there is a fluidity about modern beer styles, as we have seen with IPA, but on the other you could argue that brewers like Toft and Stürzer are custodians of Helles, but without letting it settle into its own aspic. Toft, who has been at Schönramer for 25 years, admits to tweaking the recipe for his Helles in response to people’s preferences, but this would be subtle. Maybe that is how such a venerable beer style has stayed the course, improving rather than innovating, the latter being one of the most overused words in beer marketing. Meanwhile you could argue that back in the 1890s, what Spaten was trying to do with its proto-Helles was improve with an eye to their drinkers’ preferences, the Pilsners coming from across the border. Or were they? A subject and a discussion to have while drinking a Maß of Helles in a beer garden perhaps?