Go To Helles
by Bob Montemurro
Have we become too jaded to enjoy a beer made from the four basic
ingredients: barley malt, hops, yeast and water? If just plain beer is
what you seek, you can’t get just-plainer than a helles lager.
Helles (pronounced “HELL-us”) is the immensely quaffable golden lager
downed by the tanker in Bavarian beer halls. Stylistically, it’s a cousin
to Pilsener. When the first pils appeared in 1842, its flaxen color and
creamy white foam made it an instant sensation. By the 1890s, the
new style was drawing enough market share from Central Europe’s
murky brown lagers that even arch-conservative Munich brewers were
forced to come up with their own version. Adapting the recipe to local
tastes, they produced a lager that was the same brilliant gold but
emphasized malt rather than hops. Munich’s Spaten brewery is
credited with brewing the first true helles in 1894.
A well-made helles is subtle but not boring. It should have that
appetizing aroma of biscuits rising in the oven and a flowery/spicy hop
finish that’s subdued but clearly detectable. Brisk in carbonation, with a
moderate alcohol level between 4.5 and 5.5 percent by volume, helles
has a quality that the late beer writer Michael Jackson termed “more-
ish”: One swallow invites another. Think of it as having the same spicy
hop characters of Czech Pils, but a bit more subdued and in balance
with more malts in its flavor profile
Speaking of extra hops, I sometimes find the line between helles and
Pilsener to be a bit blurry. For example, Hoppin’ Helles, a recent line
extension from Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing in Wisconsin, subsitutes
more aggressive American hop varieties (including Citra and Simcoe)
for the subtler European “noble” hop varieties which give the beer a
light, citrusy character with grassy notes.
Lighter beers like a Helles don’t always hold up well on transoceanic
voyages, and a fine German helles won’t taste the same when sipped
from a green bottle stateside as when downed under a tent at the
Oktoberfest. Fortunately, some of Munich’s most famous beer halls
now have American outposts. You can get a freshly brewed helles,
made to German specifications, at a Hofbrauhaus clone in Pittsburgh
or the newly opened Paulaner Brauhaus in New York City’s Bowery
neighborhood. In bottles I like the Southampton Keller Helles along
with similar beers from Victory and Great Lakes.
Helles isn’t a popular style for American craft breweries, both because
of the long maturation time it requires (six weeks or longer) and
because it leaves no room for error: Off-flavors stand out all too clearly
against such a delicate backdrop. But it isn’t as rare as it might seem.
Sometimes it goes under such noms de plume as “golden lager,”
“blond lager” or simply “lager.”
Some people also interchange the name Helles with Dortmunder, a
beer hailing from Dortmund, Germany. It too is a malt-accented pale
lager. With a traditional Dortmunder, cookie-like or bready maltiness is
very much in evidence. These beers are clean and easy to drink in
quantity. Some Dortmunders made in Denmark and the Netherlands
Oh, by the way, "Helles" is German for "bright." It has nothing to do
with that place down under (no, not Australia).
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