March of Lagers: Helles is Far More Than Just a Light Beer

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March of Lagers: Helles is Far More Than Just a Light Beer
Photo credit: Charlie Perez

Visit any traditional bierstube (beer hall) in Munich and you’ll be treated to the testament of Bavarian brewing tradition. Centuries of brewing expertise, science, and beer history come together to bring us the next beer style in our March of Lagers: the Munich Helles. Helle in German means bright or light. Similar to a number of beer styles in Germany, a Munich Helles is named after its appearance. To understand how this beer came into fruition, we’ll need to take a brief look at the history of the golden lager.

In 1833, brewers Gabriel Sedlmayr of the Spaten Brewery and Anton Dreher of the Dreher Brewery in Vienna made a research trip to England. Their goal was to witness and study a revolutionary hot-air kiln, which kilned green malt to a relatively pale consistency. They might have had a hunch this would forever change malt production.

Armed with their new-found knowledge, Sedlmayr and Dreher went to work at their respected breweries. Sedlmayr released an amber lager during the 1841 Oktoberfest known simply as a Märzen made with his pale grain dubbed Munich malt. Likewise, a few months later, Dreher released an even paler amber lager made with his own pale grain, dubbed Vienna malt. These two beers were the precursors to what we know as the Oktoberfest/Märzen and Vienna lagers. (More on these styles in a couple of weeks!)

Then, the world would change forever.

On Nov. 11, 1842, a Bavarian brewer, Josef Groll, released his pale golden lager to the unsuspecting public of Pilsen, Bohemia (modern-day Czechia). It did not take long for this beer to dominate the world. Virtually all other breweries in the world, including those in Germany, had to follow with their own version of this golden, clear, crowed-pleasing favorite.

Sometime in the month of March in 1894, the Spaten brewery (now operated by Sedlmayr’s three sons) sent a test cask of their creation to the port city of Hamburg. Over a short time, this golden brew gained more footing on the testing grounds. Spaten decided it was time to release its creation to the citizens of Munich. The Munich Helles was released on its home turf in the summer of 1895, and it has never lost traction.

To this day, Helles remains one of the most consumed styles in Bavaria. Even most of the beer consumed during Oktoberfest is either Helles or a modified, slightly stronger version slowly but surely replacing the very beer that bares the festival’s name: the traditional amber Oktoberfest.

Accurate replicas of this style are quite difficult because the beer is essentially a blank canvas with any flaws or imperfections having nothing to hide behind. Pale gold in color, brilliant clarity with a creamy white head. Pilsner malt dominates the aroma with notes of grain-like sweetness. Balanced flavor where malt and hops do not overpower each other, rather keep one another in perfect harmony, with slightly sweet finished and just enough balanced bitterness. Medium-bodied brew that is sure to keep your mouth watering for another sip.

Photo credit: Charlie Perez

Although Bruery is not known for producing lagers, it has recently released a Helles, the first in their Ruekeller series, and it is spot on! “Whether it becomes us or not, I don’t know,” Darren Moser, director of brewing operations, said during a recent conversation regarding luster The Bruery has with sour and barrel-aged beers. Not exactly known for making lagers, let alone perfect examples. “We just wanted to make a good, clean beer, and I think we got that,” he added.

Besides Bruery, you can try Unsung’s Kinetica or Golden Road’s Go to Helles. Other Orange County breweries that have had wonderful examples of Helles in the past: Green Cheek, Bottle Logic, TAPS, Asylum, and Chapman Crafted. Give them a friendly reminder to make these beers again! Also keep an eye out for other O.C. breweries to release a Helles.

Elegant, subtle, and clean are some of the most common and appropriate descriptors used to identify a Helles. Usually brewed using only a single type of malt (generally Pilsner malt) and one noble hop variety, extremely soft water, and southern German lager yeast (along with near-perfect brewing execution!) create this balanced and delicate beer. Arguably the crown achievement of Bavarian brewmasters and a talent showcase for our local brewers.

Serve in a traditional dimpled mug or perhaps in a footed cylindrical vessel for some flare at 40 degrees and enjoy. Pair with simple pressed panini sandwiches, fruit salads, and leafy salads with bacon, delicate fish dishes, unsweetened ham or most pork dishes, and, of course, weisswurst or bratwurst with sauerkraut. Go ahead, have another. At a range of 4.7 to 5.4 ABV, you’ll find it difficult not to order noch eins (one more).

Prost!

Editor’s note: Charlie Perez is an Advanced Cicerone® who covers the Orange County beer scene for the Booze Blog.

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