German Helles, a traditional pale lager, originated in Southern Germany, particularly Munich. This beer is characterized by its full-bodied, mildly sweet, and light-colored appearance. Helles is often described as having a low bitterness, making it a popular choice among beer enthusiasts who prefer a milder option. The word “hell” in German translates to “pale,” “light,” or “bright,” accurately reflecting the beer’s visual characteristics.
Munich Helles made its debut in 1894 as Bavaria’s response to the trending Czech Pilsner. This classic style has gained a faithful following over the years and is often enjoyed at Munich biergartens. With a touch of sweetness and a slightly rounder body than light lagers or all-malt Pilsners, the Helles Lager showcases a balance of spicy German hop flavor, which appeals to a wide range of beer drinkers.
- German Helles is a traditional pale lager with a full-bodied, mildly sweet taste and low bitterness.
- Originating in Southern Germany, it first appeared in 1894 as a response to the popular Czech Pilsner.
- The balanced flavor of Helles Lager includes spicy German hops that contribute to its well-rounded character.
History of German Helles
The Munich Helles has its roots in Bavaria, a region famous for its wide array of beer styles, including Weissbier, Märzen, Dunkels, and Bocks. Helles, which translates to “bright,” “light,” or “pale” in German, first emerged around Munich in 1894. This beer style was created in response to the growing popularity of light Czech Pilsners, which prompted Bavarian brewers to develop a lighter, more golden lager.
It was Spaten Brewery that introduced the first “real” Helles beer on March 21, 1894. Known for its traditional strong, dark lagers, the brewery faced the challenge of adapting to shifting consumer preferences driven by the rise in popularity of Czech Pilsners. In a bold move, Spaten Brewery decided to send the new Helles beer to Hamburg for market testing, where it quickly became a hit.
Despite the initial success of Helles, its universality was gradually replaced by Pilsner-style beers across German-speaking regions during the 1960s. This change in popularity was fueled by a combination of increasing consumer preference for bottled beer over draft and the widespread availability of Pilsner. However, Helles remains a cherished and iconic beer style in Southern Germany, particularly Munich, where it continues to hold strong.
Helles Lager Characteristics
Helles Lagers are characterized by their bright, pale yellow color. This appearance is due to the beer’s clean filtration process, although some unfiltered versions may appear slightly hazy. The pale color is also a result of the use of light malts in brewing, giving it an appealing and inviting appearance.
When it comes to aroma, Helles Lagers are known for their delicate and subtle scents. These beers typically have light floral notes, often derived from the use of Noble hops in the brewing process. The maltiness also contributes to the aroma, but it remains balanced and not overpowering.
The taste of a Helles Lager is predominantly malty with a hint of sweetness, balanced by the mild bitterness from the hops. These beers have a clean, crisp flavor that highlights their distinct malt character without being overly sweet. The restrained bitterness and floral hop notes help accentuate the maltiness, making it a well-rounded and easy-drinking beer.
Helles Lagers have a full-bodied, yet soft, mouthfeel that sets them apart from other light lagers. This can be attributed to the use of lager yeast, which contributes a smoother texture and a lower ester profile than ale yeasts. The result is a beer that feels rich and satisfying on the palate, with a clean and refreshing finish that keeps you coming back for more.
Ingredients and Brewing Process
To brew a German Helles, the primary malt used is Pilsner malt, which provides the beer with its light, crisp body and mildly grainy flavor. Complementing the Pilsner malt, a small amount of Vienna malt can be added, typically around 10% of the total grain bill, to round out the base malt flavors. You may also consider using a touch of Victory malt (about ¼ lb/113g) for an added richness to the overall malt character.
German Helles typically utilizes noble hops for their distinct floral and herbal aroma rather than aggressive bitterness. Popular options include Hallertau, Tettnanger, and Saaz. Aim for a modest bitterness, usually within the range of 18-25 IBUs, with a focus on late hop additions to balance the beer’s maltiness.
To achieve the clean, crisp profile of a German Helles, using a quality lager yeast is essential. Some recommended strains include Wyeast 2206 (Bavarian Lager), White Labs WLP830 (German Lager), and Fermentis Saflager W-34/70. Ensure that you pitch a healthy and ample amount of yeast to support proper attenuation and fermentation.
Water plays a critical role in enhancing the flavors of a German Helles. The water should be high in calcium sulfate and calcium chloride, as these minerals contribute to the beer’s mineral firmness and help accentuate both the malt and hop profiles. Adjusting your water chemistry to match traditional German brewing water profiles is recommended.
Fermentation is a crucial part of achieving the desired character of a German Helles. Start by pitching your yeast into a wort cooled to 46°F (8°C) and allow the temperature to rise to 50°F (8°C) over the course of fermentation. Once the specific gravity reaches around 1.020 (approximately 7-10 days), increase the temperature to 60°F (16°C) for a diacetyl rest and hold it until the final gravity is reached. Rack to secondary, gradually lower the temperature by 3°F/2°C per day to 38°F (3°C), and let the beer condition for several weeks to achieve optimal clarity and flavor development.
Substyles and Variations
Munich Helles is a traditional German lager native to Bavaria. The beer features a pale to gold color and a medium body. It has a pronounced malt aroma and flavor and is balanced with a gentle bitterness. Typically, Munich Helles uses German malts, spicy German hops, and controlled fermentation to achieve its balanced yet subtly sweet profile.
Dortmunder Export is a variation of the Helles lager that originates from Dortmund. It falls somewhere between Munich Helles and Pils in terms of malt-hop balance. Dortmunder Export has a slightly higher alcohol content (5.5-6% ABV) compared to Munich Helles and Pils, which historically aided in preserving the beer during the export process. This lager style has more hop aroma, flavor, and bitterness than Munich Helles while being less dry and bitter than a Pils.
Lagerbier Hell is another variation of the Helles lager commonly found in Bavaria. It shares similarities with Munich Helles, featuring a pale golden color, medium body, and a satisfying interplay of malt and hop flavors. Lagerbier Hell often exhibits a soft, bready malt character and a touch of sweetness that balances the light hop bitterness. The beer is clean and crisp, making it a refreshing choice with substance. It pairs well with light dishes such as salads and fresh shellfish.
Measured in International Bitterness Units (IBU), the German Helles has a mild bitterness ranging from 18-25 IBU. This low level of bitterness allows for a balanced flavor profile and makes it a more malt-focused beer, as opposed to hop-forward styles.
Alcohol by Volume (ABV)
The alcohol content in a German Helles is relatively low, typically ranging between 4.8% – 5.6% ABV. This mild alcohol content makes the Helles a refreshing and easy-to-drink beer, perfect for pairing with a variety of dishes and suitable for various occasions.
Original Gravity (OG)
Original gravity is the measure of unfermented sugars in the beer before the yeast is introduced. For German Helles, the original gravity usually falls within the range of 1.045 – 1.051. This indicates a moderate level of fermentable sugars that contribute to the beer’s balanced malt sweetness.
Final Gravity (FG)
Final gravity measures the density of the beer after fermentation is complete. German Helles typically has a final gravity between 1.008 – 1.012, resulting in a medium-bodied beer with a mild sweetness that complements its low bitterness.
In summary, the key metrics of German Helles include:
- Bitterness (IBU): 18-25
- Alcohol by Volume (ABV): 4.8% – 5.6%
- Original Gravity (OG): 1.045 – 1.051
- Final Gravity (FG): 1.008 – 1.012
Popular Helles Breweries and Examples
Augustiner-Bräu is a renowned brewery based in Munich, Germany. They are known for producing classic helles lagers with a clean malt sweetness and a balanced flavor profile. Their Edelstoff is a popular example of their helles lager offerings, showcasing the traditional characteristics of this style.
Another notable brewery offering a delightful helles lager is Weihenstephaner, with their Weihenstephaner Original. Hailing from the world’s oldest brewery, this helles lager embodies the authentic German taste with a subtle malt sweetness and a smooth finish that leaves you wanting more.
The Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co
Located in Austin, Texas, The Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co brings a taste of Germany to the United States with their helles lager called Hell Yes. This award-winning creation stays true to the style, offering an easy-drinking experience and satisfying flavors that will appeal to both casual beer drinkers and connoisseurs.
Victory Brewing Co
Victory Brewing Co is another American brewery that offers an excellent helles lager, named Helles Lager. Brewed in Pennsylvania, this beer combines the best of German tradition with a unique American twist. Rich malt flavors and a smooth finish make it a highly drinkable and pleasant experience.
Dry Dock Brewing Co
Based in Colorado, Dry Dock Brewing Co has a refreshing helles lager called simply Helles. A fine example of the style, it presents a perfect balance of crisp, bready flavors and smooth, low bitterness. Enjoy this beer with food pairings like samosas, Colby cheese, and baklava for optimal enjoyment.
Hill Farmstead Brewery
Last but not least, Hill Farmstead Brewery in Vermont offers a helles lager called Mary. With a strong focus on quality and craftsmanship, this brewery creates a distinctive helles lager that is both complex and highly drinkable. Mary showcases the unique flavors and characteristics that make the helles style so beloved among beer enthusiasts.
German Helles beer is known for its versatility and refreshing qualities, making it an ideal choice for food pairings. In this section, we will discuss two popular food pairing options for Helles: salads and grilled meats.
When it comes to salads, Helles pairs exceptionally well with a variety of ingredients, thanks to its clean and crisp flavor profile. The subtle maltiness and light hop character in the beer complement the fresh, bright flavors of most salad greens and vegetables. Moreover, the beer’s carbonation can cleanse the palate between bites, allowing you to fully appreciate each salad ingredient.
Some salad choices that go well with Helles include:
Mixed greens with a light vinaigrette: The tang of the vinaigrette partners well with the beer, but avoid heavy dressings, which can overpower the delicate taste of Helles.
German cucumber salad: The crisp, mildly sweet flavor of the cucumbers harmonizes with the lightness of Helles.
Caprese salad: The combination of tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and basil is a classic pairing with the clean, refreshing character of Helles.
Helles is also an excellent choice for pairing with grilled meats. Its light body and crisp finish help to balance the rich, smoky flavors of grilled foods, and the beer’s carbonation further lifts the heaviness of meat dishes.
Some standout grilled meat pairings for a Helles beer are:
Grilled chicken: The mild flavor of chicken works well with the malty sweetness of Helles, while the beer’s carbonation cuts through any fatty or oily textures.
Bratwurst: This classic German sausage complements the malt character in Helles, and the beer’s crispness assists in cleansing your palate after each bite.
Grilled fish: Helles pairs well with lighter grilled fish varieties like salmon or trout. The beer’s subtle hop bitterness works nicely with the fish’s natural flavors, and its carbonation provides a refreshing counterpoint to the richness of the grilled dish.
Remember to enjoy your German Helles beer with these salads and grilled meats, and appreciate the harmonious flavors they create together.
Serving and Glassware
When it comes to enjoying a German-style Helles Lager, the way it is served and the glassware used can significantly enhance the drinking experience. In general, Helles lagers showcase a delicate balance of maltiness and subtle bitterness, with a moderate carbonation that brings out their crisp, refreshing qualities.
To fully appreciate a Helles, it is important to serve it at the right temperature. Generally, the recommended serving temperature for this style is between 45-50°F (7-10°C). This temperature range helps retain the beer’s flavors and aromas, allowing you to experience the true profile of the Helles.
Choosing the appropriate glassware is another key factor in enjoying a Helles Lager. The flute is a popular choice for serving this beer style due to its elongated shape, which helps to preserve the carbonation and enhance the appearance of the lager. The slender design of the flute also allows for a better release of the subtle aromas present in the beer, adding another dimension to the overall sensory experience.
Frequently Asked Questions
What distinguishes Helles from Pilsner?
Helles and Pilsner are both types of lagers, but German-style Helles is a bit rounder or fuller-bodied than Pilsner. While Pilsner tends to be more hop-forward and bitter, Helles is often more malt-focused with a touch of sweetness that balances the addition of spicy German hops and light bitterness.
How is a Helles beer brewed?
Helles beer is brewed using pale malts, which gives it its golden color. The brewing process typically involves a longer and cooler fermentation period, compared to other beers. This allows for a clean and crisp flavor profile. The use of German hop varieties adds a subtle spiciness and balanced bitterness to the beer.
What are the key flavors in a German Helles?
The key flavors in a German Helles are malt sweetness, subtle hop spiciness, and light bitterness. The beer is often described as having a bready or biscuity malt profile, with the spicy German hop flavors providing balance and complexity.
Which breweries are known for producing Helles?
One of the most well-known Helles beers is Lagerbier Hell by Augustiner-Bräu, a German brewery with a 5.2% alcohol volume. Other breweries that produce Helles include Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr, and Hofbräu München. In the UK, Calvors Helles Lager is a popular example with a 3.8% ABV and a crisp, refreshing flavor.
How does Helles compare to Lager and Kölsch?
While Helles, Lager, and Kölsch are all light in color, they have distinct flavor profiles and brewing methods. Helles is malt-forward with a touch of sweetness, Lager is more balanced between malt and hops, and Kölsch is a top-fermented beer with fruity and delicate notes. Helles has less finishing hops and more body than a Pilsner but is more bitter than a traditional Lager.
What is the history behind Helles beer?
Helles first appeared in Munich in 1894 as a Bavarian response to the light Czech Pilsner. Even though Bavaria was known for strong, dark lagers, the popularity of crisp and golden Pilsner beers influenced Bavarian brewers to start producing a similar style. However, the traditional Helles remained more malt-focused and sweeter than its Czech counterpart.