Here in Chicagoland, Spring has sprung, (at least it tried to spring and then sprang back and will maybe re-spring next week) so I thought it was about time to switch to a lighter style more appropriate for the coming season. And why not start with the style whose name literally means “light” in German: Munich Helles. In German, “hell” describes something light in color, and “helles” translates to light one.
The Munich Helles is currently classified as style 1D* within the current BJCP guidelines, and this particular style is steeped in history and tradition. According to the website of the German Beer Institute,
“Helles is among the few beer styles with a definite birthday: On March 21,1894, the inventor of the Helles, the Spaten Brewery of Munich, shipped the first cask of it to the far-away port city of Hamburg on the North Sea…”
So obviously, Spaten was a must-try, and I grabbed a Paulaner as another BJCP-specified example of the style. I was also excited to include the Helles Schlenkerla Lagerbier because it was a smoked Helles, and would provide something a bit different to compare with the others, even though I’m not personally fond of smoked beers. (An interesting note, this beer is actually smoked by virtue of the yeast used, not by adding smoked malt.) In addition to that, Weihenstefaner claims to be the “oldest still existing brewery in the world” so I thought I’d compare this offering with one of the newest–the Heavenly Helles brewed by Chicagoland’s very own Church Street Brewing.
BJCP Summary of Munich Helles: (full description here)
“Malty but fully attenuated Pils malt showcase.”
Matt and I took this description quite literally, and actually got out our bag of Pils malt from our homebrew supply shelf. (We’d just brewed a Saison with this type of malt the week before.) We chewed on some of the malt while tasting these beers in an effort to make it clearer which beer was our favorite, but without the sugar conversions that happen during the brewing process, we weren’t really getting anywhere. It was slightly sweet sometimes, but mostly just tasted like eating a kernel of chewy bread dust. Noms!
Yes friends, it’s a RARE, behind-the-scenes peek into the highly sophisticated, much-ly glamorous tasting event at the Worth 1000 Beers secret den. Check it out–we have an Ikea table! Glassware! The Office-themed note-taking paper! A grocery bag full of malt! All of this, photographed in grainy, overexposed detail on an iPhone. As Montell Jordan so aptly put it, This is how we do it. (This is how we do it.) La la la la la laaoo laaaow.
I sampled the following hellesesesessss: (Seriously, how do you pluralize that word? … Wait, is pluralize even a word? Maybe it’s “Helli?” I don’t know.)
Spaten Premium Lager (Spaten)
Weihenstephaner Original Premium (Weihenstephan)
Helles Schlenkerla Lagerbier (Brauerie Heller Bamberg)
Paulaner Original Munich Premium Lager (Paulaner)
Heavenly Helles Lager (Church Street Brewing Company)
Beverage: These all looked nearly identical–an absolutely crystal-clear, straw-gold liquid with towers of lively bubbles shooting up to the surface. The only exception was the Helles Schlenkerla Lagerbier, which had just the slightest bit of haze. (I wondered if maybe this had something to do with the smokiness of this particular beer?)
Head: Each one began with a purely white head of fizzy dense bubbles, which dissipated fairly quickly.
This group of beers all had a very subtle set of aromas. Heavenly Helles and Helles Schlenkerla smelled of faintly sweet malt and a tinge of spicy hop. On Spaten’s nose I got a wheaty-sweet malt aroma that hinted at green grapes or lemon. Weihenstephaner stood out to me as having a very funky, mossy, cooked-corn bouquet that I think was DMS**–something BJCP specifies as a style parameter. Paulaner smelled like a sweet, bready cracker.
All of these beers had a light to medium mouthfeel, some with delicately spicy bubbles that prickled and pummeled the insides of my mouth.
Once I got past the first few DMS-filled sips of Weihenstefaner (which soon dissipated, and may have been only aromatic), this beer and Spaten tasted nearly identical to me with a clean and spicy hop taste and a very slightly sweet maltiness that ended in a bitter taste on the back of the throat. Heavely Helles was the sweetest of the five, beautifully highlighting the Pils malt within.
As I mentioned before, I typically don’t care for smoky beers, but the Helles Schlenkerla Lagerbier had such a delicate combination of complex flavors that peeled away in layers that I really couldn’t get enough of it. It started mildly sweet, turning to spicy hop, then to a smoky campfire flavor reminiscent of singed toast. Delicious!
I enjoyed all five of these beers, however, my favorite was ultimately the Paulaner. Its mouthfeel was remarkably smooth and malty, and it truly tasted like drinking liquid bread–the good, French baguette kind, straight from the oven with a super-thick crust. Crisp and dry overall, this beer ended with a slightly sweet finish in perfect balance with the former. It had an almost tannic quality to it that reminded me of a grain husk (which Matt didn’t care for) that I felt was a true “showcase of Pils malt.”
After spending the last few months sampling heavy stouts, this light and subtle, low-ABV style was a refreshing switch. The Helles style really does exemplify skill in brewing because when there are no crazy adjuncts or sugars to hide behind in this kind of recipe, you really have to know your stuff to be able to brew this style well.
*As I’ve said in previous Style Study posts, the BJCP guidelines are about to undergo a revision. In the 2014 draft that’s floating around on the Internet, the Munich Helles will soon be classified within the category “Pale Malty European Lager,” and will no longer be categorized under the Light Lager group along with American Light Lagers.
**DMS, or Dimethyl Sulfide, is a compound created by yeast during fermentation that can smell and taste like cooked corn. It can also be considered an off-flavor in some styles, but the BJCP specifies that a low amount in the aroma of a Munich Helles is acceptable.