It stands as an island in a sea of beer choice: helles as the Promised Land. But order one at any of the breweries throughout the United States that have it on offer, and you’re likely to find wildly different results. Here’s how to do it right.
When I think of helles, I think of the purest perception of malt. It should taste like malt with just enough hops bitterness to balance the sweetness but not be perceptible enough for drinkers to know the hops are there. Hops aroma isn’t something you should even think about.
I think you want to be at 18 to 25 IBUs, but I think if you don’t put enough hops in there, if you go lower, it almost becomes cloying. Think of Coors. If they added 50 percent more hops, that beer would be downright delicious.
Color range is also important. I think a lot of brewers want to load their helles up with biscuit malts and caramel malts to make them seem maltier, but I think that has the opposite effect because they think it’s going to be thin if it’s too dry. We always joke here that we think helles toes the line between bland and sublime. It’s barely there. When you drink one of them, it might not be shocking to you that it’s good or bad or anything (and bland is the right word) because a proper one is so clean. By the time you get to your third one, you realize there isn’t anything you’d change about that beer.
Before the modern rise in popularity of pilsners, helles were often the beer of choice in Germany, especially in Munich. The name of the beer comes from the German word hell, which rather than fire and brimstone, is translated into pale, bright, or light. There’s a tendency I’ve seen by other brewers to push the hops, kick up the malt for residual sweetness, but restraint is important here. Simplicity isn’t a bad thing.
In putting together a helles, we use 88 percent Pilsner malt. I use Barke Pilsner. It’s my favorite and our house malt. Then I use 8 percent Vienna because I want a different color than our Slow Pour Pils, although honestly, every time I put those beers next to each other, they are the same color. It’s funny. I don’t even know why I bother, but it’s habit. Then it’s 4 percent acidulated malt. It’s a basic recipe. When I think about the construction of a helles, it’s the one beer in the portfolio that benefits the most from a decoction mash because it gives you malt character without the sweetness.
You want the faintest of hops character but not necessarily where you can pick out the variety. I always use low-alpha hops. High alpha has no place in this beer. We do a 90-minute boil, and I do a 70-minute hops addition where I add about 33 percent of my bittering with something traditional such as German Tettanger or Hallertauer Mittelfrueh.
Then I’m a big fan of a 40-minute hops addition because I think it extracts some character but also a pleasant bitterness. That’s a key to the drinkability over three liters. So I put 60 percent of the bittering units in at that point. I’m aiming for about 22 IBUs, but it usually labs back at 18. It comes out as a 12°Plato beer.
We use standard lager yeast and then ferment cold forever. It’s 2 weeks or so in primary before we crash it down, and then it goes to a lager tank. Then we lager for 8 weeks.
A proper helles is one of the reasons I love visiting Germany. Liter after liter, it’s the kind of beer that just gets me inspired as a brewer and happy as a drinker.