• General

Highway to Helles

In the beginning there was the Pilsner big bang. It was the first pale beer. It marked the transition of the international beer world from brown to blond and from ale to lager, and it enjoyed a stellar career from then on. It established itself as the main style on the German market back in the 1980s. “Helles”, on the other hand, remained a regional phenomenon. Historically speaking, this was Munich’s answer to Pilsner, but it got off to a shaky start. In the late 19th century the Munich brewers felt threatened by the Pilsner beers entering their home market from Bohemia and Northern Germany.

Some of them dismissed the pale lager beer as a flash in the pan that wasn’t to be taken seriously. In fact, they wanted to prohibit the brewing of this beer in order to prevent that from aiding the new-fangled imports. The only brewery to take up the challenge was Spaten, and they cleverly chose Hamburg as a test market for their new creation. The official launch of Spaten’s “Helles Lager Bier” took place in Munich on June 20, 1895.

In Germany as a whole, the Munich brewers’ answer to the Pilsner trend found its place in the specialty segment. Helles was brewed hardly anywhere outside Bavaria. Until today, that is – because recently this blond bit player has been moving into the limelight. It would appear that German brewers are on the Highway to Helles – from Flensburg in the north via Sauerland to the Black Forest in the south. Even dyed-in-the-wool North-German Pilsner brewers are trying their hand at the Bavarian specialty. Wheat beer brewers, too, have lost their aversion to bottom fermentation. And craft brewers, of all people, are surfing the perfect Helles wave.

Although it’s now on everyone’s lips, so to speak, this discreetly malty, subtly hoppy, and slightly bitter beer doesn’t leave much room for experiments. To achieve its traditional hop flavor, it’s advisable to go for the well-known German, Czech, Slovenian, and French varieties. Here, a combination of two to three varieties, such as Tettnang, Hersbruck Spaet, and Perle, produces the desired well-balanced hop aroma. Brewers wishing to make their Helles stand out can draw on new hop varieties such as Callista, Ariana, und Mandarina Bavaria from Germany, Kazbek from the Czech Republic, Citra, Mosaic, and Sabro from the USA, or even Galaxy and Enigma from Australia. 

For a subtly fruity aroma appropriate to this style we would recommend adding the hops in the whirlpool, preferably at slightly lower temperatures and for not too long. A dry hop charge can also be added carefully during maturation. At this stage the yeast is barely active any longer, which largely rules out any biotransformation of the aroma compounds. Traditional bottom-fermenting yeasts are known not to produce much in the way of fruity fermentation by-products, so all the fruitiness comes from the hops, while aroma and intensity are easy to control.

A more harmonious and balanced hop aroma in the Helles can be achieved by combining hop varieties that complement each other. Mosaic and Citra, for example, go well with Hallertau Tradition and Mittelfrueh. Together they impart a well-balanced, complex aroma in which the fruitiness and the woody, spicy, and herbal notes typical of this style balance each other. Tettnang, Perle, and Celeia also make good sparring partners for fruity hop varieties. 

For a subtly fruity note, hopping rates of 1 to 3 ml of hop oil/hl are a good benchmark, with a split of 1.5 ml in the whirlpool and 0.5 ml during maturation. With an oil content of 1 ml/100 g and a target of 2 ml oil/hl, this is equivalent to a quantity of 150 g of hops in the whirlpool and 50 g during maturation. A combination of Mosaic and Tradition or Callista and Tradition for one hectoliter could be as follows: Add 50 g Mosaic or Callista and 100 g Tradition in the whirlpool and another 25 g Mosaic or Callista and 50 g Tradition during maturation. 

BarthHaas offers a whole range of varieties with highly enriched hop oil content in their Lupomax product line. Brewers who find a variety here that suits their Helles will be able not only to reduce the volume of solids introduced into the beer, but also to discover totally new aroma nuances in the respective hop variety. It is also worth looking for alternatives among the bottom-fermenting yeasts. Here, too, there are some that naturally add fruity or floral notes and underpin the hop aromas. And that’s all you need to know for the “Highway to Helles” – it could well be an interesting and exciting ride.

An article by

Head of BarthHaas Campus

Dr. Christina Schönberger

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