Beer Styles Defined

Part Five: One Helles of a Beer

Light lagers get a bad name, and for good reason; most of them suck. I’d wager that only about 5-10% of them in the entire world are worth drinking while the rest aren’t good enough to water your lawn. And in this country, even on the micro side, the mass majority of lagers fall in that latter category.

But as with any beer style, if you look hard enough, you’ll find one that is really exceptional. Even if you’re typically not a fan of the style, you can probably track down a pint somewhere that you could imagine yourself sitting down with under the right circumstances.

When it comes to the Helles style, I think I’ve finally found just such a beer.

But first off: what the hell is a Helles? Time to take the Way-Back Machine to the mid-1800s when a fella by the name of Gabriel Sedlmayr made a trip to Great Britain and came back to Spaten Brewery in Germany with some crazy ideas about how to make the lager, which had been a dark beer up to that point, into something more closely resembling a pale ale by taking advantage of the most modern breakthroughs in brewing techniques and equipment. Unfortunately, the Czechs beat him to it in 1873 by producing the world’s very first golden lager, Pilsner Urquell. Germany responded with the Dortmunder Export from the town of Dortmund, Germany, but it took Spaten until 1894 to formulate their own light, golden lager, which they called the Helles.

In German, Helles means “light-colored,” “bright,” or in beer terms, “pale.” But what distinguished the style from the Czech’s Pilsner is that it was sweeter with far less hops. Otherwise, the two styles have a lot in common—they are both lagers, both very clean, and identical in color. But where a Pilsner leans towards the hops, a Helles gravitates towards more maltiness.

What’s curious about all this is how the term “Helles” didn’t become associated with the mass-market light lagers of the United States. The Budweisers, Coors, and Millers of this world actually have more in common with the style than they do with the Pilsner, even though they are often categorized as the latter. I guess “Helles” just doesn’t sound as sleek or as refined as “Pilsner.” Probably some marketing jack-ass is behind the misnomer.

Anyway, it’s probably not fair to burden the Helles name with those kinds of beer anyway. Typical examples of the style include Lowenbrau Original, Spaten, and Hacker-Pschorr Munchner Helles. While I haven’t had too many examples of the style, I can still say that its mention isn’t likely to raise my pulse in the same way that hearing “Maibock,” “Belgian Golden Ale,” or “Saison” would. Still, under the right circumstances, a light, sweet, clean beer has its charms… if you can find a good one, that is.

To save you the trouble of trying a lot of bad examples before you get to a good one, might I recommend the Lompoc Helles? We’ve got it on tap right now, and it’s one of my favorite lighter beers on the menu. As should be expected, it’s clean enough and sweet enough, but it’s got just this little aroma and slight flavor hint of bananas that elevates it past being just another typical yellow beer. The body is thin, of course, but the malts have just enough complexity to make you desire another sip, and another after that. It’s a great companion for the summer weather and can be forgiven if it doesn’t adhere completely to the traditional recipe.

Lompoc has done what more microbreweries ought to be doing with the lighter style beers: first of all, taking them seriously instead of just churning out pale substitutes for people expecting Budweiser and Coors and secondly, adding their own little nuances to distinguish their version of a style that, left to its own devices, can be all too forgettable.

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