The road to Helles
Has ‘Helles’ been reduced to a craft beer marketing buzz-word, asks Matthew Curtis
Saturday 22 October 2022
This article is from
Beer52 Awards 2022
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Lager, without question, is the most popular style of beer in the world. Its ubiquitousness is a global phenomenon. You’ll find it served on the streets of Vietnam, within the izakaya of Tokyo, amid Rio de Janeiro’s many botecos, served ice-cold by the schooner in Australia, and in the dive bars that form the backbone of drinking culture in the United States. Wherever you may travel, you can be almost certain that cold, crispy lager will be waiting for you there, foamy and bright.
In its most contemporary sense – sparkling and golden – lager is perhaps best associated with the central European regions of Bavaria and Bohemia, in the neighbouring nations of Germany, and the Czech Republic. This is because, roughly speaking, it is from these regions that the lager we enjoy in its modern context emerged, and became the global sensation it is today.
Unsurprisingly, it is also the most popular alcoholic beverage in the UK. Despite the foundations of our own beer culture being built on the back of mild and bitter ale, it is lager that today dominates our bar taps, with more than 70% of the beer consumed here being of the pale, golden and fizzy variety. In a nod to just how continent-spanning lager and its influence is, the most popular brand in the UK – Carling – is originally a Canadian import (although it has been brewed here, in Burton-upon-Trent, for a long time now).
Perhaps the reason for lager’s incredible success in the UK is not just its drinkable, refreshing character, but how well it has been marketed. Phrases such as “reassuringly expensive” and “le taste suprême” have, in a way, indoctrinated the majority of British drinkers into believing that lager should always be the beverage of choice on the bar. Lager, and it’s nomenclature, has always been malleable too, able to adapt to keep itself appealing to the next generation of drinkers.
Take, for example, the term “Pilsner”. In serious beer terms, Pilsner refers to a specific style of pale lager that emerged from the city of Pilšen, in the Czech Republic. It is generally characterised as being bold in flavour, with a robust backbone of malt balanced by a sharp bitterness, giving it both palate-priming and thirst quenching qualities. Around the 1990’s, “Pilsner,” often shortened to “Pils,” became a pervasive term in the marketing of British lager. This was not done to specifically reference the original style, but because it sounded cool. It felt sophisticated to be among friends, enjoying an ice-cold pils. And if you ordered a “pilsner” you knew damn well you were going to be served a cold lager.
Why does this matter? Because I believe lager is once again shifting its identity to maintain its dominance in the UK. Although this time the shift isn’t coming from multinational breweries using marketing budgets in the millions to assert authority over the UK’s drinkers, but from savvy craft breweries who’ve realised the value in having a good quality, popular lager as a core part of their range.
I’m talking about ‘Helles’, and how it’s become the latest in a stream of buzzwords the lager machine has sacrificed to maintain its youth and vim. But why this particular terminology, and how did it take hold? How accurate are modern brewers’ renditions of this classic Bavarian style? And does what a beer is called really matter, if people are enjoying great lager as a result?
“For me the perfect Helles is about balance and avoiding excessive sweetness,” Alex Troncoso, head brewer and founder of Bristol’s Lost and Grounded Brewers, tells me. “It’s really about working with the malt, mashing and fermentation profiles to end up with a beer of relatively low final gravity which, when balanced with the hopping, is just right, and can be gulped over and over.”
Troncoso knows a thing or two about brewing good lager. He built his brewery’s identity on an unfiltered Pilsner-style beer called Keller Pils, launched to coincide with the opening of the brewery in July 2016. Since then, Lost and Grounded has released many takes on various lager styles, but none have asserted themselves like its aforementioned flagship. At least that was until 2021, when the brewery released an eponymously named Helles. Where Keller Pils is snappy and herbal, Helles is soft, like a bready cuddle. It was also lower in ABV at 4.4% to Keller Pils' 4.8%.
“Although we know Keller Pils is an amazing beer, it is actually fairly bitter for many lager drinkers. Helles was a way for us to offer another option to consumers without compromising the positioning and character of Keller Pils,” Troncoso says.
Munich Helles (pronounced “hell-us” and not as if you’re referring to an infernal, demonic plain) is defined by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) as “A gold-coloured German lager with a smooth, malty flavour and a soft, dry finish.” The description goes on to say that a true Helles should feature “subtle spicy, floral, or herbal hops and restrained bitterness.” This is a beer about balance, primed for everyday drinking, and optimal refreshment.
In German, “hell”, or “helles” means “bright” and in the beer, it is specifically referring to the bright, pale, golden character this style of lager possesses. My favourite example of a Munich Helles is Augustiner Hell; amid the soft, bready character that comes from both malt and yeast, is a distinctive, hoppy snap, that’s perhaps more assertive than those of its peers. Tegernseer Hell, for example, is softer, with a flavour akin to chewing freshly baked white bread, a slight peppery twinge of hops ensuring it delivers refreshment.
One of the reasons I am curious about Helles becoming a popular way of referring to modern lagers by small British brewers is because often, it tastes nothing like one of the beers made by these German contemporaries. It tastes like lager, yes, but lager is a hugely broad church of styles, including Bock, Vienna, Dunkel, Pilsner and many more… In terms of the UK’s beer drinkers, does nomenclature really matter? Should nomenclature matter?
“[In the UK] people think all lager is the same – a pint of fizzy yellow stuff, like the beer emoji,” Beer writer and educator, Natalya Watson, tells me. “But lager isn’t one beer, it’s a family of beers that vary in their flavours, colours and strength. Once people begin to learn that German Pils are balanced towards bitterness, Bock beers are much stronger, and 'dunkel' means dark, they can start to appreciate the differences and find their favourite styles.”
Coming back to Lost and Grounded’s Helles, it does taste very much like it could be made by one of the Bristol brewery’s German contemporaries. However, it comes in at a lower ABV than say Tegernseer (4.8%) and Augustiner (5.2%) and indeed below the arbitrarily decided 4.7% the style has in the BJCP guide. It’s something that Troncoso describes as a more “Anglicised” take on the style.
Before he founded Lost and Grounded, Troncoso worked as brewing director at the then independent Camden Town Brewery, which is now part of Anheuser Busch In-Bev, the largest brewing conglomerate in the world. Camden has built its immense popularity on the back of its flagship lager, named Hells [sic]. Interestingly, the London brewery describes the beer as a “lovechild of Helles and Pilsner” but deliberately chose to use a more English-sounding version of “Helles” as its name. It's a very decent lager, but it definitely doesn’t taste like a classic Munich Helles. So could this be the origin point of the term becoming so popular among British lager brewers?
“Prior to [Camden Hells] it seemed most beers were simply ‘lager’, and that ‘Pilsner’ was a much more known style, due to the popularity of some of the traditional Czech beers that are well-established in the UK market,” Troncoso says.
I would quickly exhaust my word-count if I reeled off all of the UK breweries that now include a Helles in their range. From Blackjack, Track and Cloudwater in Manchester, to fellow Bristolites Left Handed Giant, Duration in Norfolk, Braybrooke in Market Harborough… craft breweries have realised that the popularity of lager is crucial to the survival of their businesses, and that it really does taste very nice.
Having tasted a lot of UK Helles, however, there are huge variances in terms of flavour, colour, and bitterness. Some do taste remarkably close to their Bavarian counterparts, whereas some are deliberate “riffs” on Helles, while not necessarily looking or tasting like the lagers of Munich. One such beer is Festoon, a “Helles” from Amity Brew Co. based in the town of Pudsey, just outside Leeds. While very much a lager, in that it is golden and refreshing, it pours a little darker than a classic Munich Helles – more of a burnished gold than super pale. It also has a distinctive barley malt character, biscuity as opposed to bready, with a righteously sharp bitterness that I love. Is it a Helles, though?
“We don't strictly stick to any particular guidelines for our Helles,” Amity’s founder, Russ Clarke, tells me, admitting that the thinking behind the colour and more assertive bitterness than you would expect from, say, a mass-produced lager, is quite deliberate. “We think, aesthetically, this is more pleasing… and ensures the drinker knows they're getting something different and (hopefully) more delicious.”
Clarke is also in agreement that Helles is becoming a more popular term among craft breweries and their customers, for a simple reason; that it sparks curiosity. “It certainly makes Amity customers ask ‘what is a Helles lager?’ and I love it when people ask,” he says. “We as an industry should pride ourselves on bringing more people into drinking more interesting and ‘better’ beer.”
Is there more to it than simple curiosity, however? The emergence of craft beer, and the number of breweries in the UK more than doubling over the past 20 years has certainly brought a lot of positives, but sometimes I worry that the increase in different beer styles, and therefore the terminology used to describe them, can be a double-edged sword. While wine did a great job of asserting itself as a wholly middle-class beverage in the 80s and 90s, it did so by using language that left some people confused, and shut out of that culture as a result. My concern is that the same could happen with beer, that someone wanders into a new bar for a pint, and instead of “lager” sees “Helles” and is instantly put off by this. Although, perhaps I’m simply worrying too much.
“There's pretty much no British-brewed Helles which tastes like a Helles you'd drink in Munich. But that's not a bad thing,” beer writer and bonafide lager-expert Mark Dredge tells me. “I think we've developed what we can call a British Helles, distinct from the Munich Helles. They share a golden colour and balance between malt and hops, but the British versions don't have the distinctive flavour of a decoction mash, and are all lower in alcohol.”
Dredge also recognises how, in becoming a nationally recognised brand, Camden Hells has effectively done the job of normalising this term for many UK beer drinkers (even if its not teaching them the correct pronunciation – a small gripe though, if you think about it). Perhaps the problem isn’t in the nomenclature at all, because, really, Helles as a style has so many characteristics that beer drinkers in the UK love. And ultimately, it shouldn’t matter how you classify a style, or what a beer is called, if it's something drinkers really love.
“If you think about it, Helles and Best Bitter have some important similarities, especially in how balanced they are, how they're drunk in volume and how they're approached by drinkers as being the everyday beer on the bar,” Dredge says. “They are seemingly quite simple, but they're styles which have been perfected over decades.”
Header photo: Ivan Bandura
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