Why the helles?

Mark Dredge shares his love for Bavarian Helles


All around you people drink the most brilliant golden beer from great big mugs. Prost! they say as heavy glasses chime together like distant bells. There’s a hum of conversation, deep belly laughs, greetings called across the heads of hundreds of people who have gathered from all around Munich. The beer is perfectly bright. You gulp it down as if you haven’t had a beer in months. It’s not sweet and yet its rich with wonderful malt flavours, bread and toast, then the lightest, most perfectly balanced bitterness at the end, with a lightness and freshness and a soft carbonation that reminds you of cask ale. As you drink your thirst grows, as does your love for these mugs of Bavarian Helles.

Helles, or Hell, means pale coloured and it’s named to contrast with the Dunkel, or dark-coloured lagers of Bavaria. It’s the quintessential lager: refreshing, unchallenging, balanced between malt, hop and alcohol, easily understandable for all drinkers and yet still interesting and exciting. For many drinkers, the classic and best Munich Helles is Augustiner-Bräu Lagerbier Hell. It’s one of those beers that’s available in almost every bottle shop, recognised by many as being one of the world’s best beers, gaining almost cult beer status. 

James Clay are the official importers of Augustiner in the UK and sales have “sky-rocketed over the past five years for us, growing double-digits year-on-year,” says Mike Watson, Head of Marketing. In 2010, James Clay imported a single pallet of bottles. Not they get a truckful of bottles a month arriving from Munich. 

James Clay also stocks many other Bavarian lagers, including five of the Big Six Munich brewers (Augustiner, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner and Spaten, with only Hacker Pschorr missing), plus several others, including Tegernsee — which is a favourite of many beer lovers — Ayinger and Schneider (worth knowing: Löwenbräu and Spaten are part of AB InBev; Paulaner and Hacker Pschorr are Heineken; Hofbräu is owned by the State of Bavaria; Augustiner and the others mentioned are independent). 

Because of its quaffability, you can drink Helles in litre pours

It’s classic beers like this, and the experience of drinking them fresh in Munich, that’s encouraging British brewers to make their own lager, and as more drinkers are getting interested in lager in general, so more brewers are choosing Helles for the style’s approachability and popularity, and that’s seeing the style become the preferred lager in Britain. 

“If everyone is talking about lager, what is it they’re enthusing about the most?” says Jonny Bright, owner of Hereford Beer House. “Helles is that beer.” Bright stocks over 140 different German lagers, with a particular focus on Bavaria and Franconia, and he’s seeing more drinkers “looking for the opposite of what they’ve been experiencing [with modern hoppy beers and] the idea of a snappy, herbaceous, bitter Pilsner is like, ‘well I’m not looking for that, I want simplicity again.’” The same thought processes are happening with British brewers who are looking at Helles as a gentle and approachable style that people like to drink a lot of, and they’re making distinctly British versions of Helles.

“I never wanted to make a German Helles because you can buy Augustiner from the shop and it’s really good!” says Reece Hugill, founder of Donzoko Brewing Company. “I can’t make a beer that good, for that price. I wanted to make a beer that was more suited to our taste.” 

Hugill studied in Munich and his Northern Helles has then classic bready malt flavour, then it’s unfiltered to have body to balance its low alcohol strength, and it uses some aromatic hops from New Zealand. It “doesn’t taste like a Helles from Munich,” but it’s “unmistakably a Helles,” he says, with the essential “underlying drinkability [which] defines the style.”

“It is a style of lager that we absolutely love drinking,” says Paul Jones, co-founder and Managing Director of Cloudwater Brew Co. “Because of its quaffability, you can drink Helles — as a great many of us have done throughout the business — in litre pours. It’s that drinkable. And you’ll get to the end of that litre and the beer’s still cold and fizzy and delightful, and then you’ll have another one and it’s still great.” 

Cloudwater are known for their modern hoppy beers but they should also be highly regarded as lager brewers, where their focus with the lagers is “paying reverence to classics, trying to live up to [them].” For Jones, “the steadiness of Helles is very alluring to us as a team because it’s so repeatable,” meaning when we order a Helles, we know what we’re going to get.

“One of the things we really like about brewing Helles [is the] tighter definition” of the style, says Jones. “If you want to put a glass of Helles in someone’s hand [you need to achieve] tried and tested historical style characteristics which have worked for hundreds of years.” That doesn’t mean it has to taste like Augustiner, but it’s respectful of the Helles name and flavour profile. Most British Helles are also respectful of that, but with one main different: the alcohol content.

A Munich Helles will be 4.8-5.2% ABV. Cloudwater’s Helles is 4.5% ABV. Donzoko’s is 4.3% ABV. Thornbridge Brewery make one at 4.2% ABV. Camden Hells, an important beer for introducing a derivative of the Hell or Helles name into the UK and for being a nationally distributed beer which many are familiar with (Hells is a brand name, not a German word) is 4.6% ABV. Braybrooke make a Helles at 4.2% ABV. Lost & Grounded’s Helles is 4.4% ABV. They’ve made a deliberate decision to brew to a lower strength, and that’s often to achieve a greater balance of flavours.

“With the general preference for lower-ABV beers in the UK, that style of lager with the more-gentle hopping fits in better with the lower [strength],” says Alex Troncoso, co-founder of Lost & Grounded. He sees part of the success of Helles coming from brewers travelling to Germany and “being blown away by the simplicity of things,” then returning to brew their own and discovering that it’s a really difficult style to brew well, especially in unfiltered versions, so “having that lower bitterness, with the lower ABV, just works for the UK.” 

It’s just an easy beer in the best possible sense… you don’t need to explain it

Helles is often seen as a specific type of beer and “you can have any Helles from the Big Six and they taste broadly similar,” says Hugill, but travel outside of the city and the style evolves with regional differences, especially if you travel north into Franconia.

Braybrooke Beer Co. brew Helles in the Franconian way. “Compared to commercial Munich examples it’s a lot less refined,” says head brewer Mario Canestrelli. “It’s less polished, it’s unfiltered, it’s a bit hoppier, and it has a bit of that rustic touch you always get in Franconia.” But it’s still absolutely recognisable as a Helles, and as a balanced, pale lager, where it works so well simply because, as Canestrelli says, Helles is “a simple everyday kind of beer that’s really drinkable. It’s just an easy beer in the best possible sense… you don’t need to explain it.” 

Helles is often described as malty, but in the best examples it’s better defined by the absence of hop bitterness and aroma than an excess of malt flavour and sweetness. It’s a moreish pure malt base of bread, biscuit, and light toast flavours. The beers are full and yet refreshing dry, being just-bitter-enough to create balance. It’s the quintessential flavour profile of balanced, simple yet nuanced, and wonderful lager, and it shares a drinkability with classic British Bitters and ales, a soft approachability that unchallenging and familiar. 

“A pint of Bitter and a pint of Helles are very similar in terms of how they’re approached, how they’re drunk, and the thought behind it,” says Hugill. Helles is “so balanced, so refined, but a beer designed to be drunk in volume.” 

Drinking Helles is Bavaria is “a rite of passage for beer lovers,” says Mike Watson. “To sit in one of those Munich beer gardens, whichever one it is, and order that maß and have it delivered to your table on a sunny autumn afternoon… I don’t think there’s a better drinking experience.” Now more and more, British drinkers are enjoying great British Helles in our pubs and pub gardens, with recipes developed to better suit our way of drinking but still trying respectful to the Bavarian classics.

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