Friday, July 22, 2011

To Helles Or Not To Helles

I am a bit of a beer purist. Magnify that by the fact the I teach and love history and you get some pretty old school beer style dogma. I am all for innovation in beer, but the old school styles are something special. Pilsner, munich helles, bock, vienna lager, dortmunder - all are beer styles that organically grew out of the agricultural and environmental necessity of their respective birthplace. I find it fascinating that german pilsner's color, malt, and hop profile are largely a result of creating the beer that went best with the water profile of Plzen (Pilsen). Talk about drinking locally. To me beer is history as much as beer is food (more on that on another day).

Every brewpub has it's light beer. Let me say first of all that there is nothing wrong with a beer that is gently flavored. If you are a BudMillerCoors (BMC) drinker that is fine. Those beers aren't for me and I would argue that they aren't for you either. In my opinion, all BudMillerCoors drinkers should be drinking well made fresh munich style helles. First of all, it tastes like beer. We all have a conception of what beer is supposed to taste like and a crisp helles hits those marks better than the BMC products. Munich helles has a light bready pils malt flavor with just a hint of herbal hop aromas. That leads into a low hop bitterness that provides a gentle malty sweetness that serves as the beer's focal point. It is light, crisp, and easily quaffable. Better yet, it is real, it has roots and history, and it is delicious.

It is a goal of mine to have the light beer of Cranker's Brewpub to be a munich helles. This can be tricky. A helles is a lager. That means that it uses a style of yeast, lager yeast, that is traditionally fermented in the 48-52F range. Ale yeasts ferment in the 60's to low 70's range. Because they work at lower temperatures lager yeast takes a longer time to ferment. As a homebrewer time is no issue. As a pro brewer on a production schedule time is more vital. It will be my challenge to produce a quality lager efficiently.

Now to the beer. I decided to go with all pilsner malt with a small portion of light munich malt. The munich malt is meant to add a slight malt complexity to what is a very straight forward pilsner malt base beer. I have been kicking around different concepts when it comes to hopping. I can either utilize a hop that has great bittering power called magnum, or use a hop that has less bittering power called hallertau. If I use the magnum, I will be adding less hops to the kettle. This will mean less hop mass which will lend less hop flavor and aroma to the final beer. If I use the hallertau, that means more hop mass in the kettle to achieve the same amount of bittering as the magnum. However, the greater portion of hallertau will lend pronounced hop characteristics compared to the magnum only beer. I brewed the beer with hallertau the first time and I feel as if it took the beer out of range style wise due to the hop profile, not that that is a serious concern for a professional brewer. I have kicked around the idea of blending the magnum and hallertau to dial down the hop impression. I am going to go with the all hallertau version for the upcoming Michigan Homebrew Festival and see how it is received there.

That's all for now. In the meantime, drink good beer with good people!



  1. Would "Seventh Circle of Helles" be an off-putting name? I'm thinking so.

    What I'm curious about is how do you approach a BMC drinker, convince him to move into something like what you're advocating? It is only a matter of access?

  2. Access is first and foremost. I hope that we are moving back to a time when each town has it's own brewery and people drink their local beers. Ideally these places should be community builders: families, coworkers, and friends coming together to share something that is there's - beer.

  3. Adam,

    First and foremost, let me say I love Munich Helles. I've retreated from my hophead initial phase and have really come to believe that a A really good Helles is probably my favorite style (though the style I see successfully done the least). The highest technical prowess required to brew a quality Helles that showcases the firm malt backbone and delicate hop character, and I'm excited to hear that you feel up to the challenge.

    Having said that, I'm curious why you decided to do a lager as the light beer when production issues may ensue. Can you discuss why you chose that instead of a lager-like ale (e.g., kolsch, or a more agressively flavored cream ale?). Even if lagered (which usually helps those styles come out best) they're still turning around a couple weeks faster than a lager. Also, you can use pitches of a clean ale yeast (e.g., kolsch, cal ale) which can be used for other brews. Do you plan to do other lagers as well? How many yeast strains do you plan to have going on in the pub?

    Anyways, I'd love to hear a little more about your plans.

  4. I plan on using two strains in the brewery: WLP007 Dry English Ale for all of our ales, and WLP833 for our lagers. I plan on opening with a Helles and a Dortmunder as the first two lagers we produce. Lager production does have it's pitfalls, but as you mention, a well made lager is something special. I want our brewery to offer fresh clean lagers to a public that has been denied the privilige. I have chosen to go with a true lager strain and with the Helles for another reason as well. I believe that it is a beer that any beer drinker will enjoy, and that, if made right, can be a thrill for the beer geek as well.

    Thanks for reading!