Brewing up a good kind of Hell.
This recipe appears in Michael Dawson’s book, “Mashmaker: A Citizen-Brewer’s Guide to Making Great Beer at Home.” Learn more at mashmakerbook.com.
The upside of this long-ass winter’s polar vortices, citizens, is ambient lager temps in unfinished basements and attached garages. This month, let’s harness Mother Nature’s apparent hatred for us by using it to cold-ferment a noble Bavarian lager to enjoy outside on a lawn when the grass finally does green up. Our target will be Munich Helles, a pale lager with a definite malt inflection that hails from, oddly enough and contrary to expectation, Munich.
To add some historical context to what at first glance might look suspiciously like “yella beer,” let’s take a cursory look at what was going on in the brewing world of Munich in the 1890s: its heritage was in rich, dark malty lagers—Dunkel and Bock—but Pilsner, the hoppy golden lager from the neighboring Czech state of Bohemia, was setting the world on fire. What IPA is to today’s craft beer market is a tamer version of what Pilsner has been to the global beer market since its advent in the mid-1800s.
Not wanting to lose out, Munich’s brewers tried unsuccessfully to replicate that success with a pale, hoppy lager of their own. But the water in Munich is drastically different than the water in Bohemia, and while ideal for dark and malty, it was not suited to hoppy and bitter. So they settled for a pale, malty lager (Helles, or Hell, means “light” or “pale” in German), and it has been filling Krugs and Masses and Willibechers ever since.
Going By the Numbers
Helles’s stylistic aspirations are evident in the overlapping pale color (3–5 SRM) and Vollbier (“full beer”) OG range of 1.045 to 1.051 it shares with classic Bohemian-style Pilsner. However, it has a much lower bitterness of 16–22 IBU—just enough to create balance with the malt. Helles has a higher alcohol content (4.7–5.4% ABV) than typically seen in a BoPils thanks to a characteristically German emphasis on attenuation and low finishing gravity.
What Makes It Tick
As anyone who’s been to a Munich beer hall can attest, Helles is meant to be put away—quaffability is a defining characteristic. That emphasis on attenuation is key—“malty” isn’t the same as “sweet,” and with its potentially very low bittering-to-gravity ratio, Helles can be at risk of turning flabby, cloying, and filling if a dry finish isn’t planned for in the mash and fermentation.
The sweet, grainy, slightly pastry dough-like aroma and flavor of a good German Pils malt is both the Eddie Van Halen and the David Lee Roth in Helles, but just like the guys in the band who are not Eddie and Dave, hops are also on stage, just in the back. A low-level hint of hop flavor supports rather than competes with the malt, and the bitterness is kept to a murmur.
Apart from that, Helles is an elementally simple style: Pilsner malt, noble German hops, a Bavarian-style lager yeast. With an ingredient list that short, the quality of the raw materials is very important, and any defects or disruptions of the process tend to show through. It’s a challenging style to brew, but that just makes swilling half liters in the presence of appreciative friends all the better. Come on, wir brauen.
A Recipe to Try
Target OG: 1.049
Target IBU: 21
• 8.5 lbs Weyermann Pilsner malt
• 4 oz Weyermann Carafoam
• 1 oz Hallertau Mittelfruh hops (or equivalent; see below)
• A Bavarian or Munich-style lager strain—I am going to use Wyeast 2487 Hella-Bock, my all-time favorite strain for Helles
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