“If you want something done well, go to Helen Back!” is one of our great, double-handed phrases, one that circles around to point at our own self-reliance. Helen must be a ‘10’ on the dependability scale. In fact, she might even be seen dancing with the Devil when necessity strikes, but she likes to chill out with beer that is quenching; something similar to her name: Hell, or Helles, as it is commonly known.
At first glance, Helles may seem like the drink of Lucifer, but it is nothing like Duvel or Piraat. The etymology of Helles is not found in celebrating Mephistopheles, but relates to the English for light, as in “color.” Light straw … yellow.
Munich Helles is a German style, crafted for everyday drinking. It ranges between 4.7 and 5.2% ABV, and matches well with meals or as a quencher for a cotton-dry mouth. In 1895, Gabriel Sedlmayr of the Spaten Brewery developed this malty beer to compete with the golden Pilsner style that had gained a substantial following since its introduction at Plzen in 1842.
You may find several variations on the Helles style of beer: Zwickelbier, the standard Helles as it is served from the fermenting tank; Helles Bock, a Munich Hell that is brewed to Bock strength, drier and hoppier than a traditional bock but with lighter malt flavors; Kellerbier, a Helles style that is served unfiltered, with higher hop levels and low carbonation; and Krausenbier, one in which a small thread of unfermented wort is added to the lagering tank to stimulate secondary fermentation.
These are only a few of the many beer styles pouring forth from Germany, a country with over 1,300 active breweries in an area about the size of Kansas and Nebraska. The Reinheitsgebot, or Beer Purity Law of 1516, is still followed by many German Brewmasters these days, which makes the variations of style even more astounding, since flavor profiles are usually derived from barley malts, hops, water and yeast. This purity law developed out of a need to ensure that bread-makers would have the wheat they needed for baking, without competing with the brewers who were filling the demand for Weissbier and Hefeweizen. It also ensured that poisonous mushroom and herbal hallucinogens were diverted from the drink of the masses.
Germany sported two variations of sour ales from Berlin and the East. Berliner Weisse emerged tart with lactic acidity. In the early 1900s, it was served as Stangenbier, a mixed-beer made of Berliner Weisse and unfiltered Pilsner. It could also be served with caraway liqueur. Over the past 30 years, it became common to serve it “mit Schuss,” a red-raspberry syrup that takes the edge off the tartness. It might also be served with woodruff, touched with the sweetness of coumarin from Germany’s herbaceous perennial.
Gose came from the East German town of Goslar, and spread as one of the fine specialties of Leipzig, under the direction of Hartmut Hennebach. A substantial amount of wheat formed the foundation, with salt added to the beer to enhance flavor and dryness. It also underwent a lactic fermentation.
The smoked beers of Bamberg in Franconia began as a mistake that met with worldwide success. Monks in a local abbey inadvertently exposed a batch of beer to a smoking fire. Although they believed the beer to be ruined, they made the ultimate sacrifice by using it, despite its obvious defect. It was so widely accepted that it is now brewed with beechwood-smoked malts as Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen from the Brauerei Heller-Trum/Schlenkerla.
Pilsner Urquell, the Original Pilsner, was developed by Josef Groll in 1842. Prior to that time, beer in Germany was dark, but this new beer became known as state-of-the-art, an attraction to the younger demographic. The soft water of mineral springs was a characteristic of the natural resources of the region. Home malted barley went through a triple-decoction mash, and Czech Saaz hops were added three times. A proprietary yeast strain was smuggled-in from the Franconia region by a loyal follower of Groll. Even today, the Pilsner style captures about 60% of the beer-market.
Also hailing from Germany are the Doppelbock styles, closely associated to the Monks as liquid bread for Lenten consumption; Düsseldorf Altbier, a robust beer brewed in the “old” style of fermenting at cool temperatures and lagering at cold temperatures; the Dark Lagers, including Munich Dunkel and Schwarzbier; Kölsch, a pleasant, golden, fruity beer from Köln, served in a stange glass; Roggenbier, rye beer with the spice of rye graininess and hints of clove and banana or fruitiness; and the unmistakable Weissbier, crafted with at least 30% wheat and Hefeweizen, made mit hefe, with a yeast bed that is not filtered out.
Innovative brewing in America makes for an exciting landscape, but German traditions that result in clean flavors and distinctive beer styles command a reverence for artisanal German Brewmasters of today.