Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Helles of a Beer

Back to the January reset… Bring on the helles....
A fine helles is a thing of understated beauty. The German word for light or bright, helles is a relatively young style of lager beer that originated in Munich at the end of the 19th Century. They range in color from blonde to gold and should be medium bodied and easy drinking. Often featuring a balanced, bread-like malt character these beers are significantly less hop-driven than the European pilsners that inspired them. Low in alcohol, the best examples come across soft and refreshing. It’s a perfect beer for reconditioning your palate over extended sessions of beering.

Right now, we have a few excellent helles up for grabs in Oshkosh. Here’s a trio that I like. We’ll start with a classic.

Augustiner Brau Edelstoff
Straight from the teat, as they say: Augustiner is the oldest brewery in Munich. The brewery can trace its roots back to the 1300s and it still relies on traditional methods such as floor malting and conditioning in wooden casks. Can you taste those things? Maybe.

Pale gold and crystal clear, Edelstoff settles under a blindingly white foam that rapidly collapses into itself. The cracker and fresh grain aroma of pilsner malt leads to a light biscuit flavor that’s mild and pleasing. Slight notes of pepper and lemon come up at the end as the beer eases to a clean, crisp finish. Wonderful! This is an export strength helles, so it’s stronger than most at 5.6% ABV. Get it in 6-packs at Gardina’s for $14.99

Wisconsin Brewing Company Ol' Reliable
You don’t see many American craft brewers producing a helles. In the current climate, I suppose that makes some sense. It’s a difficult style to pull off and it’s not the sort of beer that gets the RateBeer crowd regurgitating piles of hype. But if you can still appreciate the taste of a beer that hasn’t been torqued into a caricature of itself, grab this one.

Ol' Reliable pours deep gold and brilliantly clear with a clinging, creamy head. It has a unique - almost honey-like - malt aroma that leads you to believe the beer will be sweeter than it is. It’s medium-bodied and anchored by malt flavor that reminds me of lightly toasted bread. That bready note gets rounded out by a delicate, fruity bitterness that gathers strength in the finish. I can’t think of a better American-brewed helles. I’m hoping this will become part of WBC’s regular line-up and start showing up around here in cans. It’s 4.8% ABV and you can get it in sixers of bottles at Festival Foods for $7.49.

Hacker-Pschorr Munich Gold
Back to Bavaria. I think I was 13 when I first tasted this beer. I walked off with a bottle of it from a neighbor’s campsite. I loved it then, I love it now. Like the Edelstoff, this comes to us in export strength of 5.5% ABV. It’s a straw-colored lager with a dense cap of foam that holds together nicely. This has the most prominent hop aroma of the three. It gives off a mellow, earthy scent. There’s that signature bready malt flavor again followed by a pepper-like bitterness that quickly dissolves from the tongue, making for an exceptionally clean finish. Kind of like magic. It’s a beer that’ll make you understand why some consider helles to be the ultimate expression of the brewer’s art. It’s on exhibit now at Festival where they sell it in 6-packs for $8.49

Make it a Six Pack
Three more you can check out in Oshkosh… Two of the Kings of this style are Hofbräu Original and Spaten Münchner Premium Lager. Both are exceptional. Problem is, they’re packaged in green bottles, so you run a good chance of getting a dose of skunk embedded in your suds. Both of these beers are sold at Festival where they aren’t helping things any by putting them near the top shelf where panels of fluorescent light can more easily wreak their havoc. Selecting from the back of the shelf sometimes helps.

Then there’s Leinenkugel's Helles Yeah, which you’ll find all over the place. Is this a helles? Helles No. I like this beer quite a bit, but the muddled corporate marketers who pin names on this shit are too clueless to know what they have. Actually, this is the second time they fritzed the name. First time out, it was called Hoppin’ Helles. They had to drop that because folks were bitching about it not being hoppy enough. That despite the fact that it has a hop profile very much like an American Pale Ale. I don’t care what they name it, but they shouldn’t have referred to it as a helles. Modern American Pilsener is more like it. It has that pilsener malt profile, but then it gets the American hopping treatment with a bunch of simcoe and citra dumped in. Tell me, doesn’t that resemble an Americanized version of a Bohemian pilsener? That’s a rhetorical question, of course it does. See what just happened? I invented a beer style. I’m calling it Modern American Pilsener (or MAP, if you’re part of the in-crowd). A few months from now it’ll be all the rage. Or not. I gotta go. I feel a homebrew coming on...

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