This style of beer is kind of what I’d describe as “regular” beer in Bavaria. If you go into a bar or a brewery’s Ausschank (taproom) and just ask for “ein Bier” without specifying what kind you want, it’s likely you’ll receive a half liter glass of Helles. Nicely balanced, typically with a prominent malt flavors (grain, honey) and a mild bitterness, this beer is deliciously approachable and a fairly good match to most foods.
Helles is a German word which translates as “bright” or “light”, but a Helles Bier is not a light beer in the way we think of light beer here in the US. Germans like flavor in their beer; here the “light” refers to the color of the beer, which is pale straw to golden. Helles beers are generally brilliantly clear, either from long aging or filtration. As an all-malt beer, it should have a nice full white head of foam to accompany the beer.
I think of Helles and Pilsner beers as akin to siblings who are competitive, but in different sports like baseball and football. They both might be great athletes, but since they don’t play head to head, who is to say which is better? Pilsner beers – when done really well – use malt flavors as a canvas on which to showcase hop flavors and aromas, including bitterness. While not harshly bitter, a great pilsner will have a drier finish and less malt forward flavors. Helles beers go the other way; malty flavors (hay, biscuity, honey, malty) flavors predominate with a mild bitterness. Hop flavors aren’t necessarily benched, but definitely aren’t the star of this particular team the way they are with Pilsners.
Every brewery in Bavaria, and there are probably thousands all-told, has a slightly different take on this style. Some are lighter and crisper, some more full-bodied and sweeter. I’ve even tasted Helles beers that had deep gold to almost orange hues and a firm bitterness, so there’s some room for interpretation. Keep Going is our latest iteration on this style, and it being August in Arkansas, we’ve elected for a more crisp Helles – with lovely malty notes and a tease of hops on the nose, and a soft but perceptible bitterness to balance it out.