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Bavaria’s choice, Helles Lager

 

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Old meets new as a stein of brown Dunkel is raised alongside mugs of the more modern Helles in Munich’s Chinesischer Turm beer garden. (Photo courtesy Munich Tourist Office)

By: Stephen Beaumont

 

Following Josef Groll’s creation of Saaz-hopped, golden lager in the Bohemian (now Czech) town of Pilsen (see Beer Styles: Pilsner), golden-hued beers grew in popularity throughout northern Europe, even crossing the Atlantic to the United States and Canada in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Where a new German style of pilsner grew strong in the north of Germany, a milder form of pale lager gained popularity in Bavaria in Germany’s south. 

 

Known as Helles, a German word meaning “pale,” it was enough of a success that it took over in many biergartens and beer halls from the traditional Munich dark lager known as Dunkel. Where once Bavarians had embraced the light sweetness and earthy maltiness of Dunkel, they were now turning en masse to the brighter, drier taste of Helles.

 
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People from all sorts of backgrounds gather in Munich’s famed biergartens to hoist one litre Maß steins of Helles. (Photo courtesy Munich Tourist Office)

Still quite popular today, Helles is the beer most commonly sighted in Bavarian beer halls, often gulped from a large one-litre stein known as a Mass, written Maß. In character, it sometimes draws close to the taste of some of the milder forms of German pilsner, especially those brewed in the southern Rhine area, but maintains its own distinctive flavour profile.


Gold in colour and not-too-hoppy on the palate, Helles is a beer of moderate strength (usually around 5% alcohol by volume) and gentle character, firmly malty but designed to be thirst-quenching and refreshing. It is a beer intended to be consumed socially, convivial in its nature and seldom challenging in its taste. While it is regularly both bottled and canned for export, in Germany Helles is served principally vom Fass, or from the barrel, in beer halls and biergartens, some of which can accommodate many thousands of people at a time.

 

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