Fearful Symmetries

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30 July, 2015

A Little Light Beer: Where the Helles Summer? by Southern Tier

For the most part, I am a seasonal beer drinker. I enjoy headier brews when the weather goes cold and lighter ones during the warmer months. When it's 85 degrees out as it now, I just don't want to drink an imperial quad bourbon barrel aged anything. That stuff can sit in my cellar until autumn. No, when it's scorching outside I go to hell. Er, I l mean I like to reach for a helles.

"Helles" simply means "light" in German. The style is rather new having been introduced in 1894 by Spaten in Munich. From what I've read it came about because German brewers were keen to take advantage of new malting technology which could produce pale malt as well as a desire to compete with the Czech pilsner which was the bee's knees at the time. To my taste, the helles should have both malt sweetness as well a more grainy malt flavor plus some Noble hop bitterness for balance and dryness.

Earlier this year Southern Tier introduced Where the Helles Summer?, their rendition of a Munich Helles Lager. If memory serves, it started appearing on shelves in February. While the name is wholly appropriate for that month, I was still keeping the cold at bay with heartier brews like bocks and one of my favorite winter seasonals, Schell's Chimney Sweep. When the weather warmed, I pulled Where the Helles Summer? out from the cellar as a palliative.

It poured a beautiful light gold color and was moderately hazy. While I got a nice foamy white head, it didn't last very long, unfortunately. With the caveats that I'm neither a brewer – I've brewed or helped brew beer three times in my life – nor any kind of beer expert, I recall that German iterations of this style tend to have longer lasting heads. I mean, if you look at German glassware, you often see a line marking volume somewhere with space above it for head. Look at photos of servers from Oktoberfest. If you can peel your eyes away from the cleavage you'll see that those steins have plenty of foam at the top. Why do German beers seem to produce more foam that lasts longer? Is it my warped perception or do German brewers use ingredients with different properties than American brewers? Is decoction to blame? Anyway, there was a modicum of bubbles in glass moving upwards.

The nose held notes of grain and bread – that typical helles malt combo – as well as a light fruitiness that I can best describe as berry-like. The latter surprised me as it was an aroma I'd associate more with a Kölsch. Southern Tier advertises What the Helles as having been brewed with three types of malt and three types of hops. They don't specify which varieties so I'm not sure where this scent came from.

That grainy, biscuit aroma came through in the flavor as did that berry scent. The berry-like fruitiness was not very prominent but certainly noticeable. And there was also a mild grassy hop flavor as well. The hops provided some balance to the grain and fruit flavors but it was the malt that got the spotlight here. On my tongue a bready sweetness came in towards the end and gave way to a more intense grassy hop bitterness at the dry finish.

Where the Helles Summer's light body and 4.6% A.B.V. makes for a refreshing summer drink. From my admittedly limited experience with the helles I have come to prefer ones that maintain more of that toasty biscuit flavor throughout. Where the Helles is by no means bad but the finish was a bit odd going from rather sweet to rather bitter in almost no time flat. It was a jarring gustatory experience. I'd rather that it had less malt sweetness and a more consistent grainy flavor that melded with hops.

Junk food pairing: Where the Helles Summer? pairs well with milder junk foods like Cheddar Jack Cheez Its.

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|| Palmer, 5:00 PM


Brewers in continental Europe often incorporate ~120-135F protein rests in their mashes. Depending on the temperature and duration, they break down large proteins (good for nothing) into smaller proteins (good for head retention) and/or break down smaller proteins into amino acids (good for yeast growth, but too much causes yeast to produce off-flavors). US craft brewers tend to not have the equipment to do this - and some that have the equipment still don't do protein rests. At the 2008 Craft Brewers Conference in San Diego, I talked with a German brewer who was shocked that some lager we were drinking from Stone was brewed without a protein rest - like it was a fundamental cornerstone of brewing that a rank amateur should understand.
Blogger Joe Walts, at 11:35 AM  
That would explain it. Does the protein rest have anything to do with melanoidin? What kind of equipment do you need to do a protein rest?
Blogger Palmer, at 5:54 PM  
It may in a minor way, as the Maillard reaction that forms melanoidins requires amino acids. However, the big driver is heat. Many brewers strongly believe - with little supporting evidence - that decoction mashing either does or does not increase melanoidins to a degree that changes flavor. We all agree that a lot of melanoidins are formed in the production of specific malts, though, so malt selection probably has the biggest impact on melanoidins in beer.

To do a protein rest, you just need a heated mash tun and a mixing mechanism. Having both of those either requires a dedicated mash mixer (lautering would happen in a separate vessel) or requires the brewer to use the kettle as a mash mixer. The rest adds time to the brewday as well, and using the kettle as a mash mixer adds even more time because the kettle can't be boiling the prior batch at the same time.
Blogger Joe Walts, at 3:18 PM  
Interesting. I wouldn't be surprised if it was a malt thing. If you taste, say, Paulaner's Oktoberfest Wiesn and then compare it to basically any Wisconsin Okteoberfest, the difference is pretty striking. Our brews are generally sweeter while the German brews are much more like toasted bread.

Those melanoidins/Maillard reaction malt flavors were one of the first things I fell in love with when I began drinking good beer. A friend had spent his senior year in high school over in Germany and brought back some brews. In the dorms he and I drank them and I just adored the malt flavor. And the yeast too - some of them were unfiltered.
Blogger Palmer, at 11:04 AM  

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