The helles is one of my favorite bier styles and also one that has largely been forgotten in today's microbrew milieu. It is neither hop-forward nor extreme. Instead it relies on subtlety of flavor – a gentle maltiness accented by hops. Being a lager, the malts take pride of place and brewing up a clean, understated bit of malty liquid gold must be no small feat.
I am also a fan of the rauch or smoked helles and the way they balance the bready malt flavors of the traditional helles and the smoky goodness. There are precious few of these around and I have been able to review only two - Luther
from Milwaukee's Lakefront Brewery and Helles Schlenkerla Lagerbier
from Schlenkerla in the motherland of the rauchbier, Bamberg, Germany.
Over the course of a few months earlier this year I politely asked Vintage Brewing
's brewmaster Scott Manning to brew me a rauch helles a few times. (He, however, maintains that I "pestered" him for "several" months. We find ourselves at a Rashomon
-like impasse.) And then one day last month I received a missive which began "Brewed yer damn Rauch Helles today."
Christmas came early this year.
I helpfully suggested the name "This Beer Kills IPAs" but this was rejected for reasons unknown. Later I was told that the bier had been christened "Kindled Spirits". The brewmaster himself most kindly brought over a couple of crowlers. These, however, did not last long. And so I made a trek out to Vintage to fill up a growler. My plastic vessel was rejected on the grounds that it wouldn't survive the heat of a plastic hoolie being shrink wrapped on the cap. Vintage kindly gave one of theirs free of charge. Now that's customer service.
I poured my Kindled Spirits into a mug and was surprised to see the sides of the glass covered in bubbles. This is a tell-tale sign that your glass is dirty. In my case it was my first time using my new dishwasher and so I'm going to blame it for improperly rinsing the mug. Still, Kindled Spirits' lovely light gold hue and brilliant clarity were obvious. Behind all those bubbles on the side of the glass I spied a goodly number of bubbles going upwards.
The bier's aroma was smoky. It is common to describe rauchbiers as smelling and tasting like bacon. While I don't feel that this is totally off the mark, I have to say that, the more I drink rauchbiers, the less they taste like bacon and the more they taste like, well, smoke. Now hold that thought. I think that the bacon/smoked meat comes across more in the smell – from a compound called syrnigol. Kindled Spirits had a fairly prominent smoke aroma endowed with some of that smoked meat scent.
Where does smoke flavor come from? In large measure from a compound called guaiacol, apparently. As I said above, the more I drink rauchbiers, the more they taste like smoke. My hypothesis is that the bacony aroma and reading/hearing the piety that rauchbiers are like bacon have made people predisposed to tasting bacon in them. When people eat smoked chicken or turkey they taste fowl, not bacon; and when people eat smoked beef brisket, they taste smoke and beef; when they eat smoked cheese, they taste smoked cheese, not bacon. Because there's some smoked meat in the aroma, I'd expect the taste to have some of it but I think the whole bacon taste is exaggerated.
Kindled Spirits has a really nice smoky flavor that isn't particularly bacony and neither is it very strong – at least compared to a Schlenkerla Märzen or Ur-Bock. Scott used beech-smoked malt imported from Heidelberg. You can't miss the smoke flavor but it strikes a nice balance with the unsmoked varieties here. There's North American pilsner malt und Vienna malt from Bamberg and the bier has a wonderful bready flavor underscored by a little doughy sweetness. There's even a touch of fruitiness here – stone fruit, that is. Yes, this is a malt fest but there's also some grassy hop hovering just below the surface.
A wisp of smoke remains on the finish as that grassy taste, courtesy of Tettnang hops, takes on a little spiciness, also courtesy of the Tettnang, leading to a mild dryness on the end. There wasn't much Schaumhaftvermoegen
to be had aside from a few spots.
While I am biased to be sure, I love Kindled Spirits. It has a medium-light body with a touch of carbonation which lends itself well to the warmer weather we are now experiencing. Being a helles, the malts are up front with the gentle smoke and grainy flavors living together in malted harmony. (Side by side in my gla-ass, vom fass, why don't we?) There's nothing extreme here – just a nice, easy going dose of smoky nectar of the gods. If you are not a rauchbier fan, give this bier a shot. Try to taste the smoke instead of simply tasting bacon as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Junk food pairing: Sadly, Cheez Its Smoked Cheddar and Monterey Jack crackers are now a thing of the past. Luckily smoked gouda potato chips are a trend, however minor and Cape Cod's are quite tasty. But the trend appears to be ephemeral. If you cannot find some of these limited edition chips, grab some Chipotle Cheddar Pretzel Crisps instead. And don't be afraid to dip them in bacon & horseradish dip.
Labels: Beer, Helles, Rauchbier, Vintage Brewing