PALE YELLOW lager – it’s as ordinary as white boxer shorts.
Imagine telling that to the Munich brewers who gathered a few weeks after their beloved Oktoberfest in 1895 to gripe about this newfangled brew called Helles Lagerbier. That kind of talk would have had you facing the wrath of Hans and Fritz, clicking their heels and railing about the purity of their wunderbar dunkel beer.
“I take the view,” spouted the owner of the Augustiner Brewery, as wonderfully related by the Bavarian Brewers Federation, “that the reputation of Munich beers has been greatly damaged by the brewing of pale beers, which has done nothing but to serve as an unnecessary advertisement for Pilsner beers. “
Ah, yes, those blasted Pilsners, the plague of the Bohemians. Heading toward the 20th century, the crisp, refreshing golden lager was filling glasses in cafes across Europe. The Germans – traditionalists to a fault – believed at first that it was a passing fad. All they had to do was stand together, ignore the threat from the east and continue brewing the dark, fuller-bodied beers that generations of Munich brewers had perfected over three centuries.
But the ranks broke. In 1889, Eugen and Ludwig Thomas, both of whom had trained in Pilsen, had begun pouring something called Thomas-Hell (“hell” is German for “bright”).
In the summer of ’95, Spaten (the famed brewery of Gabriel Sedlmayr, who invented amber Oktoberfestbier) began pouring its own Helles Lagerbier.
This “unnecessary advertisement” would soon become its own, distinct style, one that would emerge as the world’s most popular.
Munich Helles, at first glance, is almost identical to Pilsner. Clear and blond, they both sparkle with carbonation that rises to a creamy, white collar of foam. On a hot and muggy day, you just want to dive in and soak it up.
But a whiff and a swallow says you’ve got something different. Where Pilsner bites your tongue with the spice of Saaz hops, Helles fill your mouth with soft, mellow malt. Tettnang, Hallertau – they’re in there, but only for balance, not bitterness, for Munich’s water gives hops an overly harsh tang.
The finish is slightly sweet but certainly not cloying. It would be hard to find a more perfectly balanced beer.
Indeed, around the world, breweries have mimicked the style, unfortunately with palate-numbing results. Miller, Beck’s, Singha, Corona, Molson – they’re all basically dumbed-down Helles, bright and crisp and balanced, yes, but with little distinctive character. Kind of like those white boxer shorts.
You want to know what an authentic Munich-style Helles tastes like, you need to enjoy it on tap or from a fresh bottle from a brewery that doesn’t screw it up with corn or industrial shortcuts.
A perfect Helles – say, Weihenstephaner Original – is rich and slightly bready; clean and smooth. You know you’ve got one in your hand when each quaff urges you to take another.
So take a long pull and consider the events of November 1895.
You could say that those recalcitrant brewers were simply out of step with the world’s changing tastes. That their uber-traditionalism – still predominant today – stunted German beer culture. That the insistence of hewing to centuries-old brewing guidelines has allowed other countries – Belgium and the United States – to grab the spotlight with new, exotic styles. That without progress, you die.
Or, you could say that if only the Munich brewers had stood strong, we might have been spared the scourge of Michelob Ultra.
The Helles with it
Here’s a few other distinctive varieties of Munich-style Helles to try: Stoudt’s Gold, Shiner 99, Spaten Munchner Hell,
Thomas Hooker Munich Style Golden Lager, Ayinger
Jahrhundert Bier, Weltenburger Barock-Hell, Paulaner
Getting in focus
For those suffering short-term memory loss in the wake of Philly Beer Week, allow me to direct you to the online collection of photographs amassed by beer freak Stephen Lyford.
Lyford, a familiar face at area beer events, took off from his job as a software engineer and plunged into the 10-day celebration with a healthy thirst and a focused camera.
“I savor the chances to try beers and flavors I’ve either never had before or are rare to find all under one roof,” Lyford reported in a brief recap he shared with me.
Lyford started on opening day with the crosstown tour of the Hammer of Glory, capturing the “priceless” image of Yards brewer Steve Mashington guiding three dogs that pulled a red Radio Flyer wagon.
Among his favorite brews of the week:
_ Double-hopped Stone Arrogant Bastard at Swift Half Pub.
_ Cantillon Lou Pepe Kriek at Jose Pistola’s.
_ A cask of triple-dry-hopped Ballast Point Sculpin at Good Dog.
_ The nonalcoholic smoked lemonade at Yards’ “Smoke ‘Em if You Got ‘Em” smoked beer fest.
_ Ayinger Hefeweizen, consumed from a giant glass boot.
Said Lyford: “It’s Philly Beer Week – it’s just too much to describe. “
Or remember. Either way, check out Lyford’s photos at