Beer freaks these days remind me of Dug the Talking Dog in the animated movie, “Up,” whose attention was so easily… Squirrel!
Only it’s hops!
American brewing is thriving precisely because of its brash creativity, so there’s a lot to love in the hundreds of new, off-beat varieties that fill the shelves every week. Yet, sometimes, the Next Great Thing means we miss a perfectly good beer that’s been staring us right in the face all along.
I’m looking at you, Victory Helles Lager – my 2015 Beer of the Year.
Victory has been brewing this beer – or something close to it – since it opened in 1996. But it was available only in the Philadelphia market, which means that when the company expanded distribution of the brand into 35 states in January, much of America finally got its first taste of what I’d argue is one of America’s finest lager beers.
In an age when aggressively hopped ales and other assertive flavors dominate tap lists, it’s easy to miss the sublime quality of this beer. I’m as guilty as the next guy of passing over familiar, longstanding labels in search of new releases. It wasn’t till Victory quietly added the word “Helles” (German for “bright) to the label earlier this year that I decided to give the beer another try.
What a revelation.
It is clear and bubbly with a pale, golden color that is neither watery, like your typical BudMillerCoors, nor cloudy like so many unfiltered ales today.
You won’t notice any hops in the nose – that’s not what this beer is about. It’s grainy and fresh, like a bag of Amoroso’s hoagie rolls that were baked this morning.
This beer was made for gulping, it’s so smooth and clean. But if you take a moment to consider its taste, you’ll understand why malt is the backbone of every beer. At first sip, it seems almost honey-like – a touch of sweetness that quickly dries out as a discreet dose of spicy noble hops balances the flavor. Still, even in the finish, it’s all about the malt – those simple germinated grains of barley that give every beer its structure.
There are no obvious brewing tricks in this beer. No hop-bursting, no funky yeast strains, no peanut butter. I’d call it “regular” beer, only that undersells its world-class quality.
Indeed, that’s why this beer deserves your attention.
By re-branding the beer and expanding its distribution, Victory is saying that – 30 years into the great American microbrewing revolution – a craft beer can still be a simple, almost ordinary lager, as long as it’s expertly brewed with high-quality ingredients.
Yes, Victory is prone as everyone else to trendy, edgy styles; its new releases in 2015 included the likes of Java Cask, a super-strong (14.3 percent alcohol) coffee-flavored stout, and a boldly hopped Vital IPA.
But in throwing down on Helles Lager, Victory is defiantly playing its most valuable hole card: strong German brewing roots. Founders Bill Covaleski and Ron Barchet were both trained in Munich, where strict adherence to purity laws has created the world’s greatest brewing tradition.
You see that tradition in both the ingredients and brewing technique deployed in Helles Lager.
For example, Victory uses whole-flower Tettnanger Mittelfrueh hops – not pellets or extracts whose flavor can be diminished through processing. It’s a tiny, expensive measure that you may not notice because, after all, this is not a hop-forward beer. But the brewery believes it helps build the lager’s character.
“Many people will pick up a beer like this and say there are no hops in there, the hops are not leaping out,” Covaleski said. “But the hops are well-considered.”
Likewise, this beer is decoction-brewed, where a portion of the mash is removed, boiled separately, and then returned to the mash tun to gradually raise the temperature of the entire batch. It’s a painstaking, old-school process that more thoroughly extracts grain enzymes that convert starch into fermentable sugar. Many brewers say the step is unnecessary today because modern grain is already naturally “modified” to efficiently release those enzymes.
It adds color and a bit of body – not much, but again it’s an important part of the beer’s character.
“The thing is, there’s not a whole lot to a Helles,” Covaleski said. “You want to take every advantage that you can.”
Perhaps most importantly, that includes a lengthy period of fermentation.
Ales dominate the craft scene at least partly because they ferment quickly, often in as little as one week. They draw a good bit of their fruity or spicy flavor from the by-products of fast, high temperature fermentation.
Lagers, meanwhile, typically owe their character to the subtleties of balanced flavors that only come together only after long, low-temperature fermentation. In the case of Helles Lager, we’re talking four weeks, plus another two as it’s cold-conditioned before bottling.
This is a delicate process. As Covaleski noted, “There’s no room to run, there’s nowhere to hide. Any fermentation flaws are obvious in this beer. You can’t cover it up with hops…
“I’ve told people this is the beer that no craft brewer should make, but every craft brewer should make,” Covaleski continued. “Economically it doesn’t make any sense to make a beer like this. Yet, if you really think you’re a good brewer and you think you can get great quality into your beer, then you ought to challenge yourself and brew a Helles…
“Not to be contrarian, but I think we’re not doing bad work to show people a beer that isn’t dependent on hops.”
Clearly, Victory is bucking the trend here, and I shouldn’t have to warn that you can take my HopDevil IPA when you pry it from my cold, dead hand.
But Covaleski believes that – with bland, industrial light beer dominating mainstream American beer sales – full-flavor handcrafted lagers give small brewers a wedge into “the domain of the big guys.”
“I can’t believe lager’s time isn’t going to come,” he said. “I thought it was time for us to take the risk and start sending it out [for broader distribution], just in case the trend forms. We don’t want to be sitting there saying, ‘Well, we missed that one.’
“I just hope we’re not too far ahead of the curve. You know, the first one over the hill usually gets the arrows in the chest.”