There is one beer style that seems to be the goal of many homebrewers to get it right: Munich Helles. A pale, golden lager beer with a malty body and not much hop character. Many have tried getting it right. There are threads on homebrewing forums, even on German ones, Reddit also has something, there’s a even a blog dedicated to brewing lager beers with the focus on Bavarian beers, aptly named “The Quest For Edelstoff“, the almost legendary export-strength Helles brewed by Augustiner.
Since my wife and I particularly enjoy Helles, it has been my goal in the last few years to brew a really good one. In February, I brewed my fourth one, and so far, it’s been absolutely fantastic (it’s still carbonating, though). In the fourth try, I got everything just right, it looks right, it smells right, it tastes right. There is nothing where I would say that this is a fault (no matter how minor) in the beer, and I am overly critical about my own beer.
Maybe I should discuss what my previous attempts looked like. In the first recipe that I did in February 2014, the grist was rather complex (mostly Pilsner, some light Munich malt, some CaraPils, some Melanoidin). The mash was a Hochkurz infusion mash, 90 minute boil, with a single hop addition of Hallertauer Mittelfrüh. W-34/70 yeast. If I remember correctly, the beer came out a tad too dark (still pale, but more brown than golden), and it had a honey-like note. I blame the melanoidin malt for that.
The second attempt, in October 2014, was close to the first recipe, except no melanoidin malt, and Perle hops at 90 minutes and 15 minutes. The mash was unexpectedly more efficient than planned, and in the end the yeast must have stalled a bit, so it came out strong, more like a Maibock, with some residual sweetness.
The third attempt, brewed in September 2015, was 100% Pilsner malt, with a Hochkurz double decoction. This time a 2 hour boil, and Perle at 60 and 40 min, and Hallertauer Mittelfrüh at 15 min. Yeast (again) was W-34/70. The overall result was very cloudy, and had more hop aroma than anticipated. It tasted more like unfiltered Staropramen than a Helles.
For the fourth attempt, done in February 2016, I decided to do a few things differently, and incorporated a lot of recommendations from Ludwig Narziß’s books. I composed the grist of 98% Pilsner malt and 2% CaraHell, which I then mashed at 38 °C in a water adjusted to a residual alkalinity of 0 °dH. I rested for 20 minutes, then heated up to 50 °C. I then drew a decoction, heated the decoction up to 65 °C, rested until conversion, then brought it to a boil for 10 minutes and poured it back to bring the mash up to 65 °C. I then let it rest for 50 minutes. I then drew a second decoction, again brought it to a boil for 10 minutes, and poured it back to get to 75 °C. I then lautered and sparged. Again, a 90 minute boil. For hopping, I used Hersbrucker hops this time, with additions at 70 and 40 minutes. Also, I cheated, and added some Irish moss at 15 minutes. After chilling the wort to 11 °C, I pitched a large starter of Wyeast 2308 (i.e. the Weihenstephan 308 yeast strain), and let it ferment for 2 weeks, followed by 7 weeks of lagering at 1 °C. I then kegged it. It’s currently carbonating.
Since the overall amount in the fermenter was about 21 liters, but the keg only fit 19 liters, I got to try some uncarbonated Helles. The colour was clearly golden, and just right. The hops were subdued, and the beer was dominated by a very soft malty note. There was no sweetness though. The mouthfeel was very full-bodied, and there was a typical lager flavour in there – I guess low levels of sulphur. All in all, a very pleasant experience.
For the colour, I’d say it’s most definitely the grist that’s responsible for that. 100% Pilsner malt was a tiny bit too pale, small amount of Munich and/or Melanoidin malt made the beer a tiny bit too brown. 2% CaraHell really seems to do the trick.
Then the hops: Perle clearly doesn’t work so well, Hallertauer seemed okay in the past, but the Hersbrucker seems to taste even nicer when used in rather small amounts and with no late additions.
And last, probably one of the most important factors, the yeast. While W-34/70 is one of the standard strains in lager brewing, I’m not sure it’s particularly well-suited for brewing Helles. Even when fermented cleanly, it just seems a bit harsher than the W-308 strain, which is just softer and a bit less attenuative. I’m not sure whether the decoction mash made any real difference, but it’s certainly a technique to achieve a highly fermentable wort.
I’m not saying my Helles is the perfect Helles, but of those that I’ve brewed so far, it is by far the best. For the next attempts, I will definitely keep the grist, and most likely the hops, and at most will I experiment with other mash schedules and methods, and most likely with other Bavarian lager yeast strains that are not W-34/70. W-206 is certainly worth a try, and so is W-109 which is a traditional strain for Helles and available for homebrewers.