Hell, Helles Export, Helles Lager(bier), Export Helles, Urhelles, Urtyp-Helles, Edelhelles, Spezial Helles

Pronunciation guide for English-speakers:


Hell is the German adjective for "light," while Helles is a noun used in the sense of "a light one." But unlike in North America, this designation refers to color only, not to the beer's caloric or alcoholic strength, which is a substantial 4.7 to 5.4 percent by volume. If there is one beer style that typifies the greatness of German, and especially of Bavarian beer-making, it is this straw-blond lager. Depending on the brewery, this beer style issold under various designations on the label. Because the Munich Hellesis historically the first Munich blond lager, it is also sometimes marketed in English-speaking countries under the designation of "Munich Original Lager." You may also encounter it on the shelves under the label of "Munich Light" to appeal to consumers who might not be familiar with the term Helles.

Related beer styles:
Dortmunder, Pils/Pilsner/Pilsener
, Radler(mass), Alsterwasser

Straw-Blonde Brilliance, Infinite Sublety

Helles is among the few beer styles with a definite birthday: On March 21,1894, the inventor of the Helles, the Spaten Brewery of Munich, shipped the first cask of it to the far-away port city of Hamburg on the North Sea for an acceptance test. Spaten was completely aware of the magnitude of its undertaking, which was no less than the introduction of a German blond lager competitor to the successful Pilsner from neighboring Bohemia. And as the Munich brewers watched their new creation gain a foothold among the old salts in the taverns of Hamburg, they knew they had a winner on their hands. They also knew that it was time to let the new brew loose for real, in theirown backyard, where it counted. So the Munich natives got their first taste of Helles, in casks and bottles, on June 20, 1895. And with this act, a new Bavarian beer style was put firmly on the map.

A Helles is one of life's great gastronomic pleasures. It relies on its incredible subtlety to dazzle the senses. Because it is straw-blond and sparkling-light, it is pleasing to the eye. Because it is technically a full-bodied brew, in spite of its brilliance, it is satisfying on the palate. It has almost no nose or up-front bitterness, but it is mildly malt-accented. In the finish, it is well attenuated and dry, but never harsh. There must be a lingering note of hops, which is at once less aromatic than that of the Bohemian Pilsner and less aggressive than that of the northern German Pilsener. Serve a Helles at a temperature in the upper 40s °F (about 5 °C). When you pour a Helles into your glass, a tall, firm, creamy-white head rises above its straw-blond brilliance and the beer will appeal to you with mouthwatering allure.

In a Helles—just as in such culinary delights as mousse au chocolat or a soufflé—delicacy and richness are not necessarily opposites. Helles is arguably the evolutionary epitome of Germany's more than three-thousand-year-old brewing tradition. In terms of sheer brewing artistry, it caps everything that has gone before it, and nothing that has followed it has ever equaled it. The raw materials for Helles could not be simpler, yet the brewing process could not be more demanding. Because Helles is a gentle beer, it must be brewed with a gentle, but sure, touch. Indifferent raw materials, shortcuts or sloppy technique can readily be tasted in the finished beer. When brewed to perfection, a Helles rewards the drinker with the most sublime balance of subtle, rich, elegant maltiness and lingering, noble hoppiness.

The higher-alcohol versions of this brew (above 5%) are often referred to as Export Helles, probably because, in the old days, when roads were bad and transports were long, the beer's higher alcohol level helped to preserve the beer, allowing it to be "exported" to the next town, to the next state, or even abroad without spoiling.

If a Helles carries the designation Urhell or Urtyp-Helles, the brewery tries to emphasize the authenticity of its beverage (ur means "original" and urtyp means "original type"). A Spezial Helles is just what you suspect it is: a seasonal brew or one that is considered especially good. If a brewery designates its Helles as Edel-Hell (noble Helles), it tries to remind us of the lofty, noble rank of the beer's hops ("noble" means edel in German).

In Germany overall, the most popular blond lager nowadays is the Pils, but in Bavaria Helles was simply the staple beer until the turn of the millennium. Only recently, has Helles been overtaken in popularity by Weissbier, the Bavarian wheat ale, which now accounts for one in three beers consumed in Bavaria compared to Helles, which dropped to one in four.

Especially in the summer, rivers of Helles are still served as a quaffing brew in liter-size glass mugs in beer halls and beer gardens all over Bavaria. Helles is also the beer most tourists know from the beer tents of the Munich Oktoberfest, the world's biggest party.

Bavarians generally have a relaxed attitude towards life, especially when they sit down for a brew in a beer garden or beer hall. In these drinking establishments, the convivial spirit of Gemütlichkeit is almost palpable. Gemütlichkeit is one of those untranslatable German words. The dictionary defines it as sociability, geniality, joviality, good nature, comfort, coziness, snugness, relaxed mood — the sort of athmosphere that settles in over a group of people in pursuit of an unhurried good time together, over a Helles or two, of course.

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