Drinks writer Peter Ranscombe argues that not all lagers are born equal and that the helles style of Munich has found a new spiritual home among the community of exciting craft brewers in the UK.
As a real-ale drinker, it’s all too easy to dismiss lager as frothy horse pee, only fit for consumption on the hottest days of the year when even an amber or an India pale ale (IPA) feels just that wee bit too heavy. Yet not all lagers are born equal.
Since Gordon Brown introduced small brewers’ rates relief in the early noughties, the UK has seen an explosion in the number of micro-breweries springing up. Inspired by their hop-fuelled siblings in the United States, the tax break has allowed many young brewers to follow their dreams by opening their own businesses and creating the beers that they want to drink, instead of being limited by the mass-produced offerings from the bigger beer brands.
Lager, I would respectfully suggest, has been the unsung beneficiary of the micro-brewery revival. While most craft breweries will be able to offer drinkers an IPA, a best bitter and perhaps a stout, there are a decent number of brewers beavering away in the background to create innovative lagers too.
One of the styles that’s been at the forefront of those efforts is helles, which originated in Munich at the end of the 19th century as an alternative to pilsner from Bohemia. Helles lager is described as “bright”, “clear” or “light”, yet has a distinctive rounded or malty note that sets it apart from the more hop-focused pilsner and which should make it more appealing to real-ale drinkers.
And who better to create a helles lager on our shores than a German? Petra Wetzel – one of the first cover stars of BQ Scotland magazine – opened West Brewery in Glasgow in 2006 and brews all her beers in strict adherence with the “Reinheitsgebot”, the German purity law of 1516, leading to her business’s strapline: “Glaswegian heart. German head.”
Her flagship St Mungo lager has rich flavours of caramel, spun sugar and a touch of toffee at its malty core, balanced by fresher notes of lemon rind and lemon zest. Look out too for her new Nix alcohol-free lager and its sister Nix wheat beer.
Innis & Gunn, the Edinburgh-based beer brand best known for ageing its ales in oak casks, launched a helles lager in 2013 to celebrate its tenth birthday. As well as going on to become a mainstay in bottles and cans, the company’s chain of pubs – or “beer kitchens” – also sells a fresh version of the lager on tap.
The Innis & Gunn lager has been one of my staples for a long time and always reminds me of Spain’s delicious Estrella Damm, with its pine, caramel and lemon aromas on the nose and well-balanced lemon and caramel notes on the palate. There’s a new kid in town that’s caught my attention too though and that’s the Paolozzi lager made by Edinburgh Beer Factory, the family business set up by former Scottish & Newcastle chief executive John Dunsmore.
For me, Paolozzi is slightly lighter, with green apple, pear and peach notes balanced by subtler spun sugar flavours. It’s named after Edinburgh-born Eduardo Paolozzi, revered as the founding father of the pop art movement.
Helles isn’t all about Scotland though. Venture to Cornwall and the St Austell Brewery’s Korev lager has enough attractive grapefruit and orange aromas to catch my attention, plus a lighter fizz and a bitter hoppy finish that sets it apart from the Scottish trio.
And no round-up of helles style lagers would be complete without a mention of Camden Hells, created by the Camden Town Brewery in London to fuse together elements of helles and pilsner. As you’d expect, it’s much fresher and lighter in body, with lemon and grapefruit flavours, along with a metallic pilsner tang.
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