Helles is a pale golden lager that is the everyday session beer of Bavaria, Germany. The German word “hell” or “helles” simply means “pale.” In most German-speaking regions ordering a “helles” or “ein bier, bitte” in a pub would simply produce the standard light-colored beer on tap, which is, more often than not, a pils or pilsner. But in Bavaria, style definitions are more differentiated. There, the order of “ein bier, bitte” would most likely be followed by the probing question, “And which beer do you want?” A Bavarian helles is considerably lower in bitterness than a German pils. It is lighter in body and character than a märzen. Helles is a medium bodied, usually straw-blonde beer with an emphasis on clean, bready, malt flavors and floral hop aromas with mild bitterness. In Bavaria, many consider helles the very essence of the summer beer garden. The best have a slightly sulfurous character reminiscent of brewery fermentation rooms. It typically has an original gravity of 11 to 12.5 degrees Plato and 4.7% to 5.3% alcohol by volume.
In the United States, some prefer to call the style “Münchner style helles” after the city where it originated in 1894, although today helles is a style that is brewed in most parts of Bavaria. Until the turn of the 20th century, dark beers had been considered the only “real” Bavarian lager, in part because most Bavarian beer drinkers would hardly have noticed the color of their beers, considering that they were usually served in Keferlohers, the local, grayish version of a beer stein. See stein. The beer stein, typically measuring 1 l (33 oz), had remained the drinking vessel of choice in Munich much longer than in the rest of Europe, where cheaper, mass-produced beer glasses had become the norm. It was the new ubiquity of the beer glass that paved the way for pilsner and other light-colored beers; they looked purer and more appetizing in a clear glass than in a mug made of glazed stoneware. See glassware. “Paler-than-dunkel” lagers were tentatively introduced by Munich’s breweries to their home market starting in 1841, with the Spaten Brewery’s first märzenbier. See märzenbier. Then, in 1872, the Franziskaner-Leist-Brauerei came out with its Helles Export Bier, which was not actually a helles, but yielded the foundation recipe of what was to become today’s Spaten Oktoberfest beer. This was followed in 1893 by an even paler brew, the Münchner Gold, an imitation of the pilsner from Pilsen by Hacker-Bräu (now Hacker–Pschorr). Spaten brewery finally introduced the first “real” helles on March 21, 1894, and promptly sent it for market testing to Hamburg, where it was a hit. The Munich natives, therefore, finally got their first taste of the new brew on June 20, 1895, under the label of Helles Lagerbier, a designation for which the German Imperial Patent Office awarded a registered trademark that same year. Tomasbräu then advertised its version of the helles, also in 1895, as “Thomasbräu-Pilsner—anerkannt vollwertigster Ersatz für böhmisches Pilsener” (“recognized as the most complete substitute for Bohemian Pilsener”). The success of the helles style brought about a stormy meeting of the Verein Münchener Brauereien (the Association of Munich Breweries) on November 7, 1895, where the owners of some of the largest breweries declared that they had no intention of making any pale lagers in the near future. They even drafted a resolution aimed at turning the clock back and forming an anti-pale-lager cartel, which would aim to preserve a local market for dunkel. The result of the meeting was disunity. The brewers who wanted to make helles simply went ahead, and those who did not, did not. The more forward looking of Munich’s beer barons, however, recognized that pale beers were the beers of the future, and all brewers soon started to rethink their policies. Still, it took Paulaner until 1928 to introduce its helles. Today, both helles and pilsner are roughly equal in popularity in Bavaria, with each holding about 25% of the market share. In the rest of Germany, however, helles remains virtually non-existent.
A Bavarian Export, incidentally, is the designation for a stronger version of the helles, generally around 5.5% alcohol by volume, and this export ought not to be confused with the Dortmunder Export from Westphalia.