Simple can be surprisingly hard to get right. And when we’re talking light lager, simple is hard enough, but we’re also adding in the idea that mistakes have nowhere to hide. That makes a beer like Munich Helles a challenge—but one that you should look forward to. If you can lock down the grist and ferment it cleanly, there’s no reason you shouldn’t have even your most homebrew-skeptic friends heading back for another liter.
The guidelines call this beer a “Pils malt showcase.” Simple, right? Wrong. The Pils malt is the easy part—so what about the rest? Well, despite being a low-alcohol pale lager, this beer isn’t a pushover in the flavor department. In addition to the grainy, honey-like flavors of the Pils malt we should also taste a noticeable amount of bitterness and a restrained (but noticeable) noble hops character, reminiscent of flowers and herbs. There’s also a noticeable dryness in the finish.
I absolutely hate that word, and you should, too. It simply lacks in utility. It’s about as helpful as when cooking instructions read, “do not overcook.” No kidding. But how do I know I’ve overcooked something before it’s too late? It’s the same with “noticeable.”
The answer is simple: this style takes finesse. You need to find a place just north of “faint” but just short of “moderate,” so that the character is easily detectable but doesn’t leap out. So you want medium-low hops bitterness, medium-low hops flavor, and a dry finish—but all of that needs to stop short of Pilsner-style levels. You don’t want “bite.”
In short: you need to trust your recipe. It’s like sticking a blind landing. This is a fantastic beer to learn on because it forces you to commit. This isn’t some American pale ale that you can just dry-hop if your hops aroma comes in too shallow, or a Baltic porter that can miss its gravity by fifteen points and still be fine. If you can make two of these in a row and taste them side-by-side and not notice differences, then you’ve got your process under control. And you’ve got a lot of great beer.
Let’s get the easy part out of the way first: get yourself a bunch of Pils malt—9 lb (4.8 kg) should do the trick. Then add in 1 lb (454 g) of Vienna malt to round out the base malt flavors, because that’s nearly all you’re going to get to play with! Add one more malt to the grist: Victory. Just ¼ lb (113 g), for a touch of richness. Any more than that and you’ll be drinking a beer that never quite seems refreshing. These light-malt additions may seem like ornamentation, but if you don’t have them, you’ll find that the beer seems too basic and spare, like an undecorated room with a folding chair sitting in the middle of it.
Strangely, for a “Pils malt showcase,” this beer (in my mind, anyway) relies, to a remarkable degree, on hops. In this case, Hallertau Mittelfruh, with its characteristic spicy/floral/fruity nose. You can get that combination from a lot of hops these days, especially the American hybrids of noble hops, but the Mittelfruh presents it in a much gentler way, which allows you to use more of it and dial in the levels. If you’re a pellet person (I am), I’d make an exception here: go with whole leaf hops. There’s nowhere to hide in this flavor profile, and you’ll notice the difference. At 60 minutes, 1 oz (28 g) should get you about 17 IBUs, and I add ½ oz (14 g) at 15 minutes remaining to bring out some subtle aromatics, flavors, and a couple of additional IBUs. Simple, but the timing and weights really matter here: and be ready to adjust in later versions of this beer, because your process is going to impact what comes out the other end. Brew this one once at these amounts and times, and adjust to taste; you might want to bring in some certified judges, too, to backstop your own perceptions. Remember, we’re looking for not-quite Pilsner levels. Subtle, but “noticeable.”
As for yeast, Wyeast 2308 Munich Lager will do the job and will ferment out a bit more fully than the Bavarian Lager yeast I prefer for my bocks and dark lagers, which will aid in the impression of dryness.
If there’s one thing that wrecks this beer, it’s diacetyl. That means that you’re looking to prevent the production of its precursor, so start fermentation cool, at 50°F (10°C). You also want the yeast cells to clean up any diacetyl that they’ve made, so when you’re about halfway through primary fermentation (when the gravity hits 1.022 or so) push the temperature up to 60°F (15°C) and hold it there until 2−3 days after the completion of fermentation. Before you go to packaging, pull a sample and put it in the microwave for about 10 seconds—then remove and sniff. If you don’t smell butter, you’re good to go! If you do, keep waiting and try it again in a few days. It should clear up almost completely, and this force test will bring it out of hiding if it’s still there.
Then, to promote clarity, cold crash it before packaging. You’ll want to carbonate this to about 2.25 volumes of CO2, and if you’re going to make a mistake, err on the high side. I’ve tried this beer slightly under-carbonated, and it really kills it. The flavor tastes flabby and dull.
Trust yourself. Once you have the recipe locked in, you can make this beer sing on command if your process is consistent and your ingredients are fresh. Munich Helles is truly one of the world’s great beer styles, and you’ll find that no one doesn't like it—even someone, who shall remain nameless, who makes Pilsner styles without Pils malt.