Homebrewing Edel-Hell: Brewing Your Best Helles Lager
When we first started talking to Ben at Occidental about his beers, we were floored that this modern brewery was trending, both in Portland and in our hometown of Reno/Sparks Nevada, with simple, delicious and well made German style beer. When we approached him about making a homebrew version of one of our favorite Occidental beers, it was cool to see how excited and supportive he was, and how much he enjoys both contributing and giving back to the homebrew community! Thus, our Occidental Edel-Hell was born!
A Bit of History
The Helles Lager style was first created by the Spaten Brewery and released for the first time in 1895 as an answer to the ever popular pilsners that were common at the time. This pale lager featured a rich malt character while still being dry, some delicious noble hop flavor without the super distinct hop bitterness found in Pilsner. This new helles style became one of the norms, and for good reason! It’s easy to drink, preferably by the liter, and the rich, malty flavors make it more complex and interesting to drink than the common golden lagers you find common in the United States.
So naturally, as soon as we started talking about it, we wanted to talk to the guys over at Occidental to see if they’d be down to do a homebrew version and show us some of the cooler and more subtle tricks they’d learned over the years!
Let’s be honest here, these light beers are definitely a step up on the difficulty scale, especially for us home brewers. As you always hear, there’s nothing to hide behind! Color is around 3 SRM, so clarity has to be on point. ABV is low and there aren’t many complex malts involved, so this entire beer relies on subtlety and process to get to where you want to be. All that means to us is that it’s WAY more fun to try to nail it!
What is it Supposed to Taste Like?
A Helles is a lot like the beer that everybody grew up with, only without the adjuncts. Light, crisp and super easy to drink, but with a more forward and complex malt balance. Continental pilsner malts mixed with German style lager yeasts add a distinct and forward malt balance that you definitely don’t find in North American style lagers. This is where the subtle part comes in, because when you’re brewing it at home, water can make all of the difference between a pilsner and a helles. These German beers, just like beers anywhere else, had a lot to do with the water profile of the city where they were brewed, and made them distinctly different even with such a small change.
So think crisp, light drinking and even though it leans towards being medium bodied, light and drinkable. We’re shooting for a very traditional style German beer brewed to be drunk by the liter nationwide, with low abv and distinct malt flavors, noble hop aroma, but without that known bitter bite you get from your favorite pilsner.
Brew It With Extract
These days, we’re lucky to have access to killer malt extracts. We use Briess as our malt extract supplier, and they do not disappoint with a high quality products that are consistent and easy to brew with. Full disclosure, brewing this beer as an extract base is going to be a little bit darker due to the process of creating an extract, so you might be a little closer to 5 SRM than 3. For this famous beer style, we’re going to dose it with Pilsner DME to about 5%, or 1.049 specific gravity.
The steeping grains we’ll use for this beer are very, very simple, which is the key. Weyermann Carafoam, which is Weyermann Malting’s dextrin malt, so think Carapils, will add a little perceived body and help with head formation and foam retention, which is good because that’s it’s whole job! A hint of Acidulated Malt, which is a malt that’s made by allowing the natural lactobacillus on the grain to sour the malt on the malting floor before it’s kilned, adds a very small touch of a nutty characteristic to the finished beer, and at about 3% of the total grist, it’s really just to help bring the pH down a smidge so that the pilsner malt shines through a little better.
The only other real trick to nailing this beer as an extract recipe is hardening up the water just a little bit. You won’t have the concerns of pH balance in the mash or building a full water profile for proper conversion, but if you can brew it with distilled water and add 1.2 grams of Gypsum and 1.6 grams of Calcium Chloride, the neutral profile they use for the malt extract will put you surprisingly close to the water profile in Munich, Germany. Just add these into the water before you add your steeping grains.
Brew It All Grain
The All-Grain version of a solid Helles relies a bit more on building your water, but don’t worry, it’s not too hard! The most important part of building up your water is knowing where you’re starting. There are tons of recipes floating around the interwebs that suggest adding this or that to the mash no matter what, but they don’t really keep in mind what water you’re starting with. If you’re starting with distilled, then it’s usually not enough. If you’re using your local water, like most of us are, then the most important part is knowing where you’re starting so that you can amend your water to the desired profile. If you’re on City water, then it’s pretty easy to know where you are because it’s all public information. If you’re having trouble de-coding the water report available by your local supplier, give them a call or shoot them an email and detail what you’re looking for. More often than not, there’s a brewer or a chemist in the office or in the field that can help you get a current report that pertains more to home brewing. If you’re on a well, it’s a bit harder, and might be easier to take quarterly samples and send them into a lab to get a year long average. You can always just grab a water test kit and do it yourself if you really want to get crazy!
For our local water, a simple dose of 1.2 grams of Gypsum and 1.6 grams of Calcium Chloride seems to be the ticket. I know, it’s the same as I said above, but it seems to be just the right amount, and we’re lucky that Ben and Dan from Occidental Brewing have run all of the tests with the water here to make sure their beer comes out just right, so we figure that following their lead seems like a good way to brew their beer!
Our adjusted profile ends up looking something like this:
- Calcium (Ca) - 47.2 ppm (parts per million)
- Magnesium (Mg) - 4.4 ppm
- Sodium (Na) - 24.4 ppm
- Sulfate (SO4) - 43.7 ppm
- Chloride (Cl) - 48.2 ppm
- Bicarbonate (HCO3) - 91.5 ppm
This profile, as you may notice, is pretty dang close to that of Munich, although it is a little bit different. Because your local water profile is kind of a constantly changing thing, this is what we’ve found works well as a general profile when we brew a Munich Helles.
Other than water, the malt bill is clean and simple, just some delicious German Pilsner, Weyermann Carafoam and a hint of Acidulated malt to help with our pH and add that hint of light nuttiness.
Let’s Talk Fermentation
Although craft breweries do it a little bit differently, we’ve found that a 28 day standard lager fermentation process makes our lagers insanely delicious. We never really try to hurry this process because it follows the tenants of consistency and repeatability, and we’ve had really great luck with it. We stick to a similar process with ales, although we only do a standard 14 day fermentation for those.
Temperature is the key when you’re fermenting a lager, and especially the first 72 hours of fermentation. If you can cool your wort down, or very, very close to your fermentation temperature (in our case it’s 54° F for the strains we used on the pilot), then you will invariably come out with a cleaner beer with little to no yeast related off flavors, which is the key to such a simple and elegant style of beer.
Also as part of our standard lager fermentation process, we raise the temperature between day 24 and day 28 by 4 or 5 degrees. This is pretty standard for most lager yeast, and helps combat any potential diacetyl, which comes through as a disgusting butter characteristic in the finished beer. Think Chardonnay, but without the right acidic balance or flavor profile to mediate it. In beer, it can end up tasting like someone pumped some movie theatre popcorn butter in your beer, complete down to the slick, oily feeling on your tongue.
If you want to brew this as an ale, then you’ll want to use one of the available hybrid strains to emulate the crisp, lager-like characters of a lager yeast. You can still make a malty “lager” with all of these, and have it taste REALLY close to what you could expect from one of the German lager strains. For this style beer, we like to recommend either Imperial Loki at temps as low as you can get them, or WLP862 Cry Havoc, which is a very crisp and clean strain. You can also use any of the steam strains, like Imperial Cablecar, and even the delicious blended strains that have both ale and lagers strains, like WLP080 Cream Ale Yeast Blend or WLP060 American Ale Yeast Blend to get really, really close.
If you want to try your hand at this insanely fun and delicious beer style, check out our Occidental Edel-Hell Extract Beer Kit and All Grain Beer Kit to get a good start. These kits, much like Occidentals actual Edel-Hell, are simple, subtle, delicious, and easy to brew, although you can totally nerd out and take it to the next level!