I love Helles. Done right, it is the very definition of German beer, pale, refreshing, clean. And as a brewer, it will break your balls. There is no place at all to hide any error, your least flaw sticks out like a sore thumb. Even water adjustments become obvious. This makes it the perfect brew to perfect the craft, so perfect the Weihenstephan brewing school in Germany teaches only Helles, thinking that if you can brew Helles, you can brew anything. So I undertook a project: Brew Helles and learn.
And I’ve learned a number of lessons. The first lesson is that I wasn’t handling chlorine in my water well. I was using an RV filter with an activated charcoal element. It wasn’t sufficient, as evidenced in the band-aid flavor apparent in the Helles version I did using only Vienna malt. I’ve started dechlorinating my water with sodium metabisulfite, Campden tablets, and the band-aid flavor is gone. My Saisons are better, too. The phenolics are not as harsh. I’ve learned how to manage my water, particularly when it comes to the mash pH and the pH of the final beer. A beer’s mash should be within 0.2 units of pH 5.4, the wort in the fermentor around 5.2 and the final beer pH, pre-carbonation, should be around 4.2. Getting the final beer pH too high results in a flat beer, too much too low generates noticeable tartness. And I discovered this by “spiking” one of my Helles with acid and alkali. You can determine the effects of brewing salts, too, with the result that I add a small amount of table salt to my beers at bottling.
There’s more I’ve learned such as the effect of starting with relatively pure water and building up the salt content – result was a smooth, malty beer resembling some of the good ones I’ve had in Germany. I have more to learn from Helles such as the effect of pH on clarity, the tastes of differing malts, varying fermentation temperature and time. Small-batch brewing helps, I’m not stuck with too much of a failed experiment. And the homebrew club enjoys my experiments as well. They can see the effects of varying process and recipe and employ the results in their own brews. Brewing one simple style repeatedly, varying it slightly from brew to brew, is very educational. I’d recommend it to anyone.