Thursday, 6 February 2014

Brewing a Munich Helles

Well. This hasn't happened in a while. THREE brew days in the month of January... that's three brew days in a 20-DAY PERIOD. I'm living the dream, baby!

I actually can't plan on keeping this pace... it's just not feasible when you factor in space, time, and most importantly, the state of one's liver. I've been giving away more beer than usual lately, so that's helping. But right now, I figure, make hay while the sun shines. I always like to use this time of year to brew a couple of lagers... I don't need my fermentation chamber to act as a beer cellar, or even as a keezer, since the back room of my garage is kept at a perfect 46-50 F all winter via digital thermostat. So, it's a great time to use the fermentation chamber for... fermentation. Being able to adjust the temps easily for fermenting, diacetyl rests, and lagering is great, so I might as well take advantage of this stupid season.

When thinking about which lager style to brew, I immediately had my eye on Classic American Pilsner. I've never brewed this style before, and of course the higher hop presence called to me. However, I decided to first brew a lighter style, something that I could share with beer geeks and non-geeks alike. I've brewed a Standard American Lager before; while I enjoyed the challenge, I wanted to go with a style that had a little more depth and complexity. I finally settled on Munich Helles.

Munich Helles was originally created in the late 19th century, as a way for Bavarian breweries to compete with the Pilsner style that was becoming so popular. A light-golden, medium-bodied lager, Munich Helles emphasizes clean, bready, malt flavors, with mild bitterness. Think of it as a true beer geek's Light Lager. I haven't had a lot of Munich Helles beers, but I can say there's a couple of great ones out there, most notably Weihenstephaner Original (does Weihenstephaner make any beers that aren't great?).

Since I've never brewed this style before, I turned to my go-to source for first attempts... Jamil's Brewing Classic Styles. It's a pretty straight-forward recipe: mostly Pilsner malt, with some Munich and melanoidin malt to add additional malt complexity. I looked at a few other recipes online, and read some articles on Munich Helles, and decided to bump the Munich malt higher than what Jamil's recipe called for. At a little over 11% of the grist, it's certainly not high, but I wanted to really have a nice, malty beer. Note that I also added some acid malt to bring the mash pH to a preferred range. The beer is mashed fairly low, at 150 F; you want it to attenuate fairly well for a lager, but not TOO low, since it's a low-gravity beer (i.e. you still want the beer to have some body to it).

I wasn't really sure what to do with the water for this beer. The BJCP notes "moderately carbonate water". Since the calcium, sulfate and chloride in Fredericton city water is pretty low, I wanted to bump up the amounts a bit for the sake of the mash. So, I added 4 grams each of Gypsum and calcium chloride, resulting in numbers that shouldn't be overly bitter or malty... just balanced.

As with most lagers, the hopping in Munich Helles is minimal. Just a noble variety (in this case, Tettnang), added at 60 minutes for some bitterness to help balance the sweetness in the beer. For fermenting, there were several options available for this style. I narrowed it down to the ones that would also work with a Classic American Pilsner (since I plan on reusing the yeast for this style after I rack the Munich Helles to secondary); Wyeast 2124 Bohemian Pilsner stood out. I've used this strain before, and I really like it for a variety of lager styles. I made a big starter (actually, two... the first at about 1.7 L, then another 1.5 L starter to get the big cell count needed for lagers), and this will also mark the first time I've brewed a lager and had a proper oxygen aeration system.

Well, everything seemed to be set properly, so I was hoping for a smooth brew day. Unfortunately, it was one of those days where there were several factors working against me. It was bitterly cold, but at this time of year, in this part of the country, what else is new? It's cold pretty much everywhere, anyway. However, about halfway into my 90-minute boil, I checked on the boil to see that it wasn't very boisterous. It quickly became a light simmer, even with the regulator all the way open. Luckily I have a second propane tank on my BBQ... but, it was very light when I carried it down. Fifteen minutes later, the beer was back down to a light simmer. I rushed over to my neighbor's house and borrowed his tank from him... and damn, wasn't it light, too! I JUST made it to the end of the 90 minutes, but it finished at a simmer, too. I like a nice, strong boil for any beer, but especially for lagers that employ a lot of pilsner malt... you've got to boil off that DMS! Hopefully the beer won't be adversely affected. I had more volume at the end of the boil than planned, but my efficiency was up quite a bit, so the OG actually still came in above target.

Note: Once again, please excuse the general lack of pictures of my brew day... with the extremely cold temperatures and the general propane screw-up, I didn't really have my camera on-hand!

Recipe targets: (5.5 gallons, 75% efficiency) OG 1.048, FG ~1.013, IBU 19, SRM 4.9, ABV ~4.7%


3.6 kg (83.5%) Pilsner malt
500 g (11.6%) Munich malt
113 g (2.6%) Melanoidin malt
100 g (2.3%) Acid malt 

Tettnang - 32 g (4.4% AA) @ 60 min

Misc.: 1/2 tab Irish moss @ 5 min

Yeast: Wyeast 2124 Bohemian Lager (PD Dec 22/13) (with a 1.7 L starter, then a 1.5 L starter)

Water: Fredericton city water, carbon-filtered; 4 g Gypsum, 4 g calcium chloride added to the mash

- Brewed on January 27th, 2014, by myself. 50-minute mash with 13 L of strike water, mashed in just slightly below target temp of 150 F. Mashed-out for 10 minutes with 7 L of boiling water, resulting temp 166 F. Sparged with ~4.5 gallons of 168 F water for final volume of slightly of ~7.25 gallons.

- SG high at 1.039 (target 1.036). 90-minute boil. Final volume ~5.8 gallons. Chilled down to 46 F, then poured into Better Bottle. OG a bit high at 1.050. Aerated with 90 seconds of pure O2, pitched decanted yeast starter. Placed BB in fermentation chamber with temp set at 50 F.

- Fermentation slowly showing signs of life on the 28th. Over the next 5-6 days, the airlock was bubbling steady at every 2 seconds; I gradually increased the temp to 52-53 F. When it started slowing down, I took the BB out of the chamber and left it at ambient (~65 F) for two days for a diacetyl rest. I then placed it back in the fermentation chamber, dropping the temp over a couple of days back to 50 F. 

- 10/2/14 - Racked to secondary fermentor, set back in chamber at 50 F (waiting for Classic American Pilsner to ferment).

- 26/2/14 - Now that the Pilsner I brewed after this beer has been racked to secondary, I started decreasing the temp in the fermentation chamber by 1-2 F every day until down to 38 F.

- 7/5/14 - Tasting notes here... came out really well - easy-drinking, great malt character.


  1. Sounds really good! Especially since it's the middle of Summer here and I could do with a few. I've got very little experience with lagers but I'm hoping to brew one of these later in the year.

    If you ever have that problem maintaining a boil, an easy way to help it along is to float a cake tin on the surface. It reduces the surface area and makes the boil more vigorous. A trick I learned dealing with an underpowered electric element.

    1. Huh, interesting, never heard of that one before... I could have used that tip back in my boiling-on-the-stove days! Thanks!

  2. Thanks for the write up I'm thinking about brewing a Helles also pretty soon

    1. My pleasure... haven't done a beer like this for awhile, so I'm curious to see how it'll turn out.