After decades of drinking hop bomb IPAs, San Diegans have whet our palates and wholeheartedly embraced craft lagers like never before. Local beer now offers an unprecedented variety of crisp, clean blondes, and this summer, the most exciting San Diego beers to try are pilsners and helles lagers.
To better distinguish between pilsner and helles (pronounced hell-ess), we spoke to the same man local ale brewers approach when they want to learn more about lagers: Doug Hasker. As head brewer of Gordon Biersch Brewery and Restaurant in Mission Valley, Hasker has been producing lagers here for two decades. His use of precise Bavarian brewing practices and yeasts have made him San Diego’s standard bearer of the style, led by Gordon Biersch’s always-on-tap helles lager, Golden Export.
“Helles means blonde in German,” explains Hasker, who brews Golden Export with methods and yeast obtained from Weihenstephan, a thousand-year-old monastic brewery outside of Munich reputed to be the world’s oldest. “In Munich, they were making an inoffensive blonde beer,” he says, “that you can drink all day long and not get too drunk.”
About six centuries ago, Bavarian brewers came to understand that a longer fermentation at lower temperatures could produce a crisper, cleaner beer with lower alcohol levels. But it wasn’t until the advent of microbiology in the 19th century that they could identify and cultivate yeast that reliably did so: lager yeast.
“The word lager is a German verb that literally means to warehouse,” says Hasker, noting geography gave the Bavarians a crucial advantage in warehousing beer to let it age at cold temperatures: the Alps. “Before artificial refrigeration,” Hasker points out, “they had caves in the Alps… they had natural refrigerators.”
Cold conditions created two advantages. With refrigeration, the beer didn’t rely as much on hops and alcohol to keep from spoiling, making it feasible for a light-strength helles to convey a greater malt profile. Meanwhile, the longer aging process can create more delicate, nuanced malt flavors, yielding fewer of the hearty fruit or spice notes ale yeasts produce at higher temperatures. “Instead of fruity and spicy,” says Hasker, “we can get crisp and clean.”
Brewers in nearby Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) took note of these helles lagers, and sought to replicate them, whatever it took. But first they needed that yeast. “The monastery in Pilsen sent a monk to Munich and stole a big old pot,” Hasker says, joking, “I’m sure he’s in hell!”
The Bohemian monks produced their own crisp, clean blonde lager, but with a difference. “The only thing they were missing was that extra preservative, the Alps,” reports Hasker, “So what they did to combat that, was put more hops in their beer, and make it more bitter.”
Thus, Pilsen brewers created the pilsner, the hoppier blonde cousin of the helles. It wasn’t long before technology helped these light colored lagers become the most popular beers on earth. “With the advent of refrigeration,” Hasker concludes, “the whole world went to lager-style beers, and I like to believe it’s because they’re better.”
Try these helles:
Try these pilsners: