If you’d like to try your hand at brewing a Munich Helles recipe at home, we would recommend reading the tips below. Skip ahead using the drop-down below, or browse from start to finish.
Munich Helles is a style of finesse. It brings delicate notes of grainy sweet malt, pairs that malty goodness with a “just right” whisper of hop bitterness and noble hop flavor, and melds it into a smooth and soft, yet subtly complex profile. Compare a Helles to a Pilsner, and you’d find it “softer,” less zippy with more of a malt presence and none of the hop bite.
It is not easy recipe to get right. You have to have your brewing technique truly dialed in to get a worthy example of this style.
A strong boil is essential for removing DMS, a huge dose of healthy and raring-to-go yeast, proper attenuation, and the lynch pin of a successful Munich Helles, the fermentation temperature; all these are absolutely essential. If you don’t have a reliable way of controlling the temperature, you probably should hold off on brewing a Munich Helles recipe… or, most other lagers for that matter.
In certain areas of the country, you could also wait for Mother Nature to give you the opportunity to control temperature naturally. A basement in the winter can’t help but remind one of the caves once used to lager beer. Those of you living in warmer climes will just have to bite the bullet and set up good temperature control… or move. Whichever seems easier.
One more thing, if you don’t feel like going through the process of designing your own recipe or just want the convenience of getting everything for a single batch in one simple order, there are plenty of Munich Helles recipe kits available. This would include both extract and all-grain options.
The Grain Bill
The recipe for a Munich Helles is deceptively straightforward, dare I say even simple. But, teasing perfection out of simplicity takes real skill. So, don’t let this fool you.
There’s almost no way around using a high-quality continental Pilsner malt. In my opinion, nothing else will give you the proper light, grainy-sweet flavors needed in this style. And really, that’s it. That’s all you need to brew a good example…. just 100% German pilsner malt.
Simplicity, at its simplest.
But, you can add other malts and many brewers do just that.
Vienna or a light Munich seem to be the other go-to malts for a Helles. You could add anywhere from 5-20% of either of these for an added element of complexity. If using Munich, it may be wise to keep to the lower end of this range.
As you’ve probably already guessed, any specialty malt additions aren’t actually necessary for brewing Helles. That being said, malts that help with the head and body, such as CaraPils or Carafoam, often make their way in. Wheat is another that can have a place. Keep any of these additions below 10 percent.
Other malt character additions are also an option. But, try to stick with simplicity. Ask yourself with each addition, “what exactly am I trying to bring to the whole by adding this particular malt.”
Also, none of these additions should make up higher than a 5% dent in the total grain bill. The darker the malt, the smaller amount you’ll want. Some possible choices here include Biscuit, Aromatic, or Melanoidin. In Designing Great Beers, Ray Daniels mentions using Belgian Biscuit malt in a Munich Helles recipe that garnered a few awards.
Acidulated malt can also be used to help get the appropriate pH levels during mashing. Use below 5 percent.
Unfortunately, this is going to be a style that will be tough to brew with extract. If you want the best tasting product that stays true to the style, you’ll want to consider an all-grain recipe.
However, don’t let that deter you. If you happen to be an extract brewer, you can still get a decent likeness of the style.
To do this, you’ll need to find a good-quality German pilsner extract. The fresher the better. Adding a bit of Munich extract, 10 to 50 percent, will help bring some bready complexity to it. On the other hand, because most Munich malts are usually a mix of pilsner and Munich malt, with some even going as high as a 50/50 ratio, it would be possible to simply use Munich extract for the whole thing.
As you can see, even with extracts there’s quite a bit of room for recipe design experimentation. For even more complexity, consider steeping or mini-mashing with some of the specialty malts listed above.
Hops will only play a balancing role in a Helles recipe. Bitterness, as well as aroma and flavor, all range from a low to low medium. For this style, the BU:GU ranges from 0.3 to 0.5. Aiming for the middle ground is never a bad idea.
Traditionally, German noble varieties (Hallertauer, Tettnang, Spalt, Saaz) were used exclusively for Helles. However, you’ll find that other German varieties can also work, as can some of the American hybrids of noble lineage. Here’s a few to consider.
This is a truncated list. Just keep in mind that when brewing a Helles, it’s important that you select a variety that has more “noble” characteristics, such as spicy, floral and herbal notes. You do not want any of the citrus, pine, or fruitiness that comes with American hops.
Really, all you need is a single bittering addition if you are using a noble hop. Noble varieties tend to have less alpha-acid, so you end up using a larger quantity to hit your IBUs, which usually translates to just the right amount of flavor and aroma making it through to the finished beer.
Another option to consider: You can experiment with a small flavor and/or aroma addition; probably stay under 0.5 ounces for a 5 gallon batch.
The Mash & Sparge
You want the mash pH at about 5.3, and this is where acidulated malt can come in handy. Alternatively, you can add acid to your strike water.
Decoction mashing is traditional for a Helles recipe, but will likely lengthen and complicate your brew day to no end. An alternative, just to ensure you’re getting the most out of your grain, is a two-step infusion mash.
Steps for Infusion Mash:
- Start with a mash thicker mash ratio of between 0.8 and 1.0 qts./lb.
- Mash in and rest at 131°F for 15-30 minutes.
- Stir regularly, this rest can help raise extraction rates.
- Then ramp it up, by adding boiling water (which thins the mash, also) to a conversion temperature of 150°F.
This first rest isn’t absolutely necessary, however, and if you don’t feel like taking the extra time you can do a single-step infusion between 150-152°F. Just note; you may not get the full extract potential, and only do this if you are using well-modified malts.
Conversion at these lower temperatures can take a little longer, so be sure to make use of the iodine test. Once conversion is complete, raise the mash to 170°F for mash out.
Sparge slowly with 170°F water, collected enough for a 90-minute boil.
A 90-minute boil is the standard here because of the high use of pilsner malt. Pilsner malt hold more of the DMS (Dimethyl Sulfide) precursor SMM (S-methylmethionine) than other types of malts, and one of the main ways to decrease DMS is through the boil.
Start timing when your wort has reached a vigorous boil. Not just a simmer, we’re talking about a rolling boil here. Leave the lid off of your brew pot, as this will allow more unwanted volatile compounds to escape.
Add your bittering addition at 60 minutes, and if you’ve decided to add a flavor addition (usually around 30 to 15 minutes before flame out) and/or an aroma addition (5 to 1 minute before flame out), put them in at the appropriate time, as per your recipe.
Most lager yeasts will work well for brewing a Helles. Though, if at all possible, try to go with a Munich-style lager yeast to keep it authentic. Look for a lager yeast with good attenuation, clean fermentation, with a low ester profile.
Here are a few suggestions to consider:
Because you will be fermenting cold, you’ll need a larger quantity of healthy yeast. The standard amount has become approximately twice as much as you’d pitch for an ale.
If you have the time and capabilities, making a yeast starter is a cheaper alternative to buying the amount of yeast you’d need (likely 4 to 5 liquid packs for a 5 gallon batch). Or, dry yeast is also a cheaper alternative to liquid yeast. If you decide to go with dry, you would need around two 11.5 gram packets.
Use a pitching calculator to get the exact amount you’ll need.
Fermentation & Bottling
Once the boil is complete, chill your wort as rapidly as you can to further limit the formation of DMS. When your wort is somewhere between 45 and 50°F, thoroughly aerate / oxygenate it and pitch your yeast.
Proper attenuation is very important for a Munich Helles. You want the beer to be softly drying. Remember, “malty” doesn’t necessarily mean a beer is “sweet,” and if attenuation isn’t at the proper level, the beer can turn out cloying and overly filling.
Start cold and allow the temperature to naturally rise a couple of degrees in the first couple of days. Note that because you’re fermenting quite cold, it will likely take longer to see activity, but hang in there. If you’ve pitched enough healthy yeast, it will start. Your patience will pay off.
As the fermentation begins to slow, allow the temperature to rise to between 60-65°F for a 2-day diacetyl rest.
After the diacetyl rest, you can rack your beer to a secondary and lower the temperature by about two degrees a day until close to the lagering temperature of right above freezing. This slow cool down helps keep the yeast active longer. But, it’s only possible if you have excellent temperature control.
If you don’t have the capacity for lowering the temperature incrementally, you can also cool it in one go. Just make sure that you get the temperature down to just above freezing. Lager it for 3 to 4 weeks.
Okay, now it’s time to bottle! Rack your lagered Munich Helles into a keg or bottling bucket. Shoot for a carbonation of 2-to-2.5 volumes.
If you want to further improve your final beer, allow it to lager near freezing for another 4 to 10 weeks after you’ve bottled or kegged it. But, if you’ve already ran out of patience, nobody will blame you. Drink it young. You deserve it.