Today we’ll be looking at three very German-style lagers. The first is a Dortmunder by Baeren called the Baeren Classic, and that will be followed by the Baird Shuzenji Heritage Helles. We’ll wrap it up with the Andechs Spezial Hell, and along the way we’ll also explore some of the similarities and differences between a Dortmunder and a Helles.
Baeren Classic (ベアレン・クラシック)
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Nice clear straw-gold in color, very foamy
Aroma – Sweet, almost fruity maltiness, lemon, hops, grass, overall quite nice
Flavor – Initially some citrus and tang, then a clean hop flavor, fades into malts, bread and cracker dry finish, very smooth
We looked at Baeren’s Summer Weizen before, but the Classic is their flagship beer. In line with their German brewing tradition, it’s a Dortmunder, and a well-respected one at that – it’s currently ranked 27 on RateBeer for the Dortmunder/Helles style.
Taxonomy-wise, the Dortmunder and Helles are often lumped together, and are actually both somewhat related to the Pilsner. As the story goes, after the golden-colored Bohemian Pilsner became a big success (as opposed to the darker lagers that were being brewed in Germany at the time) and began stealing market share, Munich brewers were under pressure to do something similar to stem the bleeding. Their response to the Pilsner was the Helles, which was similar in color but was a bit modified to German tastes in that it emphasized the malt character more than the hops, as opposed to the relatively hoppy Pilsner. That, in turn, spurred on the brewers in Dortmund to come up with their own localized pale lager, which ended up being the Dortmunder and represented more of a balance between the hops of the Pilsner and the malt of the Helles.
Interestingly, if you don’t know much about the geography of Germany (and I don’t), Dortmund is historically a very industrial region, with lots of mines and heavy industry. As such, the Dortmunder was intended in some ways to be the “laborer’s answer”, as the linked description from the German Beer Institute puts it, to the Pilsner and the Helles. As such, it is full-bodied and hearty, and was intended to be a very refreshing and filling beverage for the workers after a tough day at the mines. For comparison, the same German Beer Institute describes the Helles using words like “elegant”, “sublime”, “noble”, and “rich”, even going so far as to claim that the Helles is “one of life’s great gastronomic pleasures.” It certainly does make it sound like those Bavarians are a bunch of sissies compared to the real men of Dortmund, but it’s also interesting to note those comparisons when thinking about how lagers are marketed today as the beer of the real man, with craft beer as the realm of the puny and effeminate.
But I digress – in any case, stylistically the Dortmunder should exhibit both maltiness and hoppiness, and it should be full-bodied as well. For reference, here are the BJCP style guidelines for both the Dortmunder and the Helles.
With all of that out of the way, let’s move on to the actual beer itself. It’s quite an interesting beer, given that we normally don’t think of these kinds of lagers as very complex. I was especially surprised and pleased to find citrus notes in both the aroma and the flavor. It’s also a bit earthy, as might be expected, but very well-balanced. I think the citrus helps round out the beer in terms of not letting the hops or the malts really dominate, and while the malts are more noticeable on the bready finish I really enjoyed the clean hops in the middle.
Overall, this is a very good beer, and also a great bargain – you can get this at Nomono for 360 yen, which is not that much more than a macro lager. Of course the Dortmunder style itself may not be the most exciting in the world, but if you’re looking for a smooth lager as a go-to drink, you could do much worse then the Baeren Classic. Very easy to drink, and complex and well-executed to boot.
Baird Shuzenji Heritage Helles (修善寺ヘリテッジヘレス)
Package: 330mL bottle
Misc: IBU – 20
Pour – A slightly more solid gold, even copper gold, foamy but not quite as foamy as the Baeren Classic
Aroma – Very malty smell, but also very grassy and earthy smell like a pilsner
Flavor – Strangely bland but also a bit acidic at first, settles into slightly malty middle, some sugar then very earthy finish
One of the things I find interesting (a bit odd, maybe) about Baird is that although they are basically an American-style brewery, they spend a fair amount of time and effort trying to make traditional styles that taste, well, really traditional. In addition to this Helles, they also brew lagers, alts, wits, oktoberfest beers, bitters, etc. – I’m not entirely sure what the motivation behind that is, as most of those don’t end up being too experimental and are usually not as popular as some of their other brews.
For the Shuzenji Heritage Helles, they have gone even more traditional and use decoction mashing as part of the brewing process. I’m not a home brewer so I don’t claim to fully understand it, but basically it’s an old brewing technique in which part of the mash is removed, boiled separately, and then added back in to the mash to raise the temperature of the mash. Mostly this dates back to a time when malt quality was more varied (now most malts are modified, which in brewer parlance means that all of the starch in the malt is now ready for conversion to sugar) and it was harder to get accurate temperature reads. Some still claim that decoction is necessary to properly brew a Helles as that is how they did it traditionally, but it is by no means a settled matter.
In their brewing notes it does specifically say that the decoction is supposed to bring out the malt depth, and this beer probably does emphasize malts more than anything else in the beer (as we covered above, stylistically that would be expected – the Helles should exhibit more of a malty character than the Dortmunder). However, while I did appreciate the pilsner earthiness in both the aroma and finish, overall I found the beer to be a bit bland. Most of the flavor profile didn’t seem to know which way to go, which took away from both the malts and the hops, and it kind of ends up in a no man’s land. That said, drinkability is fine and there’s nothing wrong with it per se, but nothing to really write home about either.
As I hinted at earlier, since they’ve proven capable of making more exciting beers, as a consumer I would rather see them do more interesting stuff – but of course, who am I to tell them what to do? I figure they have their reasons for making this one, and while I personally don’t think this is the greatest beer, I do like some of their output so I’m definitely still waiting on anything new they put out. As for the Shuzenji Heritage Helles, it’s part of their regular lineup, so try it if you want to see their take on a Helles – it probably won’t be great, but it won’t be terrible.
Andechs Spezial Hell
Package: 500mL bottle
Pour – Very pale gold, moderate carbonation
Aroma – Slight grassiness, very faint
Flavor – Very soft graininess initially, progresses to a balanced malty middle, finishes cereal and spicy
Whatever qualities Baeren and Baird have, they’ll never be able to one-up Andechs in terms of spirituality. Andechs is a brewery run by Benedictine monks on-site at the monastery, and they have not only God on their side but history as well. The official story has the Andechs monastery located about 40km from Munich brewing beer since 1455, although obviously they’ve modernized since then. They’re also supposed to have a nice beer garden on site, so it’s supposed to be a nice day trip from Munich to the monastery for a day at the church plus lots of beer.
Andechs actually produce two different versions of the Helles – one is your everyday 4.8% Helles called the Vollbier Hell (vollbier just means a full beer, like a regular beer in Japan as opposed to a happoshu for tax purposes), but here at BeerEast we don’t settle for everyday beer so we’ve gone with the 5.9% Spezial Hell. The Spezial is normally what they would break out when it’s festival time in Germany, but the descriptions sound quite similar so I’m not entirely sure how they differ other than the ABV.
The Spezial Hell is actually a very single-minded but subtle beer at the same time, which is quite interesting. The aroma is faint but all malts, and the flavor also is very focused on malts, but takes its time to get there. Initially the malts are there but soft, and then by the time you get to the middle it’s definitely the grainy malts, and the finish is full-on cereal malty with a hint of spice.
It might be a strange way of looking at it, but the difference between the Andechs Spezial Hell and the Baird Shuzenji Heritage Helles is that the Andechs kind of understands where it wants to go and works its way there, whereas the Baird meanders and ultimately never gets anywhere. I think you can find value in both approaches but execution-wise, I felt that the Andechs was more solid and had less holes than the Baird. I actually wouldn’t say either of them are that great, but the Andechs was better executed, and in this context that’s enough to put it over the Baird. Of course, stylistically it’s slightly different, but the Baeren Classic is definitely the winner out of these three – it offers a complexity that neither the Andechs Spezial Hell nor the Baird Shuzenji Heritage Helles can match.
A quick note on distribution – the Baird Shuzenji Heritage Helles is actually not that easy to find, especially given how prevalent Baird is in general. I purchased mine at Le Collier, and can’t really remember seeing it anywhere else. The Baeren Classic is also not so easy to find in person – Nomono has it reliably, but I’ve never seen it anywhere else. Finally, with the Andechs Spezial Hell, that one I bought at Tokyo Liquor Land, which is most likely your best bet for traditional European beers.
The Dortmunder/Helles may not be the most exciting of styles, but one thing we’re interested in exploring here at BeerEast is getting a read on how Japanese breweries are doing, and it turns out that a lot of Japanese breweries focus on traditional styles. Conveniently that’s also an opportunity for us to learn more about these styles that sometimes get overshadowed by some of the more bold styles that are more popular with American craft brewers, so while even though we at BeerEast may hold some of the same biases we’ll definitely be looking closely at traditional beer styles as well, Dortmunders and Helles included!