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Generalisations about beer culture opinion

The UK loves Helles – or Hells, at least

Camden Town Brewery has done something Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson never managed: it has made a specific style of German lager, Helles, ‘a thing’ in British brewing.

Why do we credit Camden in particular? Because every time we order a Helles from any other brewery it’s presented to us by waiters and bar staff as ‘Hells’.

But Hells, minus the extra E, is Camden’s own brand name, and one they’ve invoked lawyers to protect.

It’s also the word that people have been seeing on keg fonts and packaging since 2010 – and even more so since the brewery was taken over by AB-InBev in 2015 and got heavy distribution.

It was a clever move, that slight tweak to the word. It gave them ownership, for one thing; it also removed any ambiguity over pronunciation. How would an English speaker naturally be inclined to pronounce Helles? As hells, of course, about, what, 80% of the time? German speakers and people who Simply Live to Travel will sound that second E – sort of like ‘hell-ezz’.

Helles means ‘light’. Beers badged as such tend to be very pale, light-bodied and with relatively low alcohol content. It’s got broad commercial appeal, as Camden Hells has proved, because that basically describes most mainstream lagers.

Calling your lager a Helles is a great way to have your cake and eat it: it’s simultaneously (a) a normal, non-scary lager that people will actually want to drink and (b) a craft beer with heritage worth an extra pound a pint.

See also: the fetishisation of the Willibecher beer glass.

Our impression is that the term Pilsner performs a similar function in the US market. In the UK, though, that sub-style is already associated with, for example, Tennent’s, Carlsberg and Holsten.

Whatever the reason, there seem to have been quite a few beers around with Helles on the can in the past decade, such as…

  • Hofmeister, 2016 (!)
  • Thornbridge Lukas, 2016 (?)
  • BrewDog Prototype, 2016
  • Purity, 2019
  • Cloudwater, 2019 (?)
  • Brick Brewery, 2020
  • Amity Brew Co Festoon, 2020
  • Lost & Grounded, 2021

You can also possibly, maybe, see the growth of interest in the term in the post-Camden era via Google Trends, based on frequency of searches:

Of course Camden wasn’t the first UK brewery to produce a Helles. Calvor’s first produced theirs in 2009, for example, and Meantime had one in 2004 – and would like everyone to know it.

It’s worth noting, we suppose, that brewer Rob Lovatt went from Meantime to Camden to Thornbridge, leaving Helles beers behind him as he went. Perhaps he deserves the credit, or the blame.

11 replies on “The UK loves Helles – or Hells, at least”

And perhaps mention Pillars, a North London brewery specialising in German-style beer? They’ve been making a Helles for a while.

For American breweries, using the word “helles” or “hell” comes with a flashing red light and klaxon. It doesn’t mean anything to Americans, and helles is a weird word no one wants to voice for fear of mispronouncing. To get around this, many smaller breweries just use the word “lager,” which to American ears sounds like something old-timey and honest, but probably a bit heartier than mass market lagers.

I’m quite surprised at your belief that helles is meaningless to Americans. True, helles is not a term used by U.S. mass-market brewers. However, there are many examples of the style brewed by American craft brewers. Some are quite good. A helles is a variety of lager; a Munich helles or a helles bock are both lagers. Both light-coloured beers that are aged, or lagered. Also, I’ve never encountered an American who considers the word “lager” old-timey and honest.

Triple Points Helles is the best British version of this style ive tried. In fact all their lagers are brilliant.

I think that the most interesting thing about it is that Hells isn’t really a typical Helles – Camden Town themselves describe it as “a lovechild of Helles and Pilsner”, and it’s certainly more bitter than most Helles. Than many Pilsners, too, for that matter… it’s a pleasant, easy-drinking beer that’s much more interesting and tasty than mainstream British lagers. Personally, I’ve been interested in the Helles style since I first tried Lowenbrau’s version in the mid-80s, which became much greater once I got to visit Munich and try out a few others, and I’m very pleased to see more and more examples – albeit of wildly differing quality – and for that I have to give thanks to Hells.

My drinking ‘journey’ from about 17/18 years old to the present has been cider > Guinness > bitter > pale ale, missing out lager completely more or less, but as a sucker for marketing and getting into various Germsan beers I’m now giving these types of beers (helles and pils) a go. I was about to say it’s a typical English thing to mispronounce words in other languages,either unknowingly or intentionally for the sake of a poor pun, but we’re just as bad in Wales I guess, although I’m pleased you confirmed my suspicion that ‘helles’ and ‘bells’ don’t rhyme as I awkwardly ordered a Helles Bells by Cardiff’s Crafty Devil.

the one thing i find funny about camden hells is that it tastes absolutely nothing like a helles

It is a rather hoppier version. But that’s what they are aiming at. I like it a lot and agree it wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows in rural Bayern. Helles varies a lot. The Munich versions are common over here, but probably not so typical in some ways. Out in the sticks, the profile of the beer is somewhat wider. Certainly less sweet. It can of course pass for a Helles and might just scrape in as South German pils – certainly in some of the more hop reticent breweries. And they exist. That would be a grudging pass though. It tilts towards Helles much more than Pils.

oh i dont think it’s a bad beer at all, i quite like it. I’ve been all round germany many many times and i just think it would stand out as something way different if sold as a helles in any german boozer, city or sticks

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