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.