What’s the difference between a Pilsner and a Helles?

Answered by Michael Blake

The difference between a Pilsner and a Helles lies in their origins, taste profiles, and traditions. As an expert sommelier and brewer, I can provide you with a detailed answer to this question.

1. Origins:
– Pilsner: Pilsner was created in the Czech city of Pilsen in 1842. It was a revolutionary style at that time, as it was the first clear, golden beer produced using bottom-fermenting and pale .
– Helles: Helles beer, also known as Munich Helles, originates from Bavaria, Germany. It has a longer history than Pilsner, dating back to the late 19th century. Helles means “bright” or “pale” in German, referring to its light appearance.

2. Taste Profiles:
– Pilsner: Pilsners are known for their crispness, light body, and a pronounced hop bitterness. They have a clean, refreshing taste with a subtle malt sweetness. Pilsners often exhibit floral, herbal, or spicy hop flavors and a dry finish.
– Helles: Helles beers tend to be maltier and less hop-forward compared to Pilsners. They have a smooth, balanced flavor with a gentle hop presence. Helles beers showcase a bready, slightly sweet malt character, often with hints of honey or biscuit. The focus is more on the malt profile rather than hop bitterness.

3. Brewing Techniques:
– Pilsner: Pilsners are brewed using bottom-fermenting yeast (Saccharomyces pastorianus) and undergo a lagering process. This involves fermenting the beer at cooler temperatures (around 45-55°F or 7-13°C) for an extended period, typically several weeks or even months. This results in a clean, crisp beer with a smooth mouthfeel.
– Helles: Helles beers also use bottom-fermenting yeast but may undergo a slightly warmer fermentation compared to Pilsners. The lagering process is similar, but the duration may vary depending on the brewery. This longer lagering period allows the flavors to mellow and the beer to become well-rounded.

4. Regional Influences:
– Pilsner: Pilsner beer has become synonymous with Czech brewing traditions. It is a significant part of Czech beer culture, and the city of Pilsen is renowned for its Pilsner Urquell, which is considered the original Pilsner.
– Helles: Helles beer is deeply rooted in Bavarian beer culture. Munich, in particular, is famous for its Helles lagers, with several breweries producing their own versions. The Reinheitsgebot (German Beer Purity Law) has historically influenced the brewing of Helles, emphasizing the use of only , malt, , and yeast.

5. Food Pairings and Occasions:
– Pilsner: Pilsners' crispness and hop bitterness make them a great choice for pairing with spicy and flavorful foods such as Mexican cuisine, Thai dishes, or grilled sausages. They are also refreshing on a hot summer day or enjoyed during social gatherings.
– Helles: Helles beers' malt-forward character pairs well with traditional Bavarian dishes like pretzels, sausages, and roasted meats. The smoothness and gentle hops make it a versatile beer for pairing with a wide range of foods, including light salads, seafood, or even spicy dishes.

The difference between a Pilsner and a Helles lies in their origins, taste profiles, brewing techniques, and regional influences. Pilsners are known for their hop-forward, crisp taste, while Helles beers focus more on malt sweetness and balance. Understanding these distinctions can enhance your appreciation for these classic beer styles and guide your choice based on your personal preferences and food pairings.