The Brews of Summer is a series spotlighting the area’s best summer beers.
Today, our beer is Port City Helles, a 5.2% German-style blonde lager.
As the story goes, Jonathan Reeves fell in love with a Bud Light drinker. She wasn’t a fan of beer that was hoppy or dark or heavy, and since that covered much of what Reeves was producing at his brewpub, he made her something fruity and spicy – a hefeweizen. She liked it. Encouraged, he made her something else fruity and spicy – a witbier. She really liked that. So, he set about perfecting the recipe. Eventually, it would be the bride-ale at their wedding. Then, in early 2011, almost seven-and-a-half years later, Port City Brewing opened with Reeves as its head brewer and his fruity, spicy Belgian-style ale in its line-up of flagships. They called it Optimal Wit. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.
But there’s a different Port City beer with a similar story, one with a recipe that Reeves likewise formulated to make a loved one happy and then spent years refining: Port City Helles. It’s a beer with a history that long predates its introduction in April 2017. Notably, the Alexandria brewery had even contemplated making Reeves’ helles their inaugural summer seasonal some five years earlier, and it’s easy to image an alternative universe where that beer – and not the popular Czech-style Downright Pilsner – ascended from seasonal to “occasional” to core offering.
Like Downright Pilsner, Port City Helles is a golden lager of European origin, but its stylistic birthplace is located just southwest of Bohemia, in Bavaria, at the bottom of what is today the Federal Republic of Germany. Not so coincidentally, Germany – or what was then West Germany – is where Reeves’ father was stationed as a member of United States Army in the 1950s. There, the elder Reeves partook in the rich culture of bierhallen, beer steins, and bratwurst.
“My father had a lot of fun when he was in the army,” says Reeves. “I wanted to make a beer that would remind him of the beers he drank in Germany, especially since he didn’t like the big, malty, hoppy beers I had been making. So, I figured the answer was the helles.”
First brewed by Munich’s Spaten-Brauerei at the end of the 19th century, helles was Germany’s initial response to the Bohemian pilsner, a style that had swept through Europe during the preceding half century and contrasted mightily with the country’s arsenal of dark lagers. Helles was pale yellow and clear (or, literally, “bright”), but compared to a Czech pilsner, it was sweeter, breadier, and less hoppy – characteristics that were likely to appeal to Bavarians accustomed to a steady diet of dunkel. (German-style pilsners, which vary in hoppiness and malt presence by region, came later.)
On paper, they’re simple beers. They’re composed of mostly pilsner malt, and rounded slightly by a barley that’s more highly kilned, like Munich or Vienna malt. If brewed traditionally, they’re hopped with Germany’s spicy, floral noble varietals. And they’re invariably fermented with a German lager yeast, then conditioned for at least a month.
“In my mind, it’s just a classic flavor,” Bluejacket Director of Operations Ro Guezel said of helles in 2018, discussing his rendition of the style, For the Company. “It’s malt, it’s barley, it’s hops, there’s some yeast nuance, and some bitterness. You can taste everything, but nothing overwhelms you. A good helles should be sessionable – you can sit down and drink a lot of it – but it shouldn’t be insipid and bland like so many light lagers.”
The first helles that Reeves brewed for his dad arrived in the 2000s, when he was working under mentor Nick Funnel at Sterling’s Sweetwater Tavern. Reeves had always liked German lagers, but it was at the award-winning brewpub that he started making them regularly. Mostly, he executed Funnel’s recipes – a light American lager, a märzen, a pilsner – but helles was one of the few recipes that he was allowed to formulate from scratch. (The others included a dubbel, a schwarzbier, and that legendary witbier.)
As Reeves’ career took him elsewhere, he brought along his helles. Even when he had to brew someone else’s helles – and, for the record, he didn’t particularly like it – the experience still informed his approach to the style.
“All of those beers helped me tighten my formulations,” he shares. “The recipe has evolved, but I haven’t radically changed it. Sometimes you just want to have a golden beer that has some flavor.”
Reeves says his helles is all about balance. It’s full-bodied without being heavy, malty without being sweet, hoppy without being bitter.
Landing on the last attribute is something the brewer has poured considerable thought into, both for Port City Helles and across the brewery’s other German-style lagers. A rigorous researcher, Reeves has been frustrated with lack of literature on hopping German lagers. Traveling to Bavaria and tasting the region’s lagers fresh from the source – something he’s been able to do a handful of times since 2016 – has only fueled his curiosity over their hop schedules, as Reeves explained to me early last year.
“I tried to make Helles as hop-forward as I could while keeping it in style,” he says. “I don’t want it to taste like it came from some mega-brewery.”
But if mega-breweries make lifeless lager, craft breweries are often guilty of going to the other extreme.
“One of the problems that people have with lagers is that they add too many hops,” the brewer observes. “Hops have fruity flavors, and if you add too many hops to a lager, it ends up tasting like an ale, and you don’t want to sit on a beer for six weeks if it’s going to taste like a beer you can make in two.”
Unlike some other prominent local examples of helles – such as For the Company and Ocelot’s Helles Awaits, which are hopped with American-grown Loral and the New Zealand variteal Wai’iti, respectively – Port City Helles is thoroughly traditional. The beer is bittered with German-grown Magnum, and then hopped further with Hersbrucker, a classic Bavarian cultivar that Reeves employs across Port City’s portfolio. (The brewer estimates it’s one of the three most-used hops within the brewery, along with Centennial and Amarillo. That’s partly attributable to the fact that it’s in Optimal Wit.)
“Hersbrucker is a faintly floral hop,” he explains. “It’s not particularly fruity. It’s a little herbal. Herbsruck is in Franconia, so it’s definitely a hop that was local. When it’s done nice, there’s almost a little bit of a grapey taste to it.”
Reeves cites other, less glamorous elements of Port City Helles’ production as keys to its success. One is the beer’s water chemistry, which he adjusts through the addition of salts and minerals, along with a small amount of acidulated malt to buffer the mash’s pH.
“If you’re making a higher-gravity beer, your water chemistry is not as important, but if you’re making smaller beers, it’s easy to end up with something grainy if your water chemistry isn’t right” he shares. “Lagers tend to be smaller beers. We’re unusual for local breweries – we make a lot of these smaller beers. And it’s really easy to over lauter them. You need to have your water chemistry ducks in a row. It’s super important to us.”
Another procedural challenge is the management of fermentation.
“I think the hardest thing about lagers is being able to get the yeast right,” says Reeves. “You have to lager them the right way – it’s a completely different animal than ale fermentation. And you kind a need a source of lager yeast. It would be hard to do all of these lagers if we didn’t have the pilsner as a flagship.”
In other words, with Downright Pilsner produced year round, Port City has a steady source of lager from which to harvest yeast. Good lager begets good lager.
When Port City Helles was introduced three years ago, it was the lead in a procession of new good lagers – the opening entry in the brewery’s Lager Series. As an idea, the Lager Series had been conceived at the end of 2016, when Port City found itself in possession of a decommissioned 60-barrel brite tank. Rather than convert this vessel to a hot water tank or get rid of it altogether, the brewery used it to launch a line of rotating, seasonally appropriate lagers.
“It was kind of like making lemonade out of lemons,” Reeves told me in 2018. “We just had this tank that we didn’t know what to do with, so why not put something in it? And the beers are fun to make.”
While its total volume pales in comparison to flagships like Optimal Wit or Monumental IPA, the Lager Series has in many ways been a boon for the brewery. Port City German Pilsner scored a gold medal at last year’s Great American Beer Festival. Other entries routinely draw acclaim from area beer critics (“The dream that is Port City’s Lager Series deserves praise that is beyond my writing skills,” Daniel Kolender wrote on DC Beer last April) and fellow brewers (Ben Little, now of FourScore Beer, cited “the entire Lager Series” as one of 2017’s best beers, while Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s Greg Engert has lauded its Tmavé Pivo and noted that “Port City continues to show focus and impressive consistency…”)
In a move reflective of the Lager Series’ glowing reception, Port City began canning its entries in April. Previously, these beers had only been available on draft – with one exception. Last June, after two years in the Lager Series, Port City Helles was elevated to an “occasional” release and bottled.
When I spoke to Reeves at the time, he was happy to see a beer with such a personal backstory making its way into the Port City line-up of packaged offerings. The only downside was that its June 21 release date would miss Father’s Day by a little less than a week. No matter, he told me, he’d still take his dad out for German food.
This year, however, six-packs of the beer, decorated with half-timbered Bavarian houses, rolled down the production line in early June, in plenty of time to make Reeves’ Father’s Day gift shopping all that much easier.
Follow writer Philip Runco on Twitter.