Hofmeister Helles is brewed using just four ingredients - water, barley, yeast, and hops - but Bavaria might as well be the fifth.
Every component and tradition that goes into our helles originates from Bavaria, Germany - lager’s spiritual homeland. The barley we select is locally grown and malted in our own malthouse; our water is sourced from an underground lake beneath the Ebersberg Forest; and we brew with Hallertau hops: one of four noble hop varieties, used by Bavaria’s brewers for over a century.
Today, Hofmeister Helles is crafted in the heart of Bavaria by a fourth-generation family brewery. Before it’s released, it undergoes a long, slow period of cold conditioning that produces a clean, classical, and exceptionally balanced beer.
Bavaria’s influence goes even deeper than our recipe. The region is the birthplace of the 500-year-old Reinheitsgebot, and this acclaimed beer purity law still guides the production of lager in Germany today. The helles lager, meanwhile, originated in Bavaria in the late 19th century. This golden, frothy, fantastically refreshing style of lager has played a key role in social gatherings, celebrations, and events ever since - in Bavaria and, now, all over the world.
Bavaria is widely regarded as one of the world’s great beer destinations, and we couldn’t be prouder to call our helles a true Bavarian lager. Read on as renowned beer writer and editor of Good Beer Hunting, Claire Bullen, takes us on a journey of the history that has made the region such a singular place in the first of a two part series. You can read the second part of Claire's blog and discover more about the diversity of Bavarian beer styles, and contemporary innovations here.
The History of Bavarian Brewing By Claire Bullen
Bavaria’s outsize reputation among beer lovers is thanks in part to its long and varied brewing history, which stretches all the way back to the Bronze Age (if not earlier), according to archaeological records.
Bavaria’s beer culture gradually formed over the ensuing centuries: from ancient times, when brewing was a domestic task, to the medieval period, when monasteries and convents helped collect, formalise, and preserve brewing knowledge. The oldest continually operating brewery in the world, Weihenstephan, was established outside of Munich in 1040, and a series of decrees governing the production of local beer were issued from 1156 onwards.
The most famous of these laws is the Reinheitsgebot, levied by Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria in 1516. In stipulating that beer could only be made from water, hops, and barley (yeast was not yet classed as a separate ingredient), the Reinheitsgebot ensured that dubious flavourings or filler ingredients were kept out of Bavarian beers. In doing so, it cemented Bavarian beer’s reputation as being reliably high-quality.
If the Reinheitsgebot’s preference for barley meant a decrease in the production of wheat-based ales, later rulings - including a 1553 decree that forbade brewing from April to September, owing to summertime spoilage issues - also contributed to the local dominance of lager. Because that ruling meant that beers made in the spring had to be stored in cool cellars for months, only bottom-fermenting lager yeasts were able to flourish at such cold temperatures.
During this time period, “Nowhere else where beer was made in significant volumes - Britain, the Netherlands, North Germany, Belgium - could you drink what we’d now call lager, making it a minuscule percentage of all beer drunk in the world,” writes Mark Dredge in his book, A Brief History of Lager. “But by the 500th anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot, lager would account for 90 per cent of all beer in the world, with each of those countless different lagers able to be traced somehow back to Bavaria.”
Though the early lagers that were enjoyed in Bavaria were variable in character, dark of hue, and frequently smoky (or even tart), a taste for lighter, effortlessly refreshing lagers developed in the 19th century. Spaten-Franziskaner-Bräu - one of Munich’s six major family lager breweries - unveiled its Helles Lagerbier in 1894. Thanks to new technologies and industrial innovations, it was easier than ever to produce light malt and clean, consistent beer.
Ever since its debut, the helles lager - “helles” meaning “light” or “bright”—has enjoyed wide acclaim. Today, it’s one of Bavaria’s most popular and celebrated beer styles.
Bavaria might never have become the beer world capital it is today if not for its natural bounty. This southerly region of Germany, which borders Austria, Switzerland, and Czechia, is renowned for its impressive scenery: at its Alpine fringes, the region’s landscapes feature soaring mountains and glacier-fed lakes, all overlooked by fairy-tale castles. In its heartlands, Bavaria is lushly green, home to chocolate-box villages and fertile farmland.
Beyond its postcard-ready looks, Bavaria is also endowed with all of the ingredients necessary to foster a thriving beer culture. The region is “the world’s most important source of hops, supplying about one-third of the global hop demand, especially in so-called noble aroma varieties,” as is noted in The Oxford Companion to Beer. “In addition, its fields produce some of the world’s best brewing barley and wheat, and specialty malts made by Bavarian maltsters are sought after by breweries on all continents.”
The earliest written records of hop cultivation in Bavaria date to as far back as 736. Today, the Hallertau region north of Munich is the largest contiguous stretch of hop-growing land on earth, and its gently rolling hills are home to many hundreds of family-run hop farms.
The eponymous Hallertau (the noble hop also known as Hallertauer Mittelfrüh) is most closely associated with the region, and its distinctive and delicate aromatic properties - notably a grassy, floral character - lend complexity to many of Bavaria’s beers. But it’s not the only variety that’s cultivated in the region. Other present-day Bavarian-grown hops include cultivars like Hersbrucker Spät, Hallertauer Magnum, Perle, Herkules, and Hallertauer Taurus.
Hops are only one part of the equation, and Bavaria’s fruitful land has long been used for barley and wheat cultivation. Today, the region is home to an array of specialised farmers and maltsters. Industry leader Weyermann Malting, for instance, is headquartered in Bamberg in northern Bavaria. It produces pilsner and other base malts alongside its own innovations, including Carapils, trademarked in 1908, and Carafa. It is also renowned for its rauch, or smoked, malts - one of the region’s potent signatures.
From its hops to its malts, from its pure mineral water to its distinctive, indigenous yeasts, Bavaria’s terroir is expressed in every aspect of the region's beer. The proximity of its farmland to its urban hubs also means that Bavaria’s brewers have one extraordinary advantage: unfettered access to the freshest and finest ingredients.