I have to start this review out with a disclaimer: I freaking love Helles! Aside from drinking and writing about beer, I also brew my own beer and one of the two taps on my kegerator is always pouring Helles.
This is a style that is a real "brewer's beer" and it allows a brewery to show that they are very proficient at making a quality product. So before we jump into this review let's get a little history lesson about how the Helles style developed.
In the course of humans drinking beer, there have been a few watershed moments that changed everything forever. One of those moments occurred in the mid 1800s in a town in the Czech Republic named Pilsen. The beer-obsessed Bohemians developed a technique to produce malt that was very lightly kilned and produced a beverage that was light in color and had great clarity, dubbed Pilsner. Normally this wouldn't matter, because most beer (at the time) was drunk from a metal or glazed stone tankard, but there was also great advancement in glass making around the same time, which led to mass production. Now people were able to see what they were drinking and this light product was considered a luxury to the beer-drinking masses.
Couple these developments with advancements in refrigeration, which allowed cold-lagered beers to be shipped long distances, and you have a perfect storm that led to Pilsner beer becoming the most dominant beer style in the world—a title it still retains.
German brewers who were famous for making darker "dunkel" beers, saw their market share decreasing with all of this demand for lighter beers. The German brewing guilds of the time even considered outlawing the production of light beers. Knowing that they couldn't beat back the tide of Pilsner sweeping across Europe, Munich's Spaten brewery produced the first Helles in 1894. Helles or "Hell" translates to "pale" in German, which is very typical for Germans to get straight to the point. This light-colored lager was very simple and similar to Pilsner, except the brewers in Bavaria were even more restrained in their use of hops.
The beauty in a Helles is its simplicity. These beers have very low bitterness (16-22 IBUs), typically low alcohol content (4.7-5.4 percent ABV), and they are very smooth and easy to drink.
When brewing a Helles it is very important to get everything right, because there is nothing to hide your flaws behind. If, for instance, your fermentation temperature gets a little too warm (which can cause brewer's yeast to throw off undesirable flavors) there is no big hop flavor to cover that up.
These beers also act as a showcase for good quality malt. When a brewer is developing a grain bill for a Helles, restraint is key. In America's current craft brewing environment, i.e. just throw everything at the wall and see what sticks, it is fairly uncommon to see a brewery making well-crafted light lagers. I applaud Angry Scotsman for making such a traditional style that will have a lot of craft beer snobs scratching their heads, and wondering, "Is it OK to like something that isn't a triple IPA?" So without further ado, on to the review!
Gateway to Helles comes in at the high end of acceptable bitterness at 22 IBUs, which is still a pretty low number. The beer also has an alcohol content of 5.2 percent ABV, which is near the limit for the style, but still a low number that allows this beer to be very sessionable. This beer is also produced by Angry Scotsman year-round as one of their core brands, which I absolutely love.
Aroma and Appearance
The nose on this beer is all malt. The aroma is almost that of freshly baked bread, and there are little-to-no detectable hop notes. There is also a little sweetness in the scent, which would be typical for a beer that uses a lot of Pilsner malt. The beer is very pale yellow and it has great clarity. The head of the beer is a nice little frothy whip of bubbles that has pretty good retention.
Flavor and Mouthfeel
This beer opens up with more of that sweetness from the Pilsner malt, but there are layers of flavor from the additional malts used in the grain bill. Angry Scotsman says on the can that they used Munich malt, as well, and you can taste the richness that it lends. Munich malt is one of the major types of malt used in the amber-colored Oktoberfest beers, if you want an idea for its flavor. In this beer it is used deftly to provide a depth of flavor that a beer that looks like this typically wouldn't have. The beer is medium to light-bodied and it is very clean and crisp. There is a bitterness from the noble hops used that merely acts as a balance to keep the beer from being cloyingly sweet.
Again, I want to applaud Angry Scotsman Brewing for making a very malt-forward, easy drinking, craft lager. This is a style I am passionate about and I think the brewers of this beer are really flexing here by making such a light, every-day drinker. The other thing I want to mention is that this beer is named perfectly. Obviously there is the pun about this beer leading you into perdition, but this beer is also a gateway beer for drinkers who are used to macro-adjunct lagers. If you are a craft beer enthusiast and you want to introduce your Bud/Miller/Coors-drinking friends to a world of flavor beyond what they’re used to, this is your beer. Handing someone a Double IPA or an Imperial Stout will generally turn people off, but Gateway to Helles truly is a gateway to appreciating how good beer can be. Lucky for us, it is produced right here in OKC!