The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)
For Conn. beer lovers, smoked helles lagers are gain popularity
Smoked beers have long been a favorite of many brewers, but until recently, actually brewing them in the U.S. wasn’t very practical.
“For most of my brewing career, nearly 17 years now, our friends in the beer industry have always joked that making smoked beers is career suicide,” says Matt Westfall, owner and brewer at Counter Weight Brewing Co. in Cheshire. “It used to be that you couldn’t give them away, but recently there has been revived interest in classic European styles, with smoked beers being a part of that.”
Across Connecticut and beyond, breweries have started offering smoked helles lagers or similar types of beers, which are made from smoked malts that give the finished beer a subtle smoky flavor that adds depth and character.
“Helles” means “pale” or “bright” in German, and helles lagers are paleyellow beers with a flavor that is all about balance. A classic example of the style is the Germanbrewed Schlenkerla Helles, which is available at liquor stores in Connecticut and has been an inspiration to many brewers in the state.
“Our smoked helles is completely and unapologetically inspired by Schlenkerla Helles,” says Zack Adams, owner and brewer at Fox Farm Brewery in Salem. Inspired by visits to that brewery in Bavaria, Adams released The Cabin Smoked Helles in 2018.
“The key to the style and what makes it click is the balance between the inherent malt sweetness you find in a helles and the subtle drying effect the smoked malt lends,” Adams says. “The two work beautifully, and it’s why helles is particularly well suited, compared to other pale lagers, such as pilsner, for introducing that smoke flourish. For us, we lean into that a bit and seek a little extra texture and sweetness to manage that balance. Keeping the bitterness and hop character in check is important as well — those qualities can easily derail the beer if overdone.”
The Cabin serves as a gateway beer to other smoked offerings Fox Farm brews, and the brewery is working with Windsor’s Thrall Family Malt to make the first batch of beer brewed with Connecticut-grown grain and smoked malts.
Nod Hill Brewing Co.’s Smoked Sunrunner helles lager was also inspired by
Schlenkerla Helles. “We focus on getting the smoke level so that it complements the rest of the beer,” says Kyle Acenowr, the Ridgefield brewery’s head brewer and founding partner.
“We want to be able to drink multiple beers without fatiguing the palate with smoke flavor. Additionally, we’re looking for harmony amongst the body, bitterness and residual sugar. Getting these aspects right is essential to brewing highly drinkable lager.”
David Kaye, Nod Hill’s general manager and a founding partner of the brewery, says the style’s increasing popularity is part of renewed interest in lagers overall, though Connecticut drinkers often need an introduction to smoked helles lagers. “It’s still a little bit more of a niche order in our taproom, but our servers always let guests know it’s actually very approachable and pleasantly drinkable,” he says. “The smoke is subtle and complementary; it’s not a one-note beer.”
At Counter Weight, Westfall and other brewers have been traveling annually to Germany to learn more about traditional Bavarian brewing techniques. “In those travels, we’ve visited with smoked beer producers and tried to integrate some of their generous advice into our practices here at Counter Weight,” he says. “More recently, we’ve been fermenting our smoked beers in open-top fermenters, like they do in many of the breweries we’ve visited in Germany.”
The brewery’s Smoked Ein helles is golden in color. “It’s characterized by a clean-lager fermentation profile featuring a classic rounded German maltiness alongside a delicate noble hop presence with a softly interwoven smoky aroma and flavor,” Westfall says. “We want to achieve a very easy-todrink beer with a classic Bamberg-like smoky note that is well integrated,” he adds, referring to the Bavarian town.
The style may have a way to go to catch up to IPAs in popularity, but people in Connecticut are discovering it sip by sip. “Our team loves these beers and I think their enthusiasm is largely infectious to our guests,” Westfall says. “Once people try them they usually end up ordering a second. Hopefully this continues because we love brewing and serving them.”
This article originally appeared in Connecticut Magazine.