Recently I talked about Beck’s beer, historically in terms of its true style but also its current profile.
In a series where I will revisit classics from 40 years ago – from the time that is when beer critique first assumed modern form – let’s look at Spaten. The one we get is the Helles, the regular, pale-coloured lager of the house that is a standard-bearer of Munich brewing.
Spaten makes a Pilsener too, hoppier in character, a Dunkel, a Bock, and various other types according to the Beer Advocate rating site. The German site for the brewery mentions (if I read it right) only the Helles (called Hell there), an Octoberfest style, and an alcohol-free but the rating sites list a much broader range with quite current reviews.
Of course too Spaten was always associated with a noted wheat beer, Franziskeller, but I won’t deal with that here.
Spaten until 2003 was family-owned, since then it is in the powerful AB InBev family of breweries.
1970s and 80s American beer books describe the Helles as heavy-bodied and very bitter. While it is always hard to know if beer changes over such a long period, or if a relativity factor is at work, I’d suggest the Helles has gotten lighter.
But when you get it in optimum condition, as the sample shown – it is about 90 days from packaging – it can be very good.
There is a barley sweetness to it, a light, interleaved bitterness, and subtle notes of lemon and earth. The sample has no swamp gas or boiled veg notes, the tell-tale DMS (dimethyl sulfide) of so many Euro lagers.
It’s a taste old-time learning suggests should be aged out in blonde lager. But so prevalent is it – even some mass-market North American beer has it, PBR and Molson Canadian, IMO – it must be accepted as a trait of lager brewing. It comes from a precursor in very pale malt.
I know I’ve had Spaten as fresh and possibly even newer than this sample with seemingly strong DMS. It’s sometimes called in beer description grassy or hay-like. Read online reviews for many German lager imports, or Heineken, or Grolsch, etc., and you will see terms like this used, and sometimes “skunky”, often mistaken for the DMS taste.
But this sample doesn’t have that. I think the beer probably differs from time to time in this respect, i.e., irrespective of time in the can or bottle. Despite every precaution of science I think beer does change from time to time, not just due to inevitable variations in process but to seasonal and other variations in ingredients.
Even well-known brands can vary more than most people think. Because it’s in a range not material for the average consumer it’s not an issue from a sales standpoint, but experienced tasters can pick up on it.
I opened this can at room temperature and it tastes great. Later, I drank a second half of the can cold, which brought out other features: an icy spring-water-like character, the equable carbonation, the barley sugar again. The hops are quite noticeable too – it’s not a vapid beer by any means but achieves its quality through balance and flair.