PRIOR TO THIS Smoked Helles Lager, Emmett’s track record with smoked German beers was spotty; their Rauchbier was so redolent of landjäger and Gouda aromas that it seemed to have been steeped in them. So when a second smoked beer came onto their seasonal draft list (and a lager, no less, not the heartier bock of the Rauchbier base) it was ordered with some trepidation. Fortunately, it seems the brewers have learned from their prior efforts, as this Helles is more mature and thoughtfully composed, addressing smoked beer’s common touchstones without wallowing in them.
The beer is ostensibly based on Emmett’s Munich Light (itself one of Chicagoland’s better German-style lagers), but darkened to about 10 SRM through an aggressive smoke treatment and possibly a couple more robust additions to the grain bill (e.g. rye). The Helles also has the Munich Light’s same style of carbonation and head retention, thus showing medium-plus carbonation, a medium head of foamy white, and decent lacing. Alcohol and a few phenols are faintly present in the finish, but this is still a beer of modest strength—estimated around 4.5% ABV.
On the palate, instead of the heavy one-two of sausage and cheese found in the Rauchbier, the Smoked Helles has a slightly salty, hickory kind of smoke aroma that defies simple categorization. A slow-growing, nearly sour aftertaste also comes to replace the modest phenol notes and pale Munich malts that were its first flavor impressions. Hops are quite mild, hardly a factor in the midst of all that smoke and slightly kilned malts. Usually smoked beers find their stride and stick with it, but the Helles is harder to pin down and the more interesting for it. Altogether it may not match their Munich Light for a purely satisfying lager, but separated enough from the archetypal brews aus dem Vaterland it is also easier to appreciate on its own turf.
Served: On tap (Emmett’s Tavern, Palatine)