Many birders find gull identification one of the more difficult aspects of this hobby and classifying gulls when they appear on cans of beer is often no less vexing a problem. Luckily for us, the gull featured on Rebuke, a Helles-style lager from Brown’s Brewing Company of Troy, New York, is depicted in silhouette, which gets us off the hook ID-wise, as far as I’m concerned. Sure, it’s entirely possible that there are some superhuman larophiles out there among the uppermost pantheon of elite birders who can identify this gull to species by its shadowy outline. Well, good for them. We’ve got a beer to drink.

Nope, definitely not one of those…

The classification of beer styles can be a pretty thorny issue in its own right, and I suspect Helles requires some explanation to most casual drinkers outside of Germany. Helles is a pale German lager, particularly popular in Bavaria but also in neighboring Franconia and Baden-Württemberg. The name is a reference to its color, coming from a German word for “bright” or “light”. Like all lagers, Helles is fermented with yeast strains bred to work at cool temperatures, before it undergoes maturation in even colder storage, producing crisp, clean flavors of malt and hops without the fruitiness that generally characterizes warm-fermented ales.

As a clear, golden lager, Helles bears a superficial resemblance to the Pilsner style that originated further east in Bohemia and which eventually came to define international brewing from mid-nineteenth century on (for better or worse, Budweiser, Miller, Coors, et al. can all trace their brewing lineage back to the first golden beer produced by Josef Groll in Plzen in 1842). But there are some subtle differences. If you like, you could think of Helles versus Pilsner as being like the distinction between Glaucous-winged x Western Gull hybrid and a Glaucous-winged x American Herring Gull hybrid.  Or not. All you really need to know is that they’re both pale lagers, but Helles is generally less hoppy than its drier Czech cousin, with a more pronounced malt flavor and sweetness. They’re close, but not quite the same.

Helles is popular as a draft beer in its homeland, but it’s not a well-known style outside of Germany, so it’s nice to see it being offered occasionally by breweries elsewhere. Like Pilsner, it makes a fine beer for summer, whether enjoyed at the beach, at the ballpark, or as the proverbial backyard “lawnmower beer”. Helles Rebuke is light and refreshing but full of flavor, offering a perfect marriage of bready malt with just enough hop bitterness to complement its brisk, subtly minerally mouthfeel. The hops provide floral and earthy notes of marigold and herbs, but the malt comes on strong through the very end, along with hints of wildflower honey and toasted cereal.

I don’t get up there as often as I should, but Brown’s Brewing Company is a local favorite in my area and I would be remiss if I failed to mention that it’s been the compilation dinner venue of choice for the Troy Christmas Bird Count run by the Hudson-Mohawk Bird Club for as long as I’ve been participating. I don’t know know if Rebuke will still be in rotation come January, but the brewery is right on the Hudson River waterfront in Troy, and not far from some of the greatest concentrations of wintering gulls in New York’s Capital District. Of course, Brown’s is on the east side of the river, which means you’re still dealing with backlit gulls around sunset in winter – so it seems the Rebuke Helles label is true to life in that respect!

Good birding and happy drinking!

Brown’s Brewing Company – Helles Rebuke

Four out of five feathers (Excellent)

Written by Tristan Lowery
Tristan Lowery’s busy homebrewing schedule took a hit in 2010 when he discovered birding and found that scanning the waterfowl at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge on a frigid midwinter morning could be just as much fun as standing over a steaming mash tun in a sweltering Queens apartment in August. While his growing commitment to birding has undeniably diminished his brewing output of ales - fine and otherwise - Tristan finds that birding still affords him plenty of excuses to at least keep drinking beer, especially when celebrating life birds, lamenting unsuccessful chases, and capping off an exhausting Big Day or Christmas Bird Count. After leaving behind a hectic cooking career in New York City’s fine-dining scene, Tristan moved inland to the New York's Capital District, where the relative abundance of Pileated Woodpeckers almost makes up for the fact that he’s only seen a single Sanderling in Albany County ever. When he isn’t birding his local patches in urban Albany, Tristan works in energy regulation for the State of New York.