Wow, quite a thread. I didn't make it through all 21 pages, so I apologize if this was covered already...
I agree that the Helles has been Americanized; more is better. Even Gordon uses uses Munich and aromatic malt in his recipe (which is ironic because he fusses over Jamil's schwarzbier being too Americanized and porter-like, but I digress...).
Some keys I've learned along my Helles journey:
- the maltster makes a big difference. I've done smash beers from multiple maltsters, cultivars and malting processes. They all taste like pilsner malt but are subtly different, with some tasting more "german" than others. They are all delicious, so enjoy the journey even if they don't produce the unique character you are chasing for your perfect Helles.
- while dextrin malt is not essential, if you do use it in your beer, then make sure it is one with diastatic power and not just a really light crystal malt. They just taste different to me.
- beta acids are often overlooked. I listened to a podcast with John Palmer where he said beta acids were more important than alpha acids for authentic german flavor. I started paying more attention to the beta content in noble hops, and wow, they are really high compared to American and British hops. I used to avoid low AA hops in favor of high AA hops, as I wanted as little vegetative material extracted as possible. However, I noticed I enjoyed the flavor of low AA hop (Mittlefurh 2% alpha, 5% beta) that has more beta acids as opposed to using a very small amount of a high AA hop (Magnum). The foam seemed considerably more stable and long lasting too.
- 10:1 ratio just always seemed to work. In trying to think like a German brewer, I decided to be engineering-minded and analytical, hence ratios. Base 10 seemed to make sense, just look at the metric system, mash profile steps (40, 50, 60, 70C) and the 10C affect on reaction rates. I use 90.9% base malt with 9.1% specialty malt (vienna, munich, etc.) and it turns out really nice. I also do the same with hops, getting 90.9% of the IBU from the long boil addition and 9.1% of the IBU from a 15 min addition. This allows me to tinker with ingredients from a consistent template from batch to batch (i.e., is the difference because I used different malt/hops/yeast, or because I changed the ratios).
- high kilned malts score better in comps, but taste less authentic.
- carbonation is often ignored. A 2-3 psi variance in the keg at 32-34F makes a big difference. Backing off just a touch tends to make the malts softer and produce more delicate notes. I think this ties in with both overall pH effects and carbonic bite, which masks subtle malt notes as pain receptors on your tongue are overly stimulated. I think you can see the difference by taking your helles and pouring one with the glass tilted so as not to off-gas CO2, and one using the traditional 7-minute pour where carbonation is driven off. They taste like two different beers. (Try this with a Kolsch too for that creamy mouthfeel.)
- 835 and 860 are my favorite strains so far. Bavarian strains (833, 835, 838, 860) tend to produce a bit of a grape fruitiness, which I get in some commercial examples. WLP830 makes a nice beer, but is better suited for pilsners IMO.