Exposing Node Environment Variable to Handlebars Partials

September 17, 2018

The templating engine we use heavily in my work’s development team is Handlebars. Originally a fork of Mustache, Handlebars is fundamentally just a complier that takes in HTML and Handlebars expressions, compiles them to Javascript, and then inserts the resulting string into the relevant place on your HTML page.

Why bother using Handlebars if you can just write standard HTML then? I personally enjoy working with a templating engine because it allows me to create modular HTML that I can organize and reuse much easier. But more importantly, it decouples the logic (JavaScript) from HTML which can become difficult to read and manage so by using a logic-less templating engine like Handlebars, you can focus on just the HTML.

The Challenge

An interesting scenario brought up in our development team was how we could conditionally display a Handlebars partial based on Node environment (production vs development). A scenario where this might be useful is when a partial displayed some kind of Google tracking or other production specific analytics. We wouldn’t need to load that functionality in our dev environment so it might make sense to only compile those partials in production.

There are different ways you could set your Node environment variable but generally this would happen when starting up the environment. For example:

"start-dev": "NODE_ENV='development' npm run dev",
"dev": "gulp && nodemon server.js",

One of the things I mentioned earlier about Handlebars is that it’s logic-less. This means that it doesn’t have any explicit control flow statements like for loops or if conditionals. But it does allow looping and conditionals using built-in helpers. Here’s a simple example of a conditional:

<div class="entry">
{{!-- only output author name if an author exists --}}
{{#if author}}
<h1>{{author.firstName}} {{author.lastName}}</h1>
view raw gistfile1.hbs hosted with ❤ by GitHub

With that in mind, I started thinking about how we could pass our current Node environment variable (in our case either “production” or “development”) to a partial.

A Solution

One of the major ways that Handlebars differs from it’s predecessor Mustache is that it allows us to write custom helper methods that we can use with our partials.

With a custom helper we can add any type of Javascript logic we’d like but in this case, all I wanted to do was return a boolean value that told us if we were currently in a production environment or not. Since we’ve already set our NODE_ENV key value at start-up, we could register this relatively simple helper function that checks the value of that value:

const Handlebars = require('handlebars')
Handlebars.registerHelper('prod', () => {
return process.env.NODE_ENV === 'production';
view raw hbs-helper.js hosted with ❤ by GitHub

And applying our custom prod helper against the production only partial looked like this:

<div class="some-content">
{{#if prod}}
<p>Seen only in production</p>
<p>This is some example text</p>
view raw example.hbs hosted with ❤ by GitHub

But an interesting thing happened when I tested this function. The #if conditional was not evaluating the returned value of the custom helper. It was always evaluating as false.

I theorized that either the values from our custom helper function weren’t returning as booleans, or, the built-in #if helper wasn’t evaluating the result of prod at all.

Testing the first theory, I created a second helper function to check the value’s typeof and confirmed it was outputting correctly:

{{checkType (prod)}}
Handlebars.registerHelper('checkType', (val) => {
console.log(val, '-->', typeof val)
// false --> boolean
// true --> boolean
view raw prod_test.js hosted with ❤ by GitHub

For my second theory, I started experimenting with subexpressions who’s purpose is to pass the results of one helper function to another. Take for example, the following using two helper functions:

{{outer-helper (inner-helper 'Jami') 'How are you?'}}
view raw subexp01.hbs hosted with ❤ by GitHub

Handlebars.registerHelper('outer-helper', (result, greeting) => {
return `${result} ${greeting}`
Handlebars.registerHelper('inner-helper', (name) => {
return `Hello, ${name}.`

And this results in a string:

Hello, Jami. How are you?

Ok, so not super obvious how that’s useful in our case. The documentation doesn’t explicitly say this but my hunch was that I could use my custom prod helper passed as a subexpression using the parenthesis ( ) syntax which would then be evaluated by the built-in #if helper as a boolean value. How did I know this? I really didn’t! It was just a hunch that I was dealing with two helper functions that needed to talk to each other. So I gave it a shot and updated my partial:

<div class="some-content">
{{#if (prod)}}
<p>Seen only in production</p>
<p>This is some example text</p>
view raw example2.hbs hosted with ❤ by GitHub

Now the conditional was evaluating the boolean value correctly! So when our Node environment variable is set to “production”, our view is rendering as:

Seen only in production
This is some example text

And when it’s set to something other than “production” it doesn’t render the partial which is exactly what we were trying to achieve.


The biggest hurdle here was that it wasn’t obvious how built-in helpers, custom helpers, and subexpressions played together. The Handlebars documentation don’t explicitly talk about how to handle boolean values passed to built-in helpers and it took some experimenting to figure out how to make that possible in this situation.

Profile picture

Hello!👋🏻 I'm Jami Gibbs. I live and work in Chicago as a software developer and woodworker. You can follow me here, on Mastodon, or Instagram