Ask a beer traveler where the oldest continuously operating beer festivals are held and the response will probably include London (Great British Beer Festival), Denver (Great American Beer Festival) and perhaps somewhere in Belgium (24 Hours of Beer/Zythos). Ask that same person about a beer style called “bock” and they will no doubt tell you about Germany, strong lager and maybe a place called Einbeck.
So how is it that the beer fest tied with the GBBF for the title of world’s oldest is in Amsterdam, and it celebrates a “bokbier” that has little to do with Germany?
It is uncertain when exactly bok, typically spelled without the ‘c’, became a beer style associated with the Netherlands. Tim Webb, in his Good Beer Guide to Belgium & Holland (2002), theorizes that it may have begun as a way for farmers to turn newly harvested grain into quick profits. But after almost dying off in the early 1970s, the strong brew had become a point of pride for Dutch brewers by the 1980s. Hence the 37 editions of the Bokbierfestival, put on by the consumer group PINT (Promotie Informatie Traditioneel Bier).
Turning German bock traditions on their heads, Dutch bokbier is an autumnal seasonal, originally bottom-fermented but today, more often than not, produced as an ale. And making it a challenge to define, boks have as pretty much their sole defining characteristic a pronounced maltiness, although lately more have been veering toward a hoppier flavor profile.
Given these rather malleable constraints, it should come as no surprise that a visit to the Bokbierfestival, usually held in October, can be a confounding adventure. With dozens of brands to taste, often including multiple labels from a single brewery, one finds blond boks and near-black examples, teeth-coatingly sweet ones and lip-smacking bitterness, beers barely stronger than the average Dutch pilsner and others approaching 10%. One might even find a small handful brewed not in Holland, but in neighboring Belgium!
In the end, the only conclusion is that bokbiers are, like the festival they spawned, uniquely if imprecisely Dutch, and as varied and sometimes bewildering as are the people of this trader nation themselves.