Seasonal brews can be many things: annual releases, even vintages, or some style that fits the season based on its strength. Some seasonal brews are steeped in tradition, born during the fermentation-friendly months, with an eye to the period when they will be served. Amid the winter warmers, summer wheats and festbiers, one is often overlooked: Maibock (i.e., May bock).
Although relatively new, stylistically speaking, Maibocks might be the closest artifact of the brews that initially made Germany a brewing capitol.
Alternatively known as helles (pale) bock, Maibocks are brewed in winter and released in late April and May. They are rich yet not overbearing, and are enjoyed before the searing throes of summer. They are transitional, as the warming offerings of winter and early spring give way to something lighter. Skilled brewers subdue the malty overtones of dark bock, and wrap them in the subtleties of lighter German fare. Gold to light amber, Maibock is the perfect compromise. Although relatively new, stylistically speaking, Maibocks might be the closest artifact of the brews that initially made Germany a brewing capitol. The origins of bock beer are akin to the roots of German brewing.
Einbeck as Mecca
Bock may invoke visions of Bavarian castles and lederhosen, but its origin is accredited to the city of Einbeck in Northern Germany. Dubbed “Beer City,” Einbeck proudly plays on its heritage, independence and importance in brewing history. After the Roman Empire (and throughout the Middle Ages), much of Europe existed as a fluid amalgam of cities and kingdoms whose ruling parties changed frequently. Along the corridor that ran from the North Sea to the Baltic Sea, trade (and strife) was waged on both land and water from Great Britain to the Baltic countries.
The bottleneck that comprised Northern Germany and Denmark was the epicenter of this busy trade route, and home to some contentious commerce. Every city or settlement had self interests at heart, but many of these entities banded together to form the Hanseatic League, fostering cooperation and warding off the bandits and rogues that prowled the route. Commodities varied with local or regional specialization: Einbeck was famous for its unique, high quality beers. Even though beer was primarily a local or homebrewed product in the 14th century, Einbecker’s beers were so renowned that they were sent to relatively far-flung markets, such as England, Russia and the Mediterranean.
Why were Einbeck’s wares so revered? Their condition was superior to most brews, allowing them to be exported, a genuine feat for such a perishable product. Perhaps the Einbeck brewers had a knack that others lacked. Much of their success involved ingredients that were known to be softer in color and character than those used by their contemporaries, at a time when all beers were dark, turbid and either sweet or sour—or both. Einbeck’s beers were made with one-third wheat, presenting a different and lighter persona than the status quo. They were also top-fermented, and employed paler-colored malt than was available elsewhere.
Einbeck was located advantageously, at one of the earliest hop cultivation areas of Europe. Though serendipitous, Einbeck brewers had a head start in hop utilization, a significant event. Hop usage offered a balanced and easily-reproducible wort, and the antiseptic qualities of hops ensured unspoiled exported beer. Hop cultivation dates to 822 AD in Germany, but they weren’t extensively used until the 12th century. Until then, proprietary mixture of herbs and spices could be used to balance sweet beer or to mask its sometimes suspicious flavors.
Einbecker beers were ahead of the contemporary curve in refinement and stability. Martin Luther subsisted on the strong gourmet beer during his Diet of Worms and praised the brew thusly: “The best drink known to man is called Einbecker Beer.” Another notable writer described Einbecker beers as “Thin, subtle, clear, of bitter taste, has a pleasant acidity on the tongue, and many other good qualities.”
Munich as Einbeck
Though Munich had brewed for centuries, it was not held in high regard relative to Europe’s other brewing centers. In fact, a good portion of the beer consumed in Bavaria was imported from the north. Saxon craftsmen migrated south over time, and these Einbeck-inspired brewers improved the quality of the beer in Bavaria. So enamored were the Müncheners, that they hired a bräumeister from Einbeck (one Elias Pichler) to teach them how to craft the wondrous beer of the north. Munich was on its way to brewing fame.
To this point, Einbecker beers were not known as bock, but the name was given to their ilk by the Bavarians, probably as a corruption of the name “Einbeck.” Munich had achieved some brewing prowess during the 17th and 18th centuries. Its beers were darker than those of Einbeck, and the stronger versions of those were now called bock. Doppelbock was invented in Munich by St. Francis of Paula monks as a sustaining, fasting beverage and it emerged as a hefty, separate style. The Paula monks introduced their Doppelbock to the public in 1780, and today’s incarnation is known as Paulaner Salvator.
Where does this leave Maibock/Helles bock as a style? It’s safe to assume that all bocks 200 years ago—Einbecker or Münchener—were fairly dark, with the former being a bit lighter. But they were not nearly as pale as today. In fact, no beers were really pale in Continental Europe until the first part of the 19th century. At that time, pale malt was developed, and lighter lager styles of today (pilsner, Munich helles, Vienna lager and Märzen) came from this revolution.
Bock beers, collectively, are perhaps more associated with seasonal beer than any other family of beers. Traditional bocks were brewed to be consumed in the winter, while the stronger doppelbock was made for the early spring/Lenten period. Missing, however, was a similar beer, suitable for the late spring and summer, leading into autumn…the domain of festbiers. While it’s tough to pinpoint the exact origin of maibock, it is generally accepted that the paling of bock coincided with the general trend of chic pale lager production in the mid- to late-19th century.
The vacuum was filled by the Hofbräuhaus of Munich, which produced the first Maibock for annual May Day celebrations. The brewery deftly took advantage of the public’s infatuation with pale beers by making a strong lager with the maltiness that Munich was famous for. The urtyp (original version) was born, and soon many German breweries latched onto the beer and the appeal of the seasonal release.
Brewing Maibock or helles bock requires some skill. To adhere to convention, a bock must have an original gravity of at least 1.064. It must also possess some muscle, body and maltiness, while retaining a degree of finesse. The toasty malt character must be achieved without the use of the darker Munich-style malts that comprise dunkels and other bocks. Finally, it has to be somewhat refreshing. A fine line to straddle, indeed.
German lager base malts add lots of character without overwhelming the wort. Pilsner malt produces golden wort, Vienna malt a light amber wort and Munich malt full amber wort. As this is roughly the color range of a finished helles bock (golden) or Maibock (light to medium amber), these malts are perfectly suited. They are used either alone or in various combinations. Vienna and Munich malts are lightly kilned for the rich, bready, toasted melanoidin aromas associated with darker German brews. In Maibock, these aromas aren’t covered by the use of caramel or roasted malt. German breweries might employ a decoction mash—a time-honored technique of boiling a portion of the mash—to further enrich the malty components. A helles bock, on the other hand, might simply use pilsner malt as its grist, a decoction mash and a lengthy boil to concentrate the soft malt character. With a minimum original gravity of 1.064, the finished beer ranges from 6 to 7.5% ABV.
Helles bocks have a noticeable hop character, unlike dark traditional and doppelbock, and are often thought of as a strong Munich Helles lager, with the accent on malt. A Maibock is often hopped a little more liberally, a perfect complement to the lightly toasted malt, as both the hops and malt are inherently spicy. A Maibock can be thought of as a fortified Vienna lager. Hops would obviously include German nobles, such as Tetnang, Hallertau and Hersbrucker.
These pale bocks are quite common in Bavaria, and are usually seasonal. They are not terribly common in North America, but are becoming more so as breweries grow more adept at brewing lagers. The best bet to find them would be in areas known for their microbrewed lagers, (e.g., Pennsylvania and Wisconsin), but this author has enjoyed outstanding versions from all about the country. Three of the best are Spring Bock from the Carolina Brewing Company (in Holly Springs, NC), St. Boisterous from the Victory Brewing Company (Downingtown, PA) and Fighting Finches Maibock from Tyranena Brewing (Lake Mills, WI).
As winter gives way to spring and summer, beer preferences change as much for the weather as for the new seasonal offerings. Some brews bridge the seasons adroitly. Maibock and helles bock embody the middle ground of brewing, just as late spring and early summer bestride the compressive summer weather—mellow and satisfying enough to soothe the heat, but comforting enough for the cool nights. They might be the perfect year-round beer. Though more refined than their Einbecker ancestors, they are still considered by many to be the most flawless brews, much as they were regarded several hundred years ago.