The heavyweight beers currently in vogue tend to have an assertive signature quality that is the object of desire. Puckering IBU levels, searing alcohol and coarse roastiness are sought by extreme beer hunters and brewers alike. As these stylistic features slug it out for popular supremacy, the succulent, uncompromised maltiness offered up by the burly German lagerbier, doppelbock, often goes underappreciated. The intensely distinctive malt is so amiable, it distracts from the sly strength. Though indelibly linked to Munich, doppelbock’s roots lie to the north, in Europe’s earliest eminent brewing center. Commercial proficiency, followed by monastic transcendence, provides an easily traceable evolution of the style. Doppelbock was a seasonal provision at its sacred beginning, and a celebratory seasonal in its afterlife, and still a beer worthy of reflective respect.
Doppelbock is often given a name that ends in the suffix “–ator” as a reverent nod to the original brew and the divine symbolism, making for easy identification of the style.
The City of Beer
Doppelbock has its origin in Einbeck, in the north German state of Lower Saxony, and an important link in Middle Ages European commerce. It is near Hanover and Brauschweig on the mainland, and the port cities of Hamburg and Bremen. This geographical kismet nurtured vigorous trade, and the relatively flat terrain and access to the Baltic and North Seas allowed easy establishment of commercial routes. With an eclectic assortment of tradesmen, each city had its particular specialty; Einbeck’s was brewing. These scattered merchants and guilds were willing to pool their guile and skill, forming the Hanseatic League in the 14th century, a symbiotic alliance of trade.
Membership in the League ensured Einbeck beer export via land and sea to every accessible market. England, Russia and Scandinavia where easy marks, but France, Belgium, Bavaria and the Mediterranean also were targets.
Some of Einbeck’s exported beer was made by homebrewers. In fact, the mayor himself was the chief brewer. A communal brewing kettle rotated from house to house and any excess beer that passed stringent critique by authorities was exported. This rigorous quality control, coupled with strict fermentation guidelines, guaranteed a minimally flawed, stable product. Historical accounts suggest a beer made of one-third wheat, two-thirds barley, both lightly kilned, top fermented at cool conditions, of somewhat high gravity to weather the travel, and highly hopped (Einbeck was an early hop cultivation center): essentially a hoppy weizenbock.
So what caused the rather dramatic shift that resulted in today’s dark, non-wheat, malt-accented, bottom-fermented beer that we know as doppelbock? The answer is found in a collaboration of Einbeck and Munich brewers, secular and monastic disciplines and ultimately a “Munichizing” of the legendary Einbecker bier.
Until her brewers got access to Einbecker artisans, Munich’s brews were considered rather pedestrian. So keen were the brewers of Munich to learn the superior northern method that King Ludwig X of Bavaria brought braumeisters from Einbeck in 1540 to teach them the ways. This led to limited success until finally, in 1612, Duke Maximilian I hired esteemed Einbeck brewer Elias Pilcher to stay and brew in Munich. This was the turning point.
The death knell of brewing in Einbeck sounded shortly thereafter, as the Thirty Years War and a massive fire ravaged the city. The torch passed to Munich, the new brewing epicenter of Germany. Though under Einbecker tutelage, Munich brewers would make use of its own brewing heritage.
Bottom fermentation and prolonged cold-conditioning methods were kept, as they had been used since around 1400. Darker kilned local barley malt made up the entire grist, and wheat was saved for royal brews. They were brown and lightly hopped, as Munich wasn’t a prolific hop-growing region and the water wasn’t conducive to brewing hoppy beers.
In general, this could be used as a description of modern bocks, virtually unchanged from the 17th century. They were known as bockbier, a corruption of “Ainpoekish Pier,” Bavarian dialect for Einbecker bier. This tidy chronology would continue with the help of an order of monks who came to settle in Munich, “the place of monks,” and the beer evolved into doppelbock.